American Indian nicknames do not honor the culture
Posted: Wednesday May 25, 2005 1:05PM; Updated: Wednesday May 25, 2005 6:39PM
Think this is the Indians' idea of respecting their culture?
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Redmen, Indians, Braves, Warriors, Chieftains, even ... Savages -- plus the specific: Seminoles, Choctaws, Utes, Chippewas, Illini and Sioux. These are all nicknames of NCAA colleges that are derived from an American Indian past. Moreover, an estimated 2,500 secondary schools boast the same sorts of monikers, not to mention the best known professional teams: Redskins, Indians, Braves, Chiefs and Warriors. Even though those of us newer to this continent spent a great deal of time fighting, killing, even massacring the peoples native to the land, we conquerors have always held this bizarre desire to name our teams after our old foes.
Now, at last, the NCAA has begun a review of the situation, with an eye toward considering whether it indeed might possess the authority to force member schools to change their dubious nicknames.
Of them all, the most offensive is Redskins, which, of course, just happens to title what Forbes magazine calls the most valuable sports franchise in America. It's important to understand that "redskin" does not refer to skin color. It's not like, well, I'm a whiteskin and Shaquille O'Neal is a blackskin. A redskin was a scalp taken by Native Americans as bounty. The red in redskin is blood red. But the Nation's Capitol's football team adamantly holds onto its name.
I must admit to a little of what we used to call consciousness raising here, too. I always thought, well, surely no one can object to such rather generic terms as Warriors, Braves and Chiefs. But Native American activists I've spoken to believe that the use of such nicknames -- and the display of dancing costumed mascots, who amuse the crowds at games -- manage to perpetuate the Hollywood version of Indians that we've all had pressed into our minds.
So long as we reflexively think of Indians as perpetual fighters in war paint, we cannot so easily connect with the real Native Americans of today, understand their plight, and appreciate how desperately they battle poverty, alcoholism, drug addiction along with a general hopelessness that result in such a high suicide rate. Sport nicknames may seem like a small, even foolish, thing, but their visibility helps keep Indians trapped in history, cartoon figures frozen on the warpath.
Of course, those who defend the appropriation of the old nicknames say it's supposed to honor Indian tradition. Sorry. Never did white man speak with such forked tongue.
And, indeed, there are some Indians themselves who think the nicknames and mascots are respectful. I've even spoken to some such tribal elders. But certainly the NCAA is right in trying to address the issue, even if the Washington Redskins and other professional teams must remain insensitive. The question of whether or not the majority should utterly rule is one we've been struggling with in the Senate these past few weeks. But surely, no American majority should ever lack the courtesy to insult other people by stealing their very own names and turning them against them.