At the corner of Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Ave, in Anacostia, a totem pole will rise from a plain patch of vacant ground this spring. It may seem odd that a Native American totem pole was the piece of public art selected by community residents, given that the Native American presence in Anacostia is now negligible, but, historically speaking, it’s fitting.
The Nacotchtank Native American tribe was among the first dwellers east of the river now called Anacostia, the Anglicized variant of the tribe’s name. The totem pole, which some Ward 8 residents see as a potential city landmark as well as a tribute to Native Americans, will stand where the Nacotchtank once stood.
This Anacostia totem pole is one of several that are popping up around the city by Wilfredo Valladares, an artist who hails from Honduras and teaches locally. But the sincerity with which these totem poles are being sprinkled around the city by the Department of Housing and Community Affairs and D.C. Arts is questionable, for the city continues to be the home of a football team named the Washington Redskins.
It seems like an age-old debate now, but, as many have recently pointed out, the lack of sensitivity in this town to the racist moniker of our local NFL football team is inexcusable. Thankfully, the call for a rename of the Redskins is mounting.
There are still opponents — or at least those who are not doing everything they can to correct this wrong. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), once a proponent of a rename who suggested that we should “do the right thing,” is now completely avoiding the issue and claiming that it’s a federal problem. Meanwhile, the general manager of the Redskins, Bruce Allen, refuses to consider a rename — saying “there’s nothing that we feel is offensive” — and owner Dan Snyder has shown no inclination to change the name.
In light of the District’s current race realities — from how geographically and economically divided Washington is along racial lines to how it poorly processed racism recently on the Metro, as evidenced by anti-Muslim advertisements that left WMATA with an offense it was ill-equipped to manage — few of these inequities can be as quickly corrected as the Washington Redskins racist moniker. And there is no excuse for inaction.
If it were a different race or religion we’d have a whole different conversation and a lot more public protest. America has a discriminatory political pecking order that allows some prejudice to continue while others are prohibited.
As many have pointed out, we’d never allow, for example, a Washington Blackskins or a Washington Yellowskins, nor should we. Nor would we allow a baseball team to be called the Cleveland Jews. Yet, we somehow justify keeping Native Americans at the bottom of societal barrel, treating them in ways that we’d never tolerate for another race or religion.
This irony is apparent at Redskins football games, where even African Americans — who still struggle to see some semblance of economic equality and social mobility in our society — don fake feathered headdresses, paint non-native faces and mimic war cries.
In a mascot moment, the weight of centuries of discrimination is passed down and passed on. Call it trickle-down discrimination, or last-place aversion; we always want someone below us. It makes life a little easier. The freedom once found by African Americans in Anacostia, now appropriating a voice less economically equal and less socially mobile, may well stem from this systematic and societal failure. To heal the former wrong requires healing the latter, something this country has yet to fully countenance.
Irrespective of this irony, all fans are culpable. With every ticket purchased, every shirt worn, every beer bought and every mascot marauded, this town stands idly by while prejudice and discrimination carry on. With one recent exception: Standing against this tide of perpetual oppression, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian hosted a daylong symposium this month entitled “Racist Stereotypes and Cultural Appropriation in American Sports.” The Redskins’ name, not unlike the Cleveland Indians’ mascot, was rightly lambasted as racist and demeaning.
Their task was simple. Symposium panelists were not calling for anything insurmountable, like an apology for the removal of the Nacotchtank tribe from Southeast Washington or the genocidal treatment of tribes. They were simply calling for a change in how sports teams are branded, an effort on which states like Oregon and Washington are leading the way by banning Native American mascots.
Calling for totem-pole dialogue on the “interconnectedness of the past, present and future of Anacostia,” as the Department of Housing and Community Development has endorsed with this latest project, undoubtedly has merit. We certainly need more dialogue. And we should start with the past. The Nacotchtank tribe would have much to say about appropriation past and present, cultural and otherwise.
At the ribbon-cutting ceremony for this totem pole, in lieu of the Nacotchtank, there will be an opportunity for the entire District to do the right thing and further the dialogue on this misappropriated Washington mascot. Let’s hope we do. Until then, racism plays on.
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