Appropriation of Culture

Paul D. Gonzales
San Ildefonso Pueblo

Talk-show host Larry King once said, "If a modern professional team was being formed today, they would never consider using the word 'Redskins' as the team name." So, why do names that indicate racism against Indians still exist?

Ted Turner, the television magnate, has produced a series about Indian people that has brought some recognition to them and has made Turner a great deal of money. His wife, Jane Fonda, has had a very high-profile life, helping the anti-Vietnam War movement and other such causes. Yet, when it comes to her own country, she seems to ignore the most obvious problem - that of Indian people still being referred to as second-class citizens.Turner will have you believe that he means no disrespect to the Native American by keeping the name "Braves" for his Atlanta baseball team. But ask all the Indian people how they were affected when "brave" was rubbed in their face such as, "Hey Brave, come here and bring your little squaw with you." The National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media contacted Fonda directly in hopes that she would provide them with an audience with Turner. But the Coalition's president, Dennis Banks, was given the runaround when Turner referred him to the president of the Braves. There was no action by the president of the team, Turner, or Fonda, whose only comment was, "I promise I won't do the tomahawk chop at the Braves games."

When asked about the mascot for the Cleveland Indians, "Chief Wahoo," the owner and fans say that they use him to honor Native Americans and their culture. I don't think I want my daughter and her people honored in this way. The image of Chief Wahoo looks too much like a drunken Uncle Tomahawk with a big red nose. Not exactly a hero for any child.

I used to think these concerns were insignificant compared to the many issues that my people were facing just to survive. I thought that Indian children wearing Redskins jackets was better than wearing some other offensive insignia like a skull and crossbones But I have come to realize that the many images used by the non-Indian world as mascots, logos, and club names are offensive to me and many other Indian people. It's hard enough to live with the word "Indian" because some explorer was looking for a different country to conquer.

I have a good friend, Charlene Teters (Spokane), who is a great artist, painter, and activist. For many years, as she was working her way through college and raising two children, she was a graduate student in fine arts at the University of Illinois, home of the fighting Illini. Yes, the mascot is an Indian chief. During the halftime programs "Chief Illinawic" parades around in an outfit that only a true warrior/leader should wear as a sign of the honor that his tribe recognizes he deserves.

As any good mother would, Charlene has told her children of the honors that are placed on certain people who are to be respected and looked up to. She has told me the heartbreaking story of the time she was able to take her family to the "big game" so that the children could see their basketball heroes. During halftime this ridiculous caricature, "Chief Illinawic," came out in his beautiful warrior outfit and began acting like a clown, doing flips and tumbles, and performing some phony Hollywood war dance. Her children were in shock. They cried from embarrassment as the rest of the crowd laughed. It was a long time before her children recovered from this experience. Charlene has never recovered, and since she has told me the story, neither have I.

As long as my people think that these issues are not important enough to take a stand on, we are slowly giving into our last bit of dignity and the hope of making all people understand that racism comes in many forms and all are wrong. We must begin to remove even the smallest indication of racism so all people know that someone is being hurt, that our children suffer the shame and continue to live with it.

Today, if starting a new team and developing a new mascot included anything like the New Jersey Jews, the Nebraska Negros, the Richmond Rednecks, or the Washington Redskins, we would not think twice about how offensive these names are. Today we can admit we know better.

Mr. Gonzales is the first Native president of the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA). He is the former director of the IAIA Museum and has been involved in the arts most of his life.

Reprinted with permission from the speaking column in the Summer 1996 issue of Indian Artist, P.O. Box 5465, Santa Fe, NM 87502-5465.

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