To many American Indians living on a desolate and rural reservation out west where issues like extreme poverty, substance and sexual abuse, and violence and suicide reign supreme, the popular media focus these days of the Washington Redskins mascot debate can seem baffling.
Compared to their day to day struggles, debating the Redskins name can seem like some bourgeois worry contrived by richer 'casino tribes' with nothing better to worry about. To Montana tribes like my own Northern Cheyenne, racism doesn't stem from a mascot in Washington D.C. over 1,500 miles away, but very real people we come across like those just across our border at the University of North Dakota who'd proudly wear shirts that say “Siouxper Drunk” to show what judgments their parents passed onto them.
While many of those on both coasts are ignorant of American Indians very existence, 'out here' in Montana and the surrounding states we're actually the largest visible minority. Montanans won't generally bash blacks or Mexicans for their skin color because it's taboo and a jerk thing to do, but when it comes to an American Indian, however, bashing and stereotypes are seemingly an acceptable form of racism.
As one white high school student pointed out while defending that Sherman Alexie's Diary of a Part-Time Indian book be kept in a school districts curriculum, “Crude racism in the book is unfortunately how many Montanans view Indians. I hear slurs against them every single day in the halls of Senior High [my former high school], and it’s vile.”
A recently retired U.S. District Court Judge for the State of Montana – who also happened to be a Northern Cheyenne Tribal Court Judge from 1970-72 – was found guilty of violating judicial ethics after it was deemed he sent and received hundreds of emails that, “Whether cast as jokes or serious commentary, the emails showed disdain and disrespect for African Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics….”
Go figure, this same judge ruled against American Indian tribes getting satellite voting stations, where the most populous town on the Northern Cheyenne is 120 miles round trip in an area where many people can barely afford life's necessities—much less a vehicle and extra fuel to accommodate the trip. Not to be outdone, a Montana school district superintendent was under fire for numerous racist comments, including one said, “It still baffles me how (Obama) got elected. It must mean there are more lesbians, queers, Indians, Mexicans and [n***ers] than the rest of us!”
Ramblings of an old redneck(s) on his way out, perhaps, but what does it say about our society when young people see this behavior as common? “Siouxper Drunk” t-shirts are made, and our own younger Native populace also gets to grow up seeing these prejudiced attitudes toward them all over the internet, thus the perpetuating cycle of distrust as racism thrives.
Disclosure: Back to the beginning, the Northern Cheyenne tribe a couple of months ago was given some 500 coats via the Redskins' Original Americans Foundation charity. More things like shoes are promised later. Like I mentioned prior, in our neck of the woods, tribal leaders didn't, for the most part, see it as being 'bought off' but as something convenient as plenty of kids couldn't afford coats in the light of an especially brutal and long winter.
As one Tribal Council member, Oly McMakin, noted to local Cheyenne journalist Clara Caufield, “Do you think this will make us, the 'Fighting Cheyenne,' look like sell-out wimps? Possibly, but, the council must decide since you are on the twin horns of a dilemma. You are charged to meet the needs of our people, including children and elders who need coats, shoes, food, etc. But, you must also consider principle. Not all Cheyenne, like you, count on a regular paycheck.”
So, although many Natives are in fact understandably indifferent, I've noticed the Redskins debate has morphed into something larger regarding the very treatment and attitudes toward Natives. Now, with previously unconcerned people reading through internet comment sections regarding American Indians, you'll see ugly stereotypes from people who barely recognized Natives still existed outside of a western movie.
If a Native shows offense at the name, it somehow gives these same people the permission to overlook and discredit them as non-people unworthy of having a voice of what should and shouldn't offend them, because maybe they even “know someone who is Native, and they don't care.” Or that Natives should “worry about other things than a mascot,” as if they can't chew gum and walk at the same time as confront more than one issue that they deem is perpetuating negativity in the first place that leads to other problems.
Another common straw man phrase said over and over, “What about the Vikings and Fighting Irish?” What about them? Is it deemed a racial epithet? No, but how does the, “Minnesota Rapists and Pillagers” work for you in lieu of Vikings? Or instead of the “Fighting Irish” one could use, “Dumb Micks”? Etc.
To a lot of people new to the debate that are unaware Native activists have been fighting against the name for decades, it's just a recent another dumbed down liberal vs. conservative debate the likes of Rush Limbaugh and his ilk deem as “a bunch of leftists” and PCness gone amok.
But for people like myself, the reality hits me as I witness prevalent racist commentary and realize my 5-year-old daughter Aurelia – who is so proud with all of her little heart to be Native and dress in regalia and go to powwows– must grow up with such pretentious attitudes already ingrained against her before they've even met her. Not just on a local level, but now on a national level of ignorance.
If it takes the Redskins mascot issue to expose the dark underbelly if this country's inhumane attitudes toward us in that we're still somehow considered inferior people who shouldn't even exist, we must not be silent victims any longer. After all, it was our Native languages that were the first languages heard across this land, and our future generations are worth fighting for so they can continue to be heard.
Adrian Jawort is a proud Northern Cheyenne writer living in Montana. He's been a freelance journalist for various newspapers and several nationally distributed publications, including Cowboys & Indiansand Native People magazines. He's compiled a newly released fiction anthology titled, Off the Path, An Anthology of Montana 21st Century American Indian Writers, Vol. 1, available at OffThePassPressLLC.com.