In 2015, California banned the use of the racial slur R*dsk*ns as a school mascot. Tulare complied after some struggle by replacing the slur with “Tribe”, but it continues to miss the point. On September 30th, highschoolers were broadcasted live on CBS47 Fresno making a mockery of Plains culture for all to see.
A classic image asking why it is still acceptable to make a mascot of Native peoples, but not of any other group. The “Indians” mascot is in use by the Cleveland MLB team (image: glantz.net).
The mascot issue has been brewing for a long time. I’m just going to cut to the point: It’s insulting that this issue still hasn’t been corrected, and all race-based mascots and stereotypes should be removed immediately from places of education and lucrative sports teams that make profits through the disparagement of marginalized communities.
About a year ago, California Governor Jerry Brown finally signed into legislation a bill that had been presented and vetoed a number of times in the last decade. This bill, referred to as the “R*dsk*ns” bill, effectively bans schools and sports teams in California from bearing the racial slur as a mascot or team name. The intention of the bill is to correct how Native Americans are the only race that is slurred in this way and without consequence. This would bring places of education one step closer to racial equality and cultural appreciation rather than appropriation.
Many Natives believe the R-word refers to when bloody scalps of Native people were turned in for cash awards. Native mascots seem to give a “pass” on things that are otherwise unacceptable in other races, such as “n*gg*r” or blackface (image: USA Today).
Tulare was one of several schools affected by this “R*dsk*ns” ban; however, the issue was resolved with much difficulty and students continue to wear shirts with the slur as a sign of defiance. “I think it’s going to be difficult at Union to start saying ‘Tribe’,” stated one senior at the time of the change. Another student argues that the racial slur is “who we were” and that “when you go to school, you’re meant to be a family”.
I guess that family excludes people who are actually citizens of the cultures being mocked and appropriated by fellow students.
Tulare Union Changed the Name, Not the Attitude
Within 24 hours of Tulare appearing on CBS47 Fresno live, the news clip has made it to me through the “Native grapevine”. The clip features Joe Moeller in a “Tribe” shirt bearing the Washington R*dsk*ns logo with a dance display that has no place in a public school. He posted this video along with several other images of students in the same t-shirt and even one in which the student wears a football jersey that says “R*desk*ns” across the front.
When Tulare made the conscious choice to dress a presumably* non-Native woman in white boots, a fringed dress, and a mock war bonnet, they were condoning an activity that is culture appropriating, racist, and dangerous. (*I make this assumption not because I stereotype appearances but because I believe no informed Native woman would agree to desecrating sacred symbols in this way.) The display is culture appropriation because it is taking eagle feathers (religious symbol) and a headdress (you could call this a Purple Heart equivalent) and stripping it of its meaning. It is racist because it is stereotyping tribal people as wearing such headdresses and dancing like they’re in some weird techno-Powwow (and powwows are a religious ceremony). In reality, only certain tribal nations wear headdresses – and never the women.
The students defend their mascot as a way of “honoring” a race of people, the classic excuse used by those who don’t understand what “honor” is. These kind of people don’t see the harm that they are causing to those who already have to fight hard to maintain their own identity. Furthermore, these people are are blind to how they sexualize Native women. They claim their actions are out of respect, yet they do nothing to draw attention to real issues such as the disproportionate amount of sexual violence in Indian Country. If anything, they perpetuate it.
The Problem with Sexualizing Native Women
Native Americans are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual assault than any other race. In fact, 1 in 3 Native women will be raped in her lifetime. In fact, white men who are not members of the victim’s tribal community commit the majority of sexual crimes against Native women. As more and more energy companies import non-Native workers into tribal environments to extract resources and build pipelines, we have seen these statistics rise alongside racial tension. I’ve heard words like “Indian squaw” thrown around haphazardly by such laborers in reference to Native girls as young as 14. (“Squaw” has always been used by dominant society to describe indigenous women as racially inferior, dirty whores.) The objectifying and sexualizing of Native women is degrading, dangerous, and perpetuated by the ‘Pocahottie’ stereotypes that in no way represent the high respect with which Native women are held in their respective communities.
A classic example of how sacred items are sexualized and appropriated. The model is wearing a Lakota-style headdress (Northern Plains), a Navajo-style naraja (Southwest), and other “tribal” clothing pieces that belong in neither culture (image: A Big Black Space’s Kickstarter page)
The U.S. Department of Justice is finally making efforts to acknowledge the high rates of violence against Native American women in the United States. Although movements like #MMIW (Murdered, Missing Indigenous Women) in Canada and centers like the Aspen Institute have been reciting the statistics for years, our federal government has been slow to respond. What most people probably don’t realize is many criminals have gone unpunished for their crimes. It wasn’t until last year that tribes were finally able to persecute non-Native offenders and bring justice to their communities.
In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that tribes with their own justice system and tribal courts were not allowed to prosecute non-Indians until Congress changed the law. It took 35 years before Congress even reacted by reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). In March 2015, VAWA went into effect so that tribal courts could finally have “jurisdiction over a limited number of domestic and dating violence crimes committed by non-Indians on reservations”. Before tribes were allowed to handle the cases themselves, federal attorneys were often the only lawyers who could try non-Natives, yet just as often they wouldn’t prosecute them. Imagine living in a country where your own law enforcement isn’t allowed to protect you…because that’s essentially what it was like.
End the Cultural Genocide in California
Thanks to the Spanish missions and Gold Rush of years past, the Native American genocide in California is perhaps the worst of any other place in the present-day United States. The state is juxtaposed by its legacy as a golden, beach state and its lack of human rights for indigenous peoples. From the numerous Rancherias that have struggled to regain their rights after California’s Termination policy to the continued threat of non-tribal projects to tribal resources, tribal members have more fights to win than the media will ever widely publicize. When schools like Tulare Union High School are broadcasted live touting this degree of cultural insensitivity, it only makes asserting a tribe’s authority as a distinct nation all the more challenging. Please help us to dispel the ignorance by making a stand where you see such injustices occurring. It is time we fight for true equality and become privy to the consequences of our uninformed actions, no matter how innocent we think they are.
For more about this issue in California, I encourage you to become familiar with the work of fellow Generation Indigenous member Dahkota Kicking Bear Brown.
If you wish to inform Tulare Union High School of their offenses, please support the #NotYourMascot movement by contacting them:
Tulare Union High School (Tulare, California)
“Home of the Tribe”
Board President: Frank Fernandes ([email protected])
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Photo credit: Getty Images