Another Stereotype of the Month entry:
Forget about team names; fight for Indians' quality of life
By Myron Beckenstein
Originally published August 23, 2001
ONE THING is wrong with the attempt by some Indian groups to have Indian names removed from sports teams: It is the wrong battle.
A resolution approved this month by Maryland's Commission on Indian Affairs said such usage "makes a mockery of indigenous cultural identity, promotes racial stereotypes and destroys the self-esteem of American Indian young people."
The movement is not just in Maryland and has been building steam for years.
The problem is that the names are not meant to mock Indians, but to honor them. Sports teams want identities that bolster the players, not demean them -- ones that make them feel good about themselves and project a favorable image to the fans. That's why we have the Mavericks but not the Donkeys, the Bears but not the Hyenas, the Giants but not the Pygmies.
What is mocking about Braves, Indians, Chiefs, Mohawks, etc.?
Even Redskins, while slang, is not a derogatory term and is not meant to make the football players run for the nearest locker room every time the name is mentioned.
Are they negative stereotypes, or even stereotypes at all? In our complex world, almost everything is reduced to stereotypes. But these terms are too generic to even qualify as that, and they lack a defining adjective to give them malevolence, such as sullen Sioux, carefree Irish or wily Pathan. "Indian" is no more automatically a stereotype than "car," "Viking," "tree" or even "football."
If they somehow still are classed as stereotypes for the image the nouns alone convey, at least they are, in context, positive stereotypes. Who can ask for more?
The non-Indian view of Indians has changed time and again since the first white settlements in the early 17th century. The Indians were admired, demonized, feared, belittled, sympathized with, admired again and, through most of the time, fought and/or malignantly neglected.
The Indians have good cause to lament the way they were treated. History and geography were not kind to them.
Even if the first settlers had not stayed, the Indians would not have been left alone. Imperialism abhors a vacuum and, to the Age of Exploration, a lack of Europeans and Christianity was a vacuum. What happened in America also happened in Africa and, to a lesser extent, in parts of Asia as Europeans spread their gospel, trading routes and economic lusts.
If it hadn't been the French, British and Spanish, it could have been the Dutch, Portuguese and Swedes.
That the conquering power could have handled the situation better is beyond dispute.
Treaties and promises generally had more substance than was applied to those with Indians. Too often, might meant more than right or justice or even compassion.
But even in the late 19th century, after most Indians had been squeezed into a small part of the territory and when small numbers of Indian fighters were running the U.S. army ragged, there was at least a grudging respect for them in all but a few hearts.
It is this respect -- no longer grudging -- that is now offered in choosing Indian names and symbols as ones that bestow virtue and power on the recipients.
Our Indian heritage is a major part of this country. If sports names are changed, what would be the next target? Geographic names? Goodbye Indian Head and Squaw Valley?
Names that are based on the Indian names are a major part of the landscape, from state names on down. It is knowing how to pronounce the names of area rivers and towns that distinguishes the local from the outsider.
To do their cause more good, the forces flexing their muscles against the use of Indian names should redirect their efforts to doing something about a truly dishonorable situation -- the conditions that prevail for those forced to live on reservations.
More than a century after the fighting stopped, malignant neglect still rules and administration after administration has done little to improve things.
Social, health and education problems abound.
Only historians can change the past. But we can work in the present to change the future.
Myron Beckenstein is an editor on The Sun's foreign desk.
Copyright © 2001, The Baltimore Sun
A few stupidities qualify this column as a Stereotype of the Month entry:
>> ONE THING is wrong with the attempt by some Indian groups to have Indian names removed from sports teams: It is the wrong battle. <<
Who is Myron Beckenstein to say that? If a million Indians think sports mascots are a problem, should we believe Beckenstein that they aren't? What are his credentials, his justification, for making such an egregious claim?
>> The problem is that the names are not meant to mock Indians, but to honor them. <<
No, the problem is that what Beckenstein imagines is an honor, isn't. See Smashing People: The "Honor" of Being an Athlete for more.
>> What is mocking about Braves, Indians, Chiefs, Mohawks, etc.? <<
The Cleveland Indians have Chief Wahoo. The Atlanta Braves do the tomahawk chop. In general, the names stereotype Indians as chiefs, braves, and warriors when many of them were farmers, craftsmen, or priests.
See Fighting Sioux vs. Fighting Irish for more on the subject.
>> Even Redskins, while slang, is not a derogatory term <<
Wrong. Check your dictionary or spell-checker on that one, bright boy. Or go to Red·skin n. Dated, Offensive, Taboo.
>> If they somehow still are classed as stereotypes for the image the nouns alone convey, at least they are, in context, positive stereotypes. <<
I wish all nominees would admit their words or images are stereotypical upfront. It would save me a lot of time. <g>
>> Who can ask for more? <<
"Who can ask for more" than stereotypical images? Everyone can. They can ask for reality, not fiction.
>> Even if the first settlers had not stayed, the Indians would not have been left alone. <<
So? Few Indians expected to be left alone once the European invasion crested. What they wanted was their treaties obeyed and their rights preserved.
See Was Native Defeat Inevitable? for what might've happened if we'd left the Indians alone a few years.
>> If sports names are changed, what would be the next target? Geographic names? Goodbye Indian Head and Squaw Valley? <<
When was this column written: 10 years ago? Twenty? State and local legislatures are changing names containing the derogatory word "squaw" across the country already.
>> To do their cause more good, the forces flexing their muscles against the use of Indian names should redirect their efforts to doing something about a truly dishonorable situation -- the conditions that prevail for those forced to live on reservations. <<
This comment is really why Beckenstein's column earned its nomination. It implies Indians are too stupid or myopic to focus on what really matters.
In reality, thousands and thousands of Indians—perhaps the majority of them—are concerned with poverty, crime, and substance abuse in Native communities. One can protest two things alternately without much trouble, Myron.
Moreover, one could argue—though the thought obviously never crossed Beckenstein's mind—that living conditions and stereotypes are linked. If we "honor" Indians by painting them as warriors of the past, we mislead people about their present lives. Millions of Americans think Indians vanished or are vanishing—and therefore don't need social justice—precisely because of stereotypes.
If nothing else, fighting to eliminate mascots is a way of saying, "We're not images in a museum or on a football helmet. We're still here and we've got problems you need to deal with. Stop 'honoring' us like we're dead and start honoring us like we're alive—by acknowledging our treaty and human rights."
Beckenstein's whoppers have earned his column a Native American Stereotype of the Month nomination. I hope Beckenstein enjoys the "honor" as much as Indians enjoy the mascot "honor."
Team names and mascots
The essential facts about Indians today
. . .
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