What is happening within the hearts and minds of Eastern Michigan University students who are willing to tell a Native elder to “go back to the reservation”?
Kids go to college to learn.
Some will learn to become teachers.
Some will learn to become programmers.
Some will learn to become researchers.
Some will learn to become racists.
Eastern Michigan University used to have an Indian mascot—the Eastern Michigan Hurons. It was changed to the Eagles in 1991.
Last week, a Native elder, Nathan Phillips (of the Omaha nation), saw over a dozen EMU students at an off campus party wearing headdresses and in “redface.” He asked the students what they were doing and they said they were honoring Native Americans. “We’re the F-ing Hurons!” they said.
When Phillips replied that this was not honoring Natives—that it was racist instead—they started telling him to, “Go back to the reservation, you F-ing Indian, get the F out of here!”
Okay, obviously their “honoring” of Natives had absolutely nothing to do with honoring Natives. This is characteristic of sports teams using Native American names and mascots. It’s about sports and sounding like fighters, sounding strong and savage; it has nothing to do with honoring real living Natives. And this isn’t the first time that Natives have been told to “Go back to the Reservation!” when they protested Native mascotry.
But think about two things here.
Have you ever thought about what it means to tell an Indian to “Go back to the reservation”?
Of course it is completely racist. Thinking that you have the authority to tell an Indian to “Go back to the reservation” shows that you feel they are racially inferior and you are racially superior (otherwise you would have no authority to tell them where to go). But it’s much more than racist.
All of North America is their land. Never mind that most Natives actually don’t live on reservations, ask yourself: Why did Native people lose their homeland when they used to live free on the whole continent? What happened? Which side broke treaty after treaty (and is still breaking treaties now – just the other day the state of Michigan transferred 8,000 acres of treaty-protected land to a mining company)? Which side took away children and sent them to boarding schools where they weren’t allowed to speak their languages, got beaten if they did, and got abused in countless other ways? Which side didn’t have religious freedom until 1979? Which side had generations of children stolen and “adopted” to families outside of their community?
What does it mean to say to an Indian, “Go back to the reservation”?
It means, “Stay oppressed.” “Stay beaten down.” “We are better than you.” “You don’t belong in your homeland.” “You have to obey and go away because you’re inferior.” “You don’t matter.” “You’re nothing.” “Go back to your confinement.”
Saying “Go back to the reservation” to a Native American is nothing less than agreeing with the genocide America committed against them, and doing your part to continue it.
These kids at the EMU party were most likely in their early twenties. The EMU mascot name was changed from Huron to Eagles in 1991. Think about that. These students were mostly likely born after the name had already been changed to “Eagles.”
Perhaps their parents were EMU alumni who didn’t like the name change. Shoot, maybe the whole community was upset.
But after twenty-four years?
Twenty-four years is enough time for people to grow up and get over having had to change a name based on someone else’s ethnicity and culture. These kids were born after the change was made, but either from former students or from the environment at EMU, they learned racism.
That’s right: they may not have learned this racism if they hadn’t gone to a school with an Indian mascot.
Whether it was their parents, their teachers, alumni, or just generation after generation of students, somehow racism was kept alive for twenty-four years.
So virulent a racism that not only would students get half-naked at a party and put on “redface” (they probably wouldn’t dare to do “blackface”), but they would also insult an elderly Native American, a Vietnam veteran, throw beer at him and tell him to “Go back to the reservation, you F-ing Indian!”
This is what using Native Americans as mascots does.
It not only dehumanizes Natives, but it also takes away the humanity of the person cheering the mascot:
It causes you to see Natives as less than human.
It teaches you to care more about your sports team than real living people.
It teaches you racism.
It teaches you to tell Natives to shut up and accept the results of genocide.
“A recent study (2011)…shows that many people, in fact, do not distinguish between their feelings between stereotypical Native mascots and actual, living, breathing, Native American people. Such mascots engender a racially hostile environment.”
– Dashanne Stokes, Lakota doctrinal candidate in sociology (Link)
“They’re so desensitized, they think Indian people are not real people; our children and our concerns are not real to them … They don’t think [the debate] is even real, they don’t even think it’s even worth bringing up or talking about. We’re not human beings, we’re not even part of humanity. And that’s the problem. They think of us as just something to entertain them, or mascots — relics out of a museum.”
– Ray Halbritter, representative of the Oneida Indian Nation (Link)