Are sports teams considered racists when they use American Indian nicknames? Ron Morris, in a Dec. 28 column, "It's time Seminoles scrap racist symbolism," quotes Russell Means, American Indian, self-described militant and former leader of the American Indian movement, as saying, "now we're the only entire ethnicity in America that is still stereotyped."
As a Washington Redskins fan I remember some years ago when the controversy went public and there was pressure for the Redskins organization to change its name. In the stadium where I once cheered, on occasion booed, and stood tall singing "Hail to the Redskins," I began to feel uncomfortable. Was I being disrespectful?
Fortunately for me I have two "experts" in my life with whom I consult on Indian matters. For 24 years it has been my great privilege to be a mentor to a young girl in the Jemez Pueblo tribe (New Mexico), now a young woman, who is a college graduate, works as an accountant for her tribe and has recently married. My second expert is from the Hopi tribe (Arizona), and I have been his mentor for 12 years. He is an ROTC member and will graduate from high school early. Currently he is checking out colleges.
These two "experts" have brought such joy to my life that I would never intentionally insult them or disrespect their culture. So, during their teen years I asked them what they thought about sports teams using American Indian nicknames. Neither understood what the fuss was all about. Perhaps their response was generational; however, they didn't see it as racist. The older said that a number of men on her reservation wear Redskin jerseys and hats with Redskin logos. The younger seemed surprised that there was a controversy at all. Where sports teams represent Indians by "war paint, war whoops, tomahawk chops, Chief Osceola, etc." my "experts" just laugh because these symbols are so comical. They know and have experienced real racist issues, but they don't see it in this topic.
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I have visited both the Jemez Pueblo and the Hopi reservations. I've become close to the families of my "kids." I have attended a high school and college graduation for my older "kid" and planning to attend a high school graduation in May for my youngest "kid." I have been a guest at a traditional native dance ceremony and have had members of both families visit us in Virginia and Myrtle Beach. After all these years there is still much we are learning about each other.
Sometimes we take short cuts, not wanting to take the time or make the effort to understand other cultures. Morris, by raising the symbolism issue, may be calling for a reawakening to other issues of social justice with respect to American Indians such as inadequate health care, education, housing and jobs. I don't think we should get too caught up in the use of nicknames and superficial symbolisms, but perhaps as we consider issues of social justice we should reflect on the real American Indian tragedies such as the Trail of Tears and Wounded Knee.
The writer lives in Conway.