More Than A Stereotype
Mascot debate continues as Native Americans ask to be seen and heard
"Why do I have to ask more than once?"
This question, prompted by Dr. Joe Stahlman -- a Tuscarora man who serves as director of the Seneca Nation Tribal Historical Preservation Office, the Seneca Iroquois National Museum and the Onöhsagwë:de' Cultural Center -- refers to the ongoing issue Native Americans face of having to constantly remind others they are not mascots or peoples of the past.
Stahlman has been fighting against that idea since he was 18, a 30-year battle to be seen as a living, breathing human belonging to a culture that still exists.
"I'm just a little sad that I have to continuously explain myself over and over because I shouldn't be in this spot," reflected Stahlman. "Let's talk about our African-American brothers and sisters. If they go to a meeting and say, 'Hey, please don't say this, or that,' the white community really listens. They do, they take it to heart, and they're being sincere. But whenever we do it, we're just ignored."
Photo: Dr. Joe Stahlman stands next to an exhibit at the Seneca Iroquois National Museum and the Onöhsagwë:de' Cultural Center (Kimberly Firestine)
To Stahlman, the invisibility that comes with being Native is one of the most inhumane parts of the debate. Settler colonialism and the subsequent attempted genocide of Native peoples, for Stahlman, had a large impact on the invisibility and near erasure. "It falls back on your (the United States') education system because you guys don't see us as living people," said Stahlman. "I am facing an onslaught of ignorance from Americans because they no longer know anything about their history. They know nothing of it. We have to scream constantly over and over and over: 'Don't call us R*dsk*ns. Don't call women squ*ws,'" he said. "Why does it have to be that way? Why do I have to ask more than once?"
Stahlman finds himself constantly wondering if his children will have to carry on the same debate. Questioning why others don't understand why these caricatures and cultural appropriations would upset Native Americans, Stahlman called upon a belief within his culture. "Everything that I do, I'm supposed to think about seven generations down the road. And here I am trying to work through my first generation still."
In whose honor?
Communities that host these representations fight to keep them because they find it to be a source of pride, despite decades of academic research and requests from Native Americans like Stahlman and organizations like the National Congress of American Indians for it to stop.
Dr. Edward Jolie, faculty member of Mercyhurst University's anthropology department, is no stranger to these conversations. Being of Oglala Lakota and Hodulgee Muscogee descent, these characterizations are personal for him, too. Discussing research proving the harm these cultural appropriations cause, Jolie said "It's not like we're making this up or we're offering an opinion. This is supported by empirical evidence. There's scientific data, peer-reviewed studies to support this."
While he understands why there's resistance to change, Jolie sees no rational justification against it and finds himself wondering why educators fight against it or refuse to open discussion within their communities. "Mascots are about celebration and memorialization -- ostensibly that's what they're about. But how can you claim to be memorializing or celebrating somebody when large numbers of that population say it is offensive and harmful?" asked Jolie. "What more does it say when those arguments are coming from people who are supposedly educators or allied with educators?" Jolie acknowledged that children often develop attitudes towards others in school and other learning environments. "This is not the time and place to perpetuate stereotypical depictions of Native peoples. This is probably the reason why we're in the situation right now where people allow these images to persist," he said.
Photo: Moccasins created by Dr. Edward Jolie (contributed photo)
John Kane, a Kanien'kehá:ka man living in the Cattaraugus Territory of the Seneca Nation, doesn't feel proud of or honored by any of these uses of his culture for representation either. Kane is the host of Let's Talk Native, a podcast that tackles issues within Native and Indigenous communities such as murdered and missing Indigenous women, land protection, treaty violation by the U.S. Government, and yes, Native American mascotry.
For him, mascot removal is important because of its impact on Native and non-Native children and perpetuation of stereotypes of Native peoples. "It affects how we are perceived by non-native people and every step along our struggle to maintain our identity, distinction, and autonomy," said Kane
Speaking of his experience witnessing conformity of Natives in non-Native communities, Kane knows plenty of Native Americans who support teams like the Washington football team and advocate for keeping the mascots, nicknames, and logos.
"Oftentimes it was 'I'll root for the Washington football team or the Cleveland baseball team or the Chicago hockey team because at least that's a native image and it's something in the dominant culture that I can identify with," said Kane. "Much of my generation and older actually kind of leaned towards those things, but then we started realizing what an exploitation it was and what an appropriation it was and what a mockery it was."
Kane, mentioning those who identify as Indigenous but support keeping the mascotry, said "They're speaking as individuals who have found comfort and oftentimes get propped up by the community ... (they) are used as permission for them to continue this racist practice."
Those who are Native but don't find it offensive, according to Kane, are entitled to that, but it pits themselves against their own communities. "If you're Native, then you're siding with the non-native community against the overwhelming voices that come from NCAI, the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA), and every recognized Native community and group nation," said Kane.
Kane reflected on what sports fandom looked like in the 1950s when fans weren't donning red face, war bonnets and doing the Tomahawk chop. The sports fanaticism phenomenon, which has grown into the multi-billion dollar sports industry we know today, to Kane, was an easy buy-in for schools and their athletic departments.
Photo: John Kane speaking (contributed photo)
Having attended a school district in Cambridge, NY, where the representation is the Cambridge Indians, Kane realized he needed to tackle the issue back home while working with other schools across the country. After creating an online petition, Kane began speaking at board meetings.
"None of these schools, including my alma mater, give a rat's ass about Native people," said Kane. "They don't and in fact, when they call themselves the R*dsk*ns or the Indians….what Native people are you claiming to be? The Passamaquoddies? They can't even tell you."
To Kane, representation like "Warriors'' perpetuates the idea that "We didn't know anything about raising families or doing any of the wholesome things...that all we knew was killing people. And that's the image all these mascots portray." Kane said most of these imageries and interpretations that are used keep Native Americans locked in a "specific timestamp of what a Native person was."
The root of all (Native American) mascots
Kane finds the failure to see issue with the imagery and nicknames lies in white privilege, white supremacy, and white fragility. "Nobody calls himself a bear their entire adult life but you'll still have people reliving the fantasies of their glory days in high school, calling themselves a r*dsk*n or an Indian or a warrior or whatever," said Kane.
"This is their attempt to hang on to something that they felt they had the right to take in the first place, an image of a people … You're retelling a false narrative. You're misappropriating somebody else's culture, you're mocking people -- everything that you should be avoiding within the education of children is what you are doing."
Jolie addressed social comfort and a potential inability to cope with a sense of guilt that can accompany confronting change, recognition, and admission of mistakes. "They're concerned about how it hurts them and they've made this comically all about them when they're claiming it's about somebody else," said Jolie. "If it were really about somebody else and not all about them and their egos, it would be easy to change."
Discussing the same sense of ownership and attachment, Jolie said it's as simple as imbalanced power dynamics. "It comes down to a lot of sentimental attachments and people in positions of power, who have some control and say over these issues and are minimizing and dismissing the concerns of other people."
He continued: "Rather than talking to listen to Native Americans, they would rather say 'well, this is the way it's always been, this is the way we're going to do it.' And they've been in positions of power to do something. When enough people speak up, you have power in numbers, and that gives strength to your truth and to power."
Jolie doesn't believe the change necessitates a call to throw away or burn merchandise with the Native name or imagery, but that reconciliation is important. "I'm not arguing for that and I don't think most people ever argue for that. I think it's more about building in that change ... This is an opportunity to create a new symbol that represents you in the here and now," he said.
Stahlman believes it is up to the United States as a whole to start the process of reconciliation regarding stolen land, stolen peoples, and stolen cultures. "So many nations, so many communities, so many peoples will come forward and demand equity because so many things have been stolen. Everything in my culture has been stolen from the land, to our spirituality to the things inside my head," explained Stahlman. "It is continuous, we cannot be mined over and over because you're going to run out of things to mine for, and then you'll be left with nothing."
In the 1800s, Native children were often taken or sent to boarding schools like the Carlisle Industrial Indian School in Carlisle, PA. The National Parks Services (NPS) says this particular school "operated for nearly 30 years with a mission to 'kill the Indian' to 'save the Man." This, of course, meant stripping Native children of their cultural values including language and physical appearance, and led to mass abuse of them for failing to comply. According to NPS, the CIIS led to 24 other schools of this type in the U.S., the last of which closed in 1973.
"While white kids could take their mom's makeup, smear it on their face and call it war paint or beat their oatmeal drums, Native kids were not only being punished, they were being abused -- sexually abused, psychologically abused, they were being killed. Carlisle Indian School had a graveyard," said Kane, expressing another frustration about the mascotry.
"The irony that any school would claim 'we're honoring you' couldn't be honoring us if at the same time your school was adopting these mascots, children were being ripped from their homes, sent sometimes hundreds or even 1000s of miles away and being basically ridiculed and punished and abused because of their identity," he said.
Erie's systemic issue
Erie School District Board of Directors President Dr. Tyler Titus hit some of these points in their Jan. 13 Board of Directors Meeting, yet most of their colleagues failed to see why it's an issue, let alone one that needs to be addressed right now.
"I brought this up to the board as a discussion because we are seeking to advance equity within the district. True equity is inclusive, expansive, and across all levels," explained Titus.
For them, this process involves looking at everything: "policy, procedure, daily interactions, representation in staffing, names of buildings, mascots and logos, curriculum, and various other elements to ensure we as a district are not perpetuating harm." Titus believes the board, community, and district want to see more equitability and "that there is genuine investment in advancing historical accuracy, desire to dismantle oppression, and actively address racism."
During that same January board meeting, other board members agreed the district needs to address the representation but that it should not be the starting point of the concerns of racial injustice, citing Woodrow Wilson Middle School's problematic name. "There is some contention around where to focus, which I can understand," said Titus a few weeks after the meeting. "The trauma of racism, marginalization, oppression, and eradication is real and ongoing. At times, it can interfere with initial responses and reactions as it may feel that by giving attention to one area, we are overlooking others."
Noting there are no Indigenous members of the board during that meeting, Titus reiterated the need for the representation to change, especially within a community as diverse as Erie. Titus' proposal was to look into changing the imagery associated with the district, but keeping the name 'Warriors' attached.
The issue: what would replace it and can you keep the name and completely dissociate it from Native stereotyping?
"If they can do that and do that process of disassociation, that wouldn't be a terrible thing," said Kane. "To move away from the imagery and the mascotry is the main thing."
Jolie, sharing the same sentiment as Kane, said: "It's hard for me not to see the Erie "Warrior" situation as a win-win because you don't have to change the name. Change the mascot. Eliminate the mascot. Argument that there are bigger things to worry about, to me, is laughable."
More recently, Titus noted that while they did originally believe the dissociation was possible, they don't see it that way anymore. "After in-depth discussion with activists and advocates, I believe that it would be difficult to disconnect the name and Native caricature indefinitely without a name change," they said. Titus believes that by allowing these nicknames and depictions to continue to exist within schools and communities, "We are dissolving, diminishing, and eradicating the (Native) communities by reducing them to the stereotypes within the logo, mascot and team name."
According to Jolie, it's not uncommon to hear from people who think that Native Americans don't exist anymore or that some in Erie don't realize Seneca Nation is less than 70 miles away. "It's sort of that, that lack of awareness. You can also say lack of education, but that's not all," he said.
Jolie also explained that the adoption of these representations within non-Native communities has rarely included discussion with Native Americans. Their strong resistance to the idea of losing it, to Jolie, makes the conversation about the non-Native communities, not the peoples they're claiming to honor. "It's about a group of people that have no control over how the images are being used, nonetheless the images themselves," said Jolie.
Stahlman said Native and Indigenous peoples must be part of the discussions for change even in places that have little to no Native or Indigenous peoples. "At the base of it all, no one is really asking us 'what do you guys want?' It doesn't really matter what path they wish to take, but it should be one that is in agreement by all parties involved. And it's really hard to honor a native community when they're saying 'well, that's not how we like to be honored,'" he added.
Turning to the Iroquois School District -- whose representation is the Braves -- Kane said if a school name isn't connected to the name of a city or county, then it should also be considered to be changed. He explained that many within the Haudenosaunee communities don't use the term "Iroquois" anymore because it is a "French label that was imposed upon us." If the name is derived from the region, Kane said it is then the responsibility of the district to teach the real history of the world. "Even so … It's not incumbent upon you to utilize some stereotypical image that's a timestamp of whatever some white person thinks a Native person was," he added.
While representations like the "Braves," "Indians" and "Warriors" are not the same slur the Washington Football Team used, they still perpetuate extreme mischaracterizations of Native Americans.
Jolie believes the changes to the Erie School District -- and others across the country -- would be small but positive actions towards restorative justice for Native and Indigenous peoples. "It's one of those small steps that people can take that addresses forgotten histories, neglected histories, inappropriate and incorrect histories," said Jolie. "It brings them into present consciousness in a way that says to Native Americans in Pennsylvania and elsewhere that this matters in the here and now. It's not a matter of 'rewriting history,' as some would like to phrase it."
As for other representations such as the Fighting Irish or Edinboro University's Fighting Scots, Jolie said if those who are part of the heritage find it offensive, there should be conversation around those as well. "Talk to people, there's no harm in talking to people," he said. "I think it's one of the things that you can resolve and get the answers you want by talking to people. Sometimes it's a challenge to figure out who you need to talk to, and how many people, but these are things that can be worked through."
While there is optimism to be seen in more school districts being open to conversations and professional sports teams making changes, Stahlman has seen progress halted in its tracks before. Graduating high school in 1990, Stahlman at the time thought the country was headed in a more progressive direction than it ended up in.
"A lot of those people on Jan. 6 who were upset and made themselves known by taking over the Capitol are my generation. All those things that I thought about my progressive world of 1990 have not come true at all," he said. "And a lot of those people who were forward are now very conservative because they're afraid of losing what they own." Stahlman holds some hope in the change he has seen within incoming generations of elected U.S. officials and peoples in power but is still wary about the world at large.
Kimberly Firestine can be reached at Kimberly@eriereader.com