A writer applauds as an important first step the recent decision by the NCAA to prohibit Native motifs in postseason play

By H. Mathew Barkhausen III, Pacific News Service


DENVER- Aug 17, 2005 – The debate over the use of Native American imagery by professional and collegiate sports teams has raged for decades. In the past, when Native people protested racist names and corrupted “Native” imagery being misappropriated as logos or mascots, the response from the athletic community ranged from confusion to anger. Some fans even had the audacity to claim that they were “honoring” us.

Fortunately, positive change appears to be on the horizon. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) recently announced that it would ban teams from using American Indian imagery in postseason tournaments. Starting in February, any school with a nickname or logo considered racially or ethnically disparaging would be prohibited from using it in postseason events. Indian mascots will no longer perform at tournament games, and band members and cheerleaders will be barred from using American Indians on their uniforms beginning in 2008.

The decision follows continued pressure from Native American groups, including the Native American Journalists Association. A decade ago, the athletic community would have never considered such a step. And it is still a hard pill to swallow for the rest of society.

Corporations all over the United States use “Indian” names, and companies have logos and trademarks with “Indian” themes. From the blue-eyed woman in “Indian Princess” garb on the door of the trucks of the “Navajo” trucking company to the “Indian princess” depicted on the Land ‘O Lakes butter packages, stereotypical images of Native Americans are everywhere.

Many corporations add insult to injury by not only appropriating Native images and traditions, but scrambling them in the process. Tuscarora Yarns, for example, has chosen to represent itself with a logo that is a stereotypical image of a Native American in a Northern Plains Indian eagle feather headdress, often misnamed a “war bonnet.” My grandfather –a full blood Cherokee and Tuscarora — was born and raised in North Carolina, the traditional homeland of both these Native peoples. Knowing this, I educated myself about everything I could that related to both nations. Anyone else who took the trouble to do so would know that Tuscarora people did not wear this type of regalia.

Predictably, the NCAA decision has drawn the ire of conservative talk-radio commentators like Bob Enyart, who complained, “Should the Houston Oilers apologize to oil companies for calling themselves ‘Oilers,’ or should the New York Jets apologize to airline pilots and members of the Air Force for calling themselves ‘Jets?'” But such arguments are absurd. “Oilers” are a profession, not an ethnic group, and “jets” are objects with no feelings, no culture, nor heritage to protect.

Even Florida Governor Jeb Bush has weighed in on the controversy, expressing his disappointment that Florida State will have to give up the name “Seminoles.”

“How politically correct can you get?” the governor asked of those who fought for the change. “These people need to get out more.”

The Native-as-logo issue is a symptom of a much larger problem. Every aspect of that which is Native American has been appropriated by the dominant society. For generations, the white man has interpreted who we are while ignoring our oral traditions and our own definitions of ourselves. Today, people still trust the word of a white anthropologist or archaeologist over the word of a traditional Native person.

Many of the most sacred objects in our spiritual traditions have been stolen, and continue to be housed in museums because the white man is supposedly more qualified to care for them than we are. The bones of thousands of our ancestors have suffered the same fate. All these things have been taken and reinterpreted through a skewed perspective that seeks to justify the atrocities committed against us on the road to “Manifest Destiny.”

As a consequence, stereotypical interpretations of “Indians” continue to be propagated in racist literature, television and film. And when non-Natives take it upon themselves to learn about Natives, they must turn to thousands of books on the shelves written by non-Native people, about us.

No wonder, then, that when they see a Native American mascot, or thousands of screaming fans with red paint on their faces, they see nothing wrong. They don’t see anything wrong with buying their children toys or Halloween costumes so that they can “play Indian” either.

The NCAA’s decision to ban Native American team logos is an important first step, but we must not stop pushing for more. We should place unrelenting pressure on all of society to “cease and desist” defaming our cultures, so that one day, painting yourself in “red face” — supposedly in “honor” of Native Americans — will be seen as just as racist as the blackface performers used in the past.

Hopefully, this “future” will arrive during the present generation.


PNS contributor H. Mathew Barkhausen III, 25, is a writer for Seventh Native American Generation (SNAG). Contact SNAG at snagmagazine@yahoo.com.

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