This year has gotten off to quite a start with Idle No More and now the Washington, D.C. mayor Vincent Gray chiming in on a franchise name change for the NFL team associated with that city.
I am a self-admitted mascot protestor of professional sports teams. In 1993, I attended the annual Cleveland Indians home opener social demonstration with a cadre of fellow Onkwehonweh “activests” (several wore leather vests) from Erie, Pennsylvania. The Coalition for Racism in Sports and Media invited us to attend the gathering that day and let us know what time to be there.
We arrived before they did. Ohio mounted-police on horseback waved to overflying helicopters which circled the Cleveland Municipal Stadium. The Ohio Black Communist Party stood in a small group dressed in fatigues to one side of a diamond shaped parking lot, passing out literature. Eventually, Coalition leader Vernon Bellecourt (Ojibwe) appeared over a nearby hill, walking with a group of demonstrators.
(I brought a VCR camera that day and filmed some of this before the rented equipment camera’s battery died. Later I notified the video store management representative about this, and received some free rental coupons. Eventually, I dated and then married this same management representative, who is my wife to this day.)
The demonstration group organized into a vee-shaped line that was able to interact with the main incoming ticket-holders for several hundred feet until they entered the stadium concourse. Familiar songs were sung. Someone had a bullhorn. The closer to game time, the more fans came rushing by.
“Hey Ho, Red Sambo has got to go,” Mr. Bellecourt yelled, and then repeated. Many times.
The time of day did not seem to deter many teenaged fans from attending. The loudest responses from the Cleveland baseball fans came mostly from the youngest ones, who often war-whooped back at us, like we were a cultural funny house display. I also found it to be implicating that the young people were of all races, that seemed most put off by the social statement they had been presented with. They vigorously defended the professional sports use of the term Indians. There was no other coping mechanism for many to grasp in these moments of pre-Facebook social confrontation, but to slur our words in response.
Once I heard the phrase, Think global, act local. I tried to apply this to my sports mascot activism.
A “semi-pro” football team came to Erie in 1995 and was named the Tomahawks. I had hoped that they would have some cool axes as their logo but no, they went with the hatchet-wielding orange guy with a “Little Beaver” hairstyle. Demonstrations ensued at that time, and the name was subsequently shortened to “the Hawks”, although all the road-game programs still said Tomahawks. Oddly, I later played for this team, as a starting right tackle, when their reserves were depleted, and I was on the field when they won their only game of the year, by one point. There was closure to that episode.
I have felt passionately about imagery in professional sports for many years. Thus, to hear of Mayor Gray’s position on the NFL team name change as a point of discussion if the actual Washington D.C. stadium venue was sought for relocation, that really struck me.
I do not know Vincent Gray as a man, or as a politician, yet. This subject is headline grabbing for sure, but not of the most obvious kind. It will not be a popular topic.
Conviction is the desire to right a wrong. The American education system cannot afford to have to re-instruct youth that the term “Redskins” is not socially redemptive, nor is dwelling on the color of skin in any way, whether cheering on something, in small groups or large. Consensus of bigotry as a fan base is not a valid excuse for anti-social behavior. Period.
I attended a prominent all-male school my freshman year. It has a winning athletic history and storied alumni. It also toughened me after I was identified as a Monchhichi or “monkey head” by upperclassmen soon after the school year started. I was only there one year, but it was a galvanizing experience as to the coarseness of young minds and superficial identification, regardless of class or background. Words do matter.
When I watch modern college football, I am repulsed by the over-the-top imagery that the Florida State University Seminoles engage in prior to kick-off. Granted, the right to do so has been stated by two Seminole tribes since 2005. However, the regressive spear-chucking, on fire no less, and the fabled “war chant” are just too much. At least the costumed cheerleader gets a scholarship out of it.
The NFL cannot ever be America’s sport when it brings a whole country down.
Charles Kader (Turtle Clan) was born in Erie, Pennsylvania to a World War Two veteran. He attended Clarion University of Pennsylvania, earning degrees in Communication and Library Science, as well as Mercyhurst College where he earned a graduate degree in the Administration of Justice. He has worked across Indian country, from the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana (where he married his wife) to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, and now resides in Kanienkeh.