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Doug George-Kanentiio: Students show courage on mascot

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

The students of the Cooperstown Central Junior/Senior High School had the courage to do what Daniel Snyder, the billionaire owner of the Washington Redskins, lacks; the willingness to tolerate abuse and condemnation by electing to remove a team mascot deemed offensive by those it was supposed to honor.

For the past generation indigenous people, organizations and nations have appealed to sports teams, which use derogatory nicknames like Redskins, Savages, Braves and Squaws. These mascots are rooted in racism, stemming from an era when Natives were seen as little more than stone-age brutes, war-like, primitive and barely human. They were impediments to the expansion of Europeans into the continent. By reducing Natives to subhuman status the theft of their lands, the reduction of their culture and the forcible indoctrination of their children have been justified.

The suffering and harm endured by those Natives who survived were barely acknowledged and further qualified by the distortions and outright lies in school books, popular literature and the mass media, particularly movies. It is not surprising that American academic institutions, which should be places to learn and disseminate knowledge, were among the worse perpetrators of these stereotypes since schools represent the era and circumstances of their place.

Cooperstown is one of those secure small towns, which are not easily swayed by popular social movements. It is the home of James Fenimore Cooper, the author of the Leatherstocking Tales, a series of books that entrenched the idea of the woodland savage. Located 60 miles southwest of Albany, the area is within the aboriginal territory of the Mohawk Nation. It is called Oh:sten:ha:nat (Otsego) the Rock Town, named after a boulder where the Mohawk people met before descending the Ka:wa:no:nen:ne (Susquehanna River) for points south.

The Mohawks lost active control over the area during the American Revolution when they elected to fight alongside their British allies and were driven from their homes to find refuge across the Great Lakes or on a tiny strip of land on the banks of the St. Lawrence River. In their place, the land was lost to avaricious land speculators including William Cooper, the father of James.

A thousand years, if not more, of Mohawk history in the region was lost. But the image of Native men lurking in the forests, scalping tomahawk in hand, persisted. It endured in the mascots chosen by sports teams and school across New York State and the nation. No effort was made to actually consult with the Native nations to ask them how they felt when reduced to cartoons. But in recent years the tide of history has changed and most universities and high schools realize the harm such images have caused followed by decisions to retire these names.

The reaction has been powerful, emotional and hostile by some factions who accuse the advocates for change as victims of political correctness. This despite the overwhelming opposition to Native mascots by reputable indigenous leaders and organizations. Now it was time for Cooperstown to make its decision.

The background to the motion made by the Cooperstown high school was rooted in the student council led by president Jake Burnham. For years the Mohawks and other Iroquois have been taking part in various cultural events at the Fenimore Museum. Its current manager of education programs is Maria Vann. She has accelerated the Museum's Native presence from sponsoring contemporary art shows to live music concerts featuring Joanne Shenandoah among others. This work prepared the grounds for the students to act.

There were many opponents to the retiring of the Redskins moniker with some of the most vocal coming from within the high school. But C.J. Herbert, the superintendent of the Cooperstown Central Schools and David Borgstrom, president of the area's Board of Education, saw the need to hold public forums about the mascot issue. After heated debate the school board voted 6-1 on March 6 to honor the request of the students and remove the Redskins effective June 30. During that time submissions will be accepted for a new team name.

On March 11 I went to the Junior/Senior High School to make a presentation I called "'Who Do the Mohawks Think They Are?" accompanied by my wife Joanne Shenandoah. Grades four to 12 met at the auditorium to listen to my summation of Mohawk history, our current status and the profound way in which racist images such as the Redskins cause us harm. I used a large screen to project photographs of our people, our athletes and our sports teams with particular emphasis on the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team.

I summarized the ways in which Native technologies have affected each one them from the clothes they wore to the food they ate. I walked them through our culture given them a sense of our moral beliefs, our spirituality and customs. I also spoke about the origins of the sports they enjoy from lacrosse to basketball. In addition, the students heard Native music as Joanne sang to them to set the conditions for the lectures.

The younger students were particularly enthusiastic about new names for their teams with some of those rooted in Iroquois epics: wolves, fire dragons, celestial bears, stone giants, panthers and water serpents. My suggestion was to call themselves the Cooperstown Rock after the boulder on the south shore of the nearby lake. Or, if they wanted to honor the best ironworkers in the world, the Skywalkers.

Whatever they decide the students, faculty and administration of Cooperstown Central School deserve praise for the manner in which the Redskins were removed. Perhaps Mr. Snyder and the Washington Redskins team could learn true honor from the Cooperstown students as to doing the right and moral thing.

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.

More from Doug George-Kanentiio:
Doug George-Kanentiio: Freeing Aboriginal people in Canada (3/15)
Doug George-Kanentiio: A Mohawk's perspective on 'Redskins' (2/15)

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