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Doug George-Kanentiio: A Mohawk's perspective on 'Redskins'

Filed Under: Opinion
More on: doug george-kanentiio, mascots, mohawk, new york

The following was submitted to the Cooperstown Central School District in New York.

I extend my greetings to the residents of the Cooperstown Central School District and congratulations to the community for their willingness to discuss this sensitive topic. As much as it may be of concern to the people there it is equally of importance to those Native people who once called the region their home.

I am a descendent of the aboriginal inhabitants of the Cooperstown area. A distinct Mohawk presence can be traced back hundreds of years prior to European contact. The Mohawks have three clans: Bear, Wolf and Turtle, each one of which had their own territory. Cooperstown was once the homeland of the Turtle Clan people and, in accordance with our customs, the land was protected and cultivated by the women of that clan. No decision regarding the usage of the land in any way could be made without the knowledge and approval of the female citizens of the Mohawk Nation.

There was a time when the Mohawks sought to share the land with the refugees from Europe. In 1710 we sent a delegation to England to escort a group of Germans from the Palatine region to our territory. Our wish was to live in peace with the Europeans and to learn from them. We set aside land in the Cooperstown-Schoharie area for them to build their homes. We never ceded jurisdiction but allowed the settlers to use our resources to raise their families and build new communities.

These grateful colonists saw us as friends and not savages, as human beings and not pesky redskins. We taught them to survive in the New World and went so far as to encourage our children to intermarry. To this day we carry the names of those who came to us from Germany and later Scotland, Ireland and England.

That era of peace was broken during the American Revolution when the Mohawk Nation held true to its treaty obligations to Britain. We were promised that our lands would be protected against trespass or illegal sale. Many of the colonists joined us in this battle among brothers. The result was that we were driven from our homes and compelled to seek refuge in Upper Canada and along the St. Lawrence River. As before, we made land available to those who were loyal to the Crown and continued to live in peace and mutual respect.

Altogether, the Mohawk Nation lost over 9,000,000 acres of land, an area which includes Cooperstown and all of the Adirondacks. This was done without our consent. In order to rationalize the theft of the land falsehoods were created which de-humanized our people. We were no longer friends but demons. We were labeled as savages and cannibals, warlike primitives without intellect. Among the most tragic of profanes were those books used in schools, which grossly distorted our history and passed on terrible lies about us.

The use of “redskins” was among the worse of these labels. That word originally referred to the Beothuks of Newfoundland, a peaceful people who colored their skin with red ochre as adornment and to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Their passivity was mistaken for weakness and after the waves of European diseases killed most of them those who survived were hunted and murdered for sport. By 1830 they were extinct. One of the reprehensible tactics was to remove the skins of the Beothuks and use them as covers for books and as leggings for the hunters.

This act of skinning Native people, both men and women, continued on along the frontier. It was an act of terror meant to instill fear and drive the Natives from coveted lands. It was justified by these stereotypes that were highly effective in undermining the dignity, pride and self-assurance of our people. We are, among all peoples in this hemisphere, the most misunderstood, the most libeled and the most despised because of the lies in the media, in popular literature and, sadly, in the schools.

I am an individual who has been deeply involved in the effort to remove these images. I have worked with schools, educators, politicians and the media. I initiated the action to bring an end to the Saltine Warrior at Syracuse University. I met with the New York Education Chancellor Thomas Sobel to introduce a new and creative curriculum in state schools. I have enlightened journalists and authors as to who we are as Native people. All this was meant to strive for the truth while enhancing the American public’s appreciation for their aboriginal heritage.

My appeal to the residents of Cooperstown is to remove that which stands it the way of our peoples. I ask that we work in harmony to do what is surely best for the students of your district. This coming May 25-26 there will be a Native American celebration at the Fenimore House. I ask that your students attend to listen to our music, hear our lectures and see our art. I ask that there be an annual Mohawk-Iroquois day in which our presenters can visit your classes, hold assemblies and make direct person-to-person contact. I ask that you review the resource material I have enclosed so the students and teachers may come to understand the wonderful contributions our ancestors have made to the United States and to the world.

We have before us an opportunity to remove the embarrassment Cooperstown students feel when they are asked about the mascot. Let no one believe that the mascot is somehow an “honour” to the Mohawk people. It is a deliberate humiliation which no other ethnic group would tolerate.

As a citizen of the Mohawk Nation I ask your district to do the American thing by showing a willingness to do what you all know in your hearts is right, kind, fair and just.

Submitted February 6, 2013

Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is a co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association, a former member of the Board of Trustees for the National Museum of the American Indian and the author of many books and articles about Native history and current issues. His latest book is "Iroquois on Fire". He may be reached via e-mail: Kanentiio resides on Oneida Iroquois Territory in central New York State.

Related Stories:
Doug George-Kanentiio: Mohawks drawn into U.S.-British war (2/6)
Doug George-Kanentiio: Natives are at point of outrage in Canada (1/7)
Doug George-Kanentiio: 1794 Canandaigua treaty is renewed (11/14)
Doug George-Kanentiio: The canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha (10/23)
Doug George-Kanentiio: Another outrageous land claims ruling (10/12)

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