Tim Giago: Three warriors are gone but the mascot battle lives on

While reading an article by Courtland Milloy in the Washington Post I was immediately reminded of Michael Haney, Vernon Bellecourt and Floyd Red Crow Westerman, three warriors who stood up for the rights of all Native Americans when they publicly challenged the use of Native Americans as mascots for the sports teams in this country.

All three of these visionaries are gone, but they spoke out with their last breathes to let Americans know that it is not an honor to be used as a mascot. And all three took particular exception to the teams that used the racist word “Redskin” as a mascot.

Milloy reiterates all of the arguments voiced by Haney, Bellecourt and Westerman in his article. He references a film now showing at the National Museum of the American Indian on the Washington Mall called “Reel Injun.” The film chronicles more than 100 years of insidious depictions of Indians in movies. “We have been woefully misinformed and our kids are still being brainwashed,” Milloy laments.

100 years after his death Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” is undergoing a re-write. The word “nigger” is used 219 times in the book and it will now be replaced with “slave.” Even the word “Injun,” as in “Injun Joe,” will be changed to “Indian” in the revised version of the book. The book will be published by NewSouth Books’ Suzanne La Rosa. And of course there are those so-called purists shouting profanities from the sidelines. “How dare anyone tamper with the words of the author?” is the usual comment.

Haney, Bellecourt and Westerman came to the aid of a graduate student at the University of Illinois in the early 1980s. Charlene Teters, while still attending UI, protested alone at Illini sporting events and endured the verbal and physical abuse that came with her protests. Back in those days a few columns I wrote and the stand by Teters were about the only protests against using Indians as mascots until the three warriors joined our tiny voices.

We didn’t have a Courtland Milloy with a really big newspaper like the Washington Post to support are feeble efforts and all of us wondered why not. We decided it was because so-called sports and institutional traditionalists truly believed they were bestowing an honor upon the Native Americans by degrading them to the role of mascots.

After the deaths of Haney, Bellecourt and Westerman, I almost stopped writing about mascots because it seemed like such a futile effort and Teters did not make as many public appearances protesting their use. I think that it was because we both grew a little bit tired of hearing the same old arguments over and over and realizing that it would take a new generation of Americans to really bring about change.

I have asked my readers starting nearly 30 years ago to get a dictionary or go to the Internet and look up the word “redskin” and decide for yourself whether it is a word that brings honor to Native Americans.

Milloy wrote the words I have written many times over the years: “Ask yourself: Why is okay to use “redskins” but not, say, “blackskins” or “whiteskins”? Suppose some team chose as its mascot a spear-chucking Mandingo warrior who ran up and down the sidelines in a diaper? No way.”

As I have written for nearly 30 years, it’s not the fact that some schools, colleges and professional sports teams have chosen Native Americans as mascots, but it’s what they do to emphasize their choice. The first thing the fans do is paint their faces, stick feathers in their hair, start making Hollywood styled war-whoops, start chanting chants meant to mimic Indians, bring plastic tomahawks to the games and start doing the tomahawk chop, and do other things that totally disrespects the spirituality, attire and mannerisms of Native Americans.

I am happy that after all of these years a newspaper other than Akwesasne Notes of the Mohawk people and the original Lakota Times of the Lakota people, is speaking out against the use of Native Americans as mascots. 30 years ago Akwesasne Notes and the Lakota Times were the only two newspapers in America that used their pages to protest this horrendous practice. Suzanne Shown Harjo, former director of the National Congress of American Indians, has also been a fierce supporter of our efforts.

For all of these years, all Doug George-Kanentiio, editor of Akwesasne Notes, and I as editor of the old Lakota Times, ever said is that it is not an honor for Native Americans to be mimicked and insulted simply to provide a distorted image of an Indian mascot for America’s sports teams. Americans would never do this to another race.

I, Teters, George-Kanentiio, Haney, Westerman and Bellecourt thank Milloy for taking on this issue. Will it make a difference? The fans (short for fanatic) of the Washington professional football team are the worst. An article I wrote for Newsweek Magazine about the Washington “R-Word” team brought me the most horrid deluge of hate mail I have ever received.

If you want to honor Native Americans, start by honoring their treaties.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the editor and publisher of Native Sun News. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1990. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. He was the first Native American ever inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame. He can be reached at editor@nsweekly.com.

Related Stories:
Tim Giago: Sunday night movies at boarding school in South Dakota (1/3)
Tim Giago: US hasn't apologized for massacre at Wounded Knee (12/20)

Join the Conversation