A Future Beyond No Mascots: A Vision for Indigenous-American Relations

Many people look at criticisms of Native American mascots—like my recent posts about the Washington Redskins—and say, "This isn't a big deal!" or "Natives have much more important things to worry about." While I still believe that mascots perpetuate harmful racist stereotypes, (and thus are a "big deal"), I absolutely agree that there are more important issues that Native Americans have to address—and more important issues for all Americans to deal with concerning their perceptions and treatment of Natives.

When I think about the future of the relationship between indigenous communities and the general American public, I don't just think about a future without racist stereotypes plastered on sports merchandise: I believe there is far, far more that has to be done in order to improve upon the damning legacy left by the exploitation and persecution of Natives in the United States.

Image at right: Wahunsenacawh, or "Chief Powhatan," leader of Tsenacommacah (eastern Virginia and the D.C. area) at the time of English arrival in the region.

First, I believe all Americans—white, black, Native, Asian or other—deserve a far more honest education in the history of their country. The story of the United States is not summed up by settlers coming somewhere new for opportunity; that's only half the story. The full story of the United States concerns the extermination and marginalization of indigenous peoples paving the way for settlers to have opportunities. (Obviously, there's a lot more detail and nuance to the story, which is why you need U.S. history classes.) Indigenous history is the history of the United States, except that it's told from a different perspective than the mythic and nationalistic past most Americans are used to. What's more, indigenous history is living history, and it continues to have the potential to revolutionize the way we see the lands to which all Americans are now connected.

Nat. Geo. - a few Native names
across the U.S. translated literally
(Note: not entirely accurate)
This leads to my second point: I believe Americans every origin deserve and would benefit from a much more thorough knowledge of Native culture, and they should uphold that culture with much greater respect. Again, this is a heritage that continues to inform the lives we lead, no matter where in the United States you are. Even if the nearest reservation or Native community is hundreds of miles from your home, no one in the U.S. lives in a place where indigenous heritage doesn't undergird the very geography of their lives. Most states have Native names, as do many rivers, towns, and countless other places. Even in the heart of New York City, at the heart of global capitalism, well—where do you think the name Wall Street comes from? That's where a wall was built for the original European settlement, built to defend against nearby Natives.

Native language families of
North America (source)
Most areas of the United States have an indigenous heritage that goes far, far beyond place names. There are still hundreds of indigenous languages alive in the United States—in spite of the devastating effects of boarding schools and other assimilationist pressures. I am not a linguist, but I understand very well the potential for language to change the way one looks at the world: Even in learning French I was taught to see things just a little bit differently, even though English and French are very closely related. Learning an indigenous language, well, that will turn your world upside down. Would you like your children to have open minds, or engage in critical thinking? Get them to start learning a Native language. As a bonus, they would also be helping to save a threatened heritage, and—in a very modest way—helping to heal some horrific scars.

Most Americans seem to think of learning another language in immanently practical terms. (I won't say learning a "foreign" language, because in North America, English is a foreign language.) The thing most of the general public doesn't understand, however, is that learning another language is always helpful and practical, even if it never gets you a job or enables you to survive some crazy situation. Studying another language in a genuine, enthusiastic way leads to dramatic improvement in students' grasp of English, and as I mentioned before, it broadens minds and sharpens other skills as well. Additionally, having children of all colors learn indigenous languages of their region would help foster the sort of inclusive, tolerant, and self-aware communities that all Americans should be striving for. Do you think "kids these days" are too selfish and self-obsessed? Get them to start learning a Native language. As a bonus, they will be connecting with a deep and genuine culture that is not their own, but at the same time a culture that is very much an influence in their lives—even if that influence is hidden.

screenshot from Sealaska Heritage Institute's alphabet app
I hope I am not out of line as a white American when I say that I feel Tlingit culture is partly my own. My home is Lingít Aaní, or Southeast Alaska, and the history of my home and the nature of my relationship to my home is inherently tied to the history and culture of the Tlingit people. I would strongly like to start learning the Tlingit language, and if I move to Juneau this summer, I should be able to do that. (See some posts where I've written about Lingít here, here, and here.) For any American who feels strongly connected to their hometown, to their state, or to the United States as a whole, I believe they should have the opportunity—and perhaps even the obligation—to learn about the indigenous peoples that shaped their home and to respectfully engage with and share in that heritage.

Tlingit Moon and Tide -
indigenous science curriculum
It should go without saying that learning a Native language brings with it a great deal more understanding of other Native traditions and sources of Native knowledge. Indigenous knowledge of nature, even indigenous science, has a great deal to teach us even today, if we only paid attention to it. The North American continent has resources, foods, and insights to offer that most Americans know nothing about, but indigenous traditions hold many of the keys to unlock that knowledge. Even indigenous conceptions of law, spirituality, and social harmony have the potential to provide greater wisdom to an American public so fraught with disagreement and insecurity. Again, this is all about broadening one's understanding, and deepening our understanding of our country.

I have to say, however, this isn't only about us—us meaning all Americans. This is also about renewing and improving the relationship between our nation and indigenous communities. How convoluted and dysfunctional is it that the closest ties many Americans have to Natives in their area is through local gambling establishments? If more American children start learning Native languages and exploring Native culture in their hometowns and local areas, indigenous people and their communities will become a much closer, much more integrated part of their lives. This is not to say I expect Native Americans to rush out and become teachers to indulge the whim of white families; I would hope that school districts and local governments around the country would approach Native communities with humility, and establish closer ties in the most respectful of ways.

FSU Seminoles logo (source)
For example, this post on the blog Native Appropriations sparked me to think about the potential for Florida State University to live up to the name it claims for itself—the Seminoles. If FSU engaged further with local Seminoles—and perhaps with Seminole communities in Oklahoma as well—they might begin teaching Seminole languages at their university and exploring the rich past of that people in the university's history courses. Doing that, FSU might really begin to earn the use of the name Seminole, and gain nationwide respect.

To conclude, I hope that the wrongs done to Native peoples in American culture will be rectified far beyond just removing racist mascots. I hope that American children in any school or community in the United States will have the opportunity to engage more deeply and meaningfully with their country's past, and the indigenous heritage that continues to inform our lives here on this continent. I believe that sort of learning and understanding will promote justice for Native Americans as nothing else could, and it will make all of our lives significantly richer.

As a final note, I feel I should mention the Idle No More movement in Canada, which has also sparked many supportive demonstrations in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world. Americans like me tend to think of Canada as a more liberal and conscientious country than the United States, but the policies and conditions that Idle No More has brought to light—and the subsequent responses of the Canadian public—demonstrate that in Canada too, the general population is woefully disconnected from their nation's indigenous communities. I hope that Idle No More will continue to grow in strength and numbers as a movement, and I hope it can start bringing about the kind of paradigm shift that will lead to much greater awareness, activism, and ultimately, justice, for everyone in Canada.

If you managed to read everything in this post, please leave a comment explaining how you agree or disagree with what I've written. I would love to know what you think about these ideas, regardless of whether it's positive or negative. Gunalchéesh.