The “Indians,” “Braves” and “Warriors” that decorate team jerseys, gym floors and scoreboards across New York state are finally on their way out.
Take, for instance, the contentious debate involving the Cambridge Central School District, whose two-year fight to cling to its “Indians” mascot most likely inspired New York’s action. Most recently, the Cambridge board of education had voted to appeal a court ruling forcing the district to retire its mascot. When the board learned of the state’s directive, it vowed to continue its appeal — now more obviously futile than ever.
At issue (beyond school pride and “tradition”) is the question of what exactly Native-themed mascots convey: condescension or respect. You might think that’s obvious, given that the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) calls them “symbols of disrespect that degrade, mock, and harm Native people.”
But Cambridge board member Dillon Honyoust, of Haudenosaunee ancestry, says that as a Native American, he sees retiring the “Indians” mascot as “another effort to remove or cancel the American Indian culture.”
Is it? The retirement of race-based mascots is endorsed not just nationally by the NCAI but also locally, by the Stockbridge-Munsee Tribal Council, the Seneca Nation, the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Council, the Oneida Indian Nation and the Onondaga Nation, part of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Their intention is surely not cultural cancellation.
Honyoust’s concern brings up a fair question, though: how to keep the Native American experience in the public consciousness. Will we lose something when “Grizzlies” and “Tigers” replace “Indians” and “Braves”? Are stereotypical images of Native Americans better than no images of Native Americans?
Consider Thanksgiving. Many non-Native children first learn about Native Americans through the whitewashed myth of the First Thanksgiving, that friendly potluck featuring generous Indians welcoming pilgrims to Plymouth.
This staple of elementary school curriculums obscures the racism, genocide and displacement that decimated Indigenous peoples. It’s an American origin story that leaves out most of the truth. But it does leave in Native people, and that’s worth something, according to Paul Chaat Smith, a Comanche and associate curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian: “Thanksgiving says, however imperfectly, we remember Indians, we’re remembering Indians. And, with all the problems with it, it’s still a powerful idea, and it’s still powerful to not Photoshop Indians out of the national narrative.”
That’s in a video, “The Invention of Thanksgiving,” in a museum exhibit on Native Americans in pop culture — from the Tomahawk missile to the Jeep Cherokee to the Cleveland Indians. (Cleveland’s team is now called the Guardians.) Smith told the New York Times that although some imagery is “obnoxious,” it “doesn’t help us to eliminate everything. The problem with Native Americans is the invisibility in American life.”
“Native American” as an idea is ubiquitous in our culture — that’s the point of the exhibit — but Native American reality remains unseen.
Surely there’s a way to erase the cartoon Indian and draw more accurate representations in its place.
One solution you might have heard lately is the “land acknowledgment,” an official statement recognizing that an institution occupies specific ancestral lands. These statements are common in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Every morning, Toronto schoolchildren hear some version of the following:
“We acknowledge we are hosted on the lands of the Mississaugas of the Anishinaabe, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and the Wendat. We also recognize the enduring presence of all First Nations, Métis and the Inuit peoples.”
Land acknowledgments are becoming more common in the United States, too, from college events to city council meetings to the Oscars, even as the number of race-based mascots dwindles. That’s a big step forward, from a tomahawk chop of a stereotype to a bow of respect.
But it’s just a step. The problem with land acknowledgments, as Indigenous activist John Kane told me, is that “acknowledging that we once lived in a place or somehow contributed to someone else’s society does nothing for ours.”
“Don’t tell us how great we were,” he wrote to me. “We are still here and we AREN’T doing that great now. We fight everyday over taxes, autonomy and our distinction. We fight poverty, racism, abuse of our women and children, drugs, alcohol and depression on our territories. We fight against the lack of opportunities of any prospects for the future of our people on our lands.”
Land acknowledgments risk doing — albeit in a far less offensive way — what mascots do: relegate Native people to a hazy past, while relieving us of the responsibility to do anything to know or help Native Americans in the present.
No institution should get to make a land acknowledgment unless it is also backing it up with action, whether financial, political or educational. A university, for instance, could offer courses in Indigenous languages, grant free tuition to Native students, repatriate tribal artifacts and even return land.
And a school district? If it’s truly searching for a way to honor Native culture, it could start each day by recognizing the Indigenous peoples whose land it occupies. Then it could develop curriculums that teach Native American reality, past and present. That would all take time, money and effort. But fighting to hang on to a racist mascot does, too.