A few weeks ago, Washington Post reporter Ian Shapira covered the “controversy” around the Daily Show’s segment on the Washington Racial Slurs. I, as you may remember, was not a fan of the way the story was covered. To Shapira’s credit, he reached out to me, and several other of my Native friends involved in the Daily Show debate or conversations afterward, and offered to chat. I declined, but from what I hear, he got an earful about theways Natives are represented in the media and how and why these seemingly innocuous “angles” in reporting are very harmful. I’m being nice here. He got some angry Indians on the phone.
You’ll notice, in my first post, I didn’t actually refer to him by name. I called out WaPo as an institution for printing that piece, and made it much more about society than the reporter. But not this time, I guess.
So after Shapira’s period of learning, he decides to delve deeper into the mascot fight, by publishing this:
This piece makes me angry for a number of reasons. But I want to focus on a major, huge, glaring, omission from Shapira’s piece: CONTEXT.
The gist of it is this: Red Mesa High School, located in a tiny, rural town in the Navajo Nation, are the Red Mesa Redsk*ns. Shapira gives us heartening scenes of the football game and everyone shouting “Go Redsk*ns” and how they dismiss Amanda Blackhorse (lead plaintiff in the Redsk*ns trademark case, also Navajo, from about an hour away from Red Mesa): “But most in the Red Mesa community dismiss Blackhorse’s cause, or barely know who she is.”
<Pause. I’m re-reading the article closely and I’m getting so upset. Deep breaths.>
The students from Red Mesa were invited by Dan Snyder to come to the recent game in Phoenix, given free shirts, food, and a chance to meet players. For students from this extremely impoverished area, that’s huge. Of course the school said yes. But Shapira makes it seem like the small group of Natives protesting the game were harassing the young students who just wanted to go to an NFL game.
Then, oh then, not only does Shapira pull on the effing 2004 Annenburg poll that says 90% of Natives don’t think the name is offensive, he sets up the “bigger issues” argument. Talking about the uranium tainted water, lack of jobs, etc. Quoting folks from the rez saying these issues are more important.
Ok. That damn stupid poll, which gets cited in EVERY article about this team. First of all, TEN YEARS AGO, dude. You want to use any other public opinion poll from ten years ago to make an argument in your WaPo articles, I bet you anything your editor is going to be like “um, nah.” Also, it was a landline phone poll (ask how many people at Red Mesa if they’ve got a landline) of 738 “self-identified” Native people–so anyone with a “Cherokee Princess” great grandma could answer the poll. It also didn’t poll Alaska or Hawaii, which have huge Native populations. Also, the exact wording of the question was this:
“The professional football team in Washington calls itself the Washington Redskins. As a Native American, do you find that name offensive or doesn’t it bother you?”
Do you find that name offensive OR doesn’t it bother you. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. You can find it offensive and “not be bothered by it,” which, I would argue, many people would go for, because they don’t want to be seen as “weak” or being bothered by an image. Especially 10 years ago before the conversation was really happening. Basically: This poll is BS and shouldn’t be even referenced in passing anymore. Want a real Native opinion? I’ve got a list with 5000+ Native names on it. But I digress.
We’ll also return to the “bigger issues” argument in a minute.
So let me give you some context about Red Mesa, Mr. Shapira. Red Mesa, AZ, located 25 miles from the “Four Corners,” a town, as you say yourself, that is far off a little used highway, and in your words, “Their lives are isolated. The nearest major shopping mall is a 90-minute drive across flatlands filled with tumbleweeds and yucca. It takes some teens an hour to reach the school by bus. Most of the students qualify for free meals.”
So as a result of this isolation, you know who Red Mesa plays for football and other sports? I do, because I googled it. Took one second. They play only OTHER NATIVES or border towns:
Why is this important? Because the name being a racial slur is only one part of why the mascot needs to change. The disrespect, racism, and dishonor come from not just the name, but when you have non-Natives representing “Native” cultures through the mascots, and opponents of the teams vilifying and mocking Native cultures in the name of sports rivalry. When your audience, team, and school is nearly 100% Native, you are never going to see this:
— Dani (@xodanix3) October 28, 2014
Yes, that is a toilet, where you can sh*t directly on the disembodied Redsk*ns head.
You are never going to see a Native person “honoring” their culture in this way (I have 10 more examples here of mascots “honoring” Native peoples):
— Dr. Adrienne K. (@NativeApprops) October 13, 2014
Or this way:
— Dr. Adrienne K. (@NativeApprops) September 8, 2014
Listen to the testimony of Native student Dahkota Brown as he talks about the way seeing his non-Native classmates mock Indian culture through these “honors” makes him feel:
You would never, ever see any of this at Red Mesa, or at any of the schools they are playing in sports. Because they’re Native. They would be dishonoring and disrespecting their communities and relatives. The name doesn’t have the same weight and urgency, or any weight and urgency, because, to them, it’s self-referential. They have control over the name and image, they have the right and power to do with it what they want. If they want to change it, they can. Clearly, not the case outside of the Navajo Nation.
This is the context that is important. To be clear, I don’t think that any school should have the Redsk*ns as a mascot.* But I respect the decision of the Red Mesa school officials, given the context of their school.
I also hate the constant dichotomy of rez Natives (therefore the “real” ones) and off-rez Natives on the mascot issue. The reason some folks on the rez don’t care as much (which is also a dangerous stereotype, cause many of the lead activists in this, Amanda Blackhorse included, live on or near reservations) is because they aren’t faced with all these examples I showed above on a daily basis. We in the city have to walk down the street and encounter this racism everyday, and we’re separated from the counter-narratives and counter-representations that would surround us if we lived in our communities. Many of us don’t have easy access to our ceremonies, our aunties, our grandmas, our land–the things that show us we aren’t the harmful stereotypes we see at the sports arena. Folks on the rez do have those counter-examples, surrounding them at all times. Additionally, if you only interact with other Native people everyday, no one is going to call you a redsk*n as a slur.
But those on reservations also have deep, real, and life-or-death challenges, that many of us in urban settings don’t have to face everyday. Which brings us to the “bigger issues” argument. Broken record time, for those who read the blog often:
Yes, unequivocally, we have big things to tackle in Indian Country. We have pressing and dire issues that are taking the lives of our men and women everyday, and I am in absolutely no way minimizing this reality. But we also live in a state of active colonialism. In order to justify the genocide against Native peoples in this country, we must be painted as inferior–that’s the colonial game. These images continue that process. The dominant culture therefore continues to marginalize our peoples, to ignore and erase our existence. We are taught everyday, explicitly in classrooms, and implicitly through messages from the media, that our cultures are something of the past, something that exists in negative contrast to “western” values, and something that can be commodified and enjoyed by anyone with $20 to buy a cheap plastic headdress. These stereotypical images like mascots feed into this ongoing cycle, and until we demand more, our contemporary existence (and therefore the “real” problems in Indian Country) simply doesn’t exist in the minds of the dominant culture.
How can we expect mainstream support for sovereignty, self-determination, Nation Building, tribally-controlled education, health care, and jobs when the 90% of Americans only view Native people as one-dimensional stereotypes, situated in the historic past, or even worse, situated in their imaginations?
I also ask this: why does it take an article about mascots for the Washington Post to cover the poisoning of our water in Indian Country? The lack of jobs? The isolation, the poverty, the educational challenges? If these issues are so important (and they are), why aren’t we talking about them?
Because we are invisible. Because we are seen as relics, as mascots, as sub-human.
So before any mascot-defender jumps on the bandwagon of the Red Mesa Redsk*ns and uses it as an excuse for your racism (a job made infinitely easier now, thanks to WaPo), consider the context. Think about the impact. This is not just an issue of a racial slur, this is an issue of power. And context, just like representation, matters.
*There are further discussions to have about our Native schools with Indian mascots–especially those, like many on the Navajo Nation, that look like stereotypical Plains “chiefs,” and not anything like Navajo people. If we’re going to use it as a mark of pride, at least have it represent us correctly.