Tim Giago: Racism in Indian mascots and that dreaded 'R-word'

Notes from Indian Country
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)
© Unitysodak1@knology.net

The controversy started when Gwyneth Paltrow attended a concert in Paris and sent out a tweet of her thoughts on the hit song, “Niggas in Paris.” Her tweet read, “Ni** as in paris for real.”

Of course the comments went viral and brought out defenders and offenders on the Internet and on television talk shows and newspapers.

Blogger Jonah Weiner wrote about whether the use of the N-word was right or wrong. “Wrong is a slippery word in its own right, but, in assessing cases where white people say ‘nigga’ we acknowledge the utterance’s injurious power, and we stay on the lookout for a troubling blitheness on the part of the speaker that reflect a broader, ill-considered attitude toward race.”

Comedian Louis C.K. had a more caustic argument when he said, “You say the n-word, and I go, ‘Oh, she means nigger.’ You are making me say it in my head!”

That brings me to the racist word “redskin.” Look it up in any dictionary or Wikipedia and you will find that most Native Americans find the word to be racist. Every source you check always refers to this word as offensive to Native Americans. And yet it is out there for all to see with no thoughts of how it might impact a race of people. Of course there is still that 10 percent of Indians who believe it is an honor to be mimicked and ridiculed for America’s fun and games.

The Indian-owned newspaper, Native Sun News, and papers like Indian Country Today, in the old days, never used the word ‘redskins’ when referring to the professional football team based in Washington, D. C., but instead always substituted the ‘R-word’ in its place.

When affirmative action and the Fairness Doctrine were a part of the American scene, many minorities used these weapons to open doors in the media. Without these two weapons to break down these barriers that had blocked their participation for so long media integration would have been impossible.

As a result the newly open doors allowed many African Americans and other minorities to become major players in the media. It is clear that when issues like the use of the N-word by famous people arises, the fact that many African Americans now have positions behind and in front of the television cameras, offers them a national forum to discuss this highly inflammable issue. This was clearly evident this week when many African-Americans had the opportunity to look at Paltrow’s comments from all angles. It opened a debate about the use of the N-word by white people as opposed to its use by African-Americans.

What about using Indians as mascots? I first wrote about this topic in 1982. From the volume of hate mail I received I came to perceive this as an issue that was hyper-sensitive to non-Indians, but after a group of Indian students at Stanford convinced the faculty and alumni to drop their mascot, Indians, and replace it with Cardinals, I became convinced that there were enough people of intelligence who could empathize with Indians on this topic.

I vividly recall when African Americans were trying to integrate the National Football League. One of the last of the holdouts was the Washington team. Some of their fans were so incensed by the idea of having African-Americans on their beloved team that they gathered in front of the main office of the Redskins with posters that read, “Keep the Redskins white.” Now how ironic and revolting is that?

In 2001 the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights called for an end to the use of Indian images and team names by non-Native schools, stating, “These references, whether mascots and their performances, logos, or names, are disrespectful and offensive to American Indians and others and are particularly inappropriate and insensitive in light of the long history of forced assimilation that American Indian people have endured in this country.”

The first, and maybe the last time, a national television show took on the issue of using Indians as mascots happened in 1991 on a show hosted by an African-American; Oprah Winfrey. I, an Oglala Lakota, along with Michael Haney, Seminole, and Suzanne Shown Harjo, Muskogee, were the guests on that show and for the first time we had a forum to discuss our feelings about using Indians as mascots. We had high hopes that this would lead to other opportunities to enlighten the vast majority of Americans, but a follow-up show never happened and other television talk-show hosts never thought the topic was relevant.

In 1960 President John F. Kennedy said, “For a subject worked and reworked so often in novels, motion pictures, and television, American Indians remain probably the least understood and the most misunderstood Americans of us all.”

If we (Native Americans) had a platform on national television to discuss our feelings about Indians as mascots, just as African-Americans are able to confront ignorance and prejudice every day of the week because of access, perhaps an educational process could begin that would teach Americans that Indians are human beings and not fodder to be used as mascots for fun and games.

Paltrow’s tweet opened a flood-gate of discussion about the use and misuse of the N-word and the process was culturally defining and highly educational. Now the national media should take on the R-word with as much enthusiasm.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born and educated on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was founder of the Native American Journalists Association and of Indian Country Today newspaper. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991.

More from Tim Giago:
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Tim Giago: How the Grouchy Gourmet broke down racial barriers (5/28)
Tim Giago: Touching an eagle feather to Warren Buffett's brow (5/21)
Tim Giago: 'Beer sniffing' reporters descend upon Pine Ridge (5/14)
Tim Giago: 'Drill baby drill' is coming soon to Indian Country (5/7)
Tim Giago: Tatanka Iyotanka was a pure Lakota traditionalist (4/30)
Tim Giago: Rocky history of Natives and the Mormon Church (4/23)
Tim Giago: Dulaney was named 'Waonspekiye' or teacher (4/16)
Tim Giago: A month of tears, tragedy and happiness in April (4/9)
Tim Giago: When Leader Charge spoke, Kevin Costner listened (4/2)
Tim Giago: Turtle Mountain Times marks its 20th anniversary (3/26)
Tim Giago: Newspaper business should take look at its past (3/19)
Tim Giago: Lakota views missing from Keystone XL debate (3/12)
Tim Giago: Religion caused near destruction of Lakota families (3/5)
Tim Giago: Inspiring a new generation of Native Americans (2/27)
Tim Giago: South Dakota law aimed at Indian abuse victims (2/20)
Tim Giago: Indians as mascots for America's fun and games (2/13)
Tim Giago: Cobell settlement just another government rip-off (2/6)
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