Photo: Johnny Silvercloud

Tim Giago: There is no difference between Blackface and Redface

Notes from Indian Country
What is the difference between blackface and redface?
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji – Stands Up For Them)

The turmoil in the government of Virginia points out a bigger picture that maybe all of America can use as a lesson in understanding racism.

It all began when Gov. Ralph Northam was exposed as wearing blackface in his medical school yearbook in 1984. There was an outcry of indignation across America. Let’s analyze that outcry and equate it to the oftentimes overlooked racism as defining American Indians.

There are thousands of examples of white men and women unknowingly literally wearing “redface” without a whisper of an outcry. Which begs the question, why is it racism for white people to wear blackface, but not racist to wear “redface?”

Here are some examples. Let’s start with Thanksgiving. For a couple of hundred years white and black school children were encouraged to dress up, paint up and feather up to imitate the Indians that were supposedly invited to have dinner with the Pilgrims. I recall talking to a young woman from a tribe in Kansas many years ago who came home crying because she could not understand why all of her classmates were making fun of her people by making Hollywood war whoops and dressing up as Indians on Thanksgiving celebrations at the school. I believe you have to be an Indian to understand why.

Go to any professional, college or high school football or baseball games in America where the school or team uses mascot names like Chiefs, Indians, warriors, or braves and don’t watch the game. Watch the actions of the fans attending the games. They come to the games dressed in various forms of attire emulating Indians. They wear ceremonial bonnets (they call them war bonnets), paint their faces in the most hideous ways, and put feathers in their hair.


A "chief" no more: the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign retired its "Illiniwek" mascot in 2007 after decades of pressure from activists like Charlene Tester. Photo: soundfromwayout

The worst offenders are the professional NFL and major league professional teams. There is even a professional football team based in Washington, D. C., our nation’s capital that calls its team the “Redskins.” Naming a sports team after the color of a people’s skin? How crass is that?

If these sports fanatics would have taken the time to understand the origin of the word “redskin” and how it was meant to demean and denigrate a people they would in all probability still continued to insult Native Americans every Sunday in the stands and on the football field because in their minds it is all right to demean Indians.

They would have continued to do it because there is no such thing as racism when it comes to Native Americans. How could it possibly be racist to demean the Indians when the rank imitation of them is only meant to honor them? Racism in any form is not a way to honor another people.

Native Americans have been protesting this covert racism for more than 40 years and although we have made baby steps towards eliminating it, it seems to grow with each passing year. My friend Charlene Teters, a Spokane Indian, stood outside of the stadium in Champagne, Illinois at the University of Illinois where she was a graduate student to protest the their racist mascot Chief Illiniwek. She wore her traditional attire and held a sign that read, “We are human beings; not mascots.”

So how did the fanatical sports enthusiasts of the University of Illinois treat her? They walked by her shouting things like, “Go back to the reservation,” or worse. They spat on her. They flipped burning cigarettes at her. She called me at my newspaper in 1982 crying, ready to quit school. I told her, “Just hang in there Char, because if you quit, they win.”

She hung in there and is still fighting the good fight. I traveled to Champaign the next year to join her, Michael Haney, Vernon Bellecourt and others to protest this rank mascot and as we marched toward the stadium we experienced the same treatment Char had experienced as she stood in front of the stadium all by herself. So here we had real live American Indians being abused by white people who wanted to protect the image of a white boy wearing Indian attire. How does one explain these things?

Michael and Vernon are dead now, but Char still marches on. And this week we see the media, politicians and African Americans all over America calling for Governor Northam to step down because he had the audacity to wear blackface while totally ignoring the many years of Native American protesting against the white people for wearing “redface.” Please tell me, what in the hell is the difference?

If the white race wants to honor Native Americans, start by honoring our treaties. That would be a small beginning to ending the most prolonged act of racism ever perpetrated on a people.

And please, please keep in mind; there is no difference between wearing Blackface than there is in wearing “Redface.”

Contact Tim Giago at najournalist1@gmail.com

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