Roots of “Redskins”: Savages, Saints, Saviors in the American Psyche

The root of “Redskins” is the ideological stereotype of the initial savage of Hispaniola, the fearsome enemy icon of the colonial conquests, the Hostile other of the Plains wars, and finally the caricature of the once feared but now mocked dangerous Other, compliant in being released in the gladiator’s arena and told what an “honor” it is that the dominant spectators have chosen this image over the animals and undead violent gangs from the past.

While we are indeed concerned with the team name and its mascotry function, what remains central to any analysis of its importance to the broader society, is that the root of genocide and conquest, is the real reason behind the masked popularity and indeed, a desperately deep need to revel in the inferior status of the indigenous, the Native, the Indian. In other words, it is an expression of the supremacist discourse of racism.

By mocking the image, the dominants feel released from any guilt or thought of how their society came to be, or what may have happened to those peoples who preceded them in the lands they now call their own. This is why it is only in America, the “land that never was yet” according to Langston Hughes, where the image of the defamed and destroyed original people becomes so central to their popular professional sports teams.

The other reason is simple – the “Noble Savage” as the antithesis of the Hostile or Uncivilized Savage, is still a savage, is still the unreconstructed Other that needs to be obliterated in the national psyche as having any legitimacy, buried in its final phase as the painted Redface, theatrical dancing and prancing to the cheers of an audience in its self-absorbed orgy of monocular and militaristic patriotism. The terrorist enemy of today is rooted in the savage of yesterday.

Full denial of the genocide of the indigenous, requires an all-encompassing narrative, which the Redskins terminology provides in naming, and icons such as the Wahoo illustrate in a comfortable and cartoonish dehumanization of the first peoples of the land. Thus in their twisted version of how the New World came to be, these sports fans are “honoring” the savage warrior of the past, celebrating their conquest, and defining terrorism only in the violent actions of the Other, never in the “homeland” itself. Indigenous activists, scholars and leaders therefore will not, must not be satisfied if there is a name change of the Washington team, encouraging as that might be. Because the background narrative, the root “savage” of the 17th and 18th centuries linked to the redskin of the 19th century, is all about who is civilized and who is primitive, and operates to deny genocide and distort the defense of Native Nations into a civilizational discourse.

California is a case in point. The mission-forming priest Junipero Serra was the spearhead of Spanish conquest in the region, forcefully “converting” Native peoples into subordinated people at missions, where their labor built the system and provided profits for expansion. Catholic hierarchies also took advantage of the Natives coerced into the missions, as a rationale for taking lands and creating new governance that did not recognize indigenous societies or social structures. Soldiers would garrison forts and out posts for “security” and to enforce the laws, religious and secular. In many cases there was also sexual predation, often of young children. Because of these severe conditions, with high death rates and low life expectancies, nearly all missions experienced uprisings against the injustices. After they were put down, there were executions. Within a few decades, accompanied by disease and changing habitats, the numbers of native people dropped more than half, then again by half, with a demographic collapse termed genocidal or cultural genocide.

Fast forward to 2014, when relatively small numbers of surviving California Indians are bolstered by much larger Native populations from elsewhere in the United States, and by sovereignty battles often leading to economic development because of Indian Gaming, with support for telling their own stories. Historians had dubbed Father Serra as the “founder of California” and represent him as bringing people to Catholicism and Christianity, underscoring ideas of uncivilized primitive people needing religious and social guidance. These were found in museum installations, such as the one at the Huntington in 2013, where he was praised as a “savior” to the Native people.

Thus it is Western man, the priest, the scholar from great universities, the unimpeachable source who tells us how to perceive Redskins names or terms. This is higher order supremacist thought, but it’s still supremacy racism, just veiled in academic language, that obscures its deep condescending tautology of savage versus civilized savior. This ideological dualism is displayed every day in the mainstream media, with college classes seeing who is a Savior, and in saying who is a Hero in wars and rumors of wars.

Note the new movie “American Sniper” where a disgruntled Texan cowboy who grew up hunting animals in “the wild” joins the military after seeing bombings of U.S. Embassies and an Al Queda attack on the Twin Towers, becoming a SEAL sniper deployed to Iraq where he looks to kill “bad guys” and “savages” in order to save lives of his fellow soldiers, and ultimately “Americans” back home. There is wild cheering at many movie theaters at the killing of the made-up mythical “Mustapha” sniper and end of the movie, where the sniper is seen as a great hero, misunderstood at home and unable to reconcile his killing overseas. There are two huge issues to be aware of in the book, the movie, and the public American psyche that has made this the most popular January box-office movie of all time, and up for many academy awards.

First, obviously, is its use of “savage” for an enemy of the United States, or for all Americans back home, which is applied to all people from the enemy icon nations and cultural groups. Savage has its origins in the Papal Bull used to justify Columbus’s second journey and invasion, leading to the greatest genocide of its time, the Holocaust of Hispaniola, and used to justify ongoing genocides of the Spanish and English colonial conquests, finally moving into the U.S.A. fighting “merciless Indian savages” in its Declaration of Independence, and similarly in every war and killings in the 19th century, morphing into use of Redskins to underscore racial construction. Both terms are used in the build-up to Wounded Knee in 1890.

Fast forward again through its use in every non-western conflict of the next two centuries, (See The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire Building by Drinnon), to the initial briefing by General Schwarzkopf to the first Iraqi invasion, that U.S. forces were going into “Indian Country” to take out and destroy “Hostiles” (Hostiles was put into official language in the 1876 prelude to U.S. re-invasion of Lakota lands under the rubric of “Indian Country” emerging from treaty technical terms of 1830’s genocidal Indian Removals). Thus the pejorative charged term Terrorist related to Hostiles that emerged from “savage” enemy icons, used to destroy people in their own lands fighting for their own nationalities, has a consistent place in the American arsenal of seeking out and killing the Other opposed to western civilization. If not for the geography and new fears of being charged with racism, they might as well have used Redskins.

Thus the dark-skinned Mustapha character, completely fictionalized, realizes the rough “honoring” and hating of the uncivilized, “savage” enemy in the name of civilization and the good guys. His name could just as easily be Crazy Horse, Geronimo, Tecumseh, Metacom (King Phillip), Po’pay or even Anacoana, leaders of indigenous resistance movements. Without discounting the heroic endeavors of Chris Kyle, we observe how his simplistic acceptance of the enemy icon as “savage” underscores centuries of very similar military conquests, and resonates with a supremacist American creed that “honors” its enemies in Crazy Horse Saloons, or in paratroopers yelling Geronimo as they jump, (replicated in Operation Geronimo to kill OBL terrorists they earlier feared were hiding among the “tribals”) and so on it goes.

The second use is found in the dark side of the American Sniper who has returned “home” to find his massive killings haunts him, and so he makes up incredible stories of brave stands against a homeland “enemy” of black carjackers whom he kills, or of sniper killing up to thirty civilians from the New Orleans superdome when they were supposedly looting or causing mayhem. If he lived in real “Indian Country” we could easily assume both the stories and the realities would be of killing the first savages, the Indian. The book and film, and all media stories resonate with Cowboys and Indians, Good Guys and Bad Guys, Savages and Soldiers – that simply underscore the ideologies of supremacy firmly rooted in Redskins.
Our Homeland Security, itself a misnomer for all natives, becomes the guiding principle of reducing and eliminating the savage, the uncivilized, the potential Hostile from the Friendly Indian, the assimilated and fully colonized repeater of hegemonic histories that never include the Holocaust of Native Nations, terrorism toward indigenous communities, which never bring up the horrific death rates of the Mission system followed by outright genocide in the state of California, that discount the massive killings of so many communities from Mystic Lake to Wounded Knee, that refuse to see the reconstituted Savage as Hostile Other in the wars of the twentieth century.

Rather, in benign neglect and intentional cultural destruction, the American psyche (especially white American psyche) becomes comfortable in brave discoverers, saintly priests, and with heroic soldier-saviors who protect a racialized US from the dangerous hostile Other, a terror to civilized society that will torture and kill and raze villages to the ground to protect its settlers from the savage, embodied in a dancing Red-faced racist Wahoo and a capital team named Redskins. It’s time to change from the caricature of the conquered Wahoo and Redskin racist naming to imagery of respect and words of honor, a true recognition of First Nations and Indigenous Peoples.

James V. Fenelon is of Lakota/Dakota Indigeneity, is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for Indigenous Peoples Studies, United States Navy veteran, and co-author of Indigenous Peoples and Globalization (Paradigm, 2009).

Redefining the Vocabulary of Microaggressions

A new report by Harvard University’s Voices of Diversity Project (VoD) draws on interviews with at least 50 African-American, Latina/o, Asian-American and Native American students at each of four universities regarding their on-campus undergraduate experiences related to their racial/ethnic background, sex, or both. The co-authors, Paula Caplan and Jordan Ford, report on the students’ experiences of racist and sexist mistreatment that took shape in “microaggressions” or subtle, cumulative, and repetitive acts of marginalization and stereotyping.

The concept of “micro-inequities” has received considerable research attention and refers to small incidents of everyday discrimination that have replaced the more overt acts of discrimination characteristic of the pre-Civil Rights era. Micro-inequities can be unspoken, repeated messages that may be invisible to others but send devaluing messages to the targets that hinder these individuals’ performance and impact self-esteem. The vocabulary of micro-inequities dates back to the 1970’s when Mary Rowe, Ombudsperson at MIT, noted the ephemeral, difficult-to-prove events that she saw as the “principal scaffolding for discrimination in the United States.” A more extensive taxonomy of these day-to-day behavioral indignities was developed by Gerald Wing Sue and others that includes microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations.

Yet at what point do “micro-aggressions” become “macro-aggressions”? Take the experiences of mistreatment cited by a Latina senior quoted in the VoD study: “I go nuts. I do….it hurts so much, so much, it’s indescribable the way it makes you feel” (p. 40). The Latina senior goes on to say, “My whole body becomes hot, and your eyes automatically become glassy, because you just feel so inferior….” Or the commentary of an African-American male student, “What can I do? I feel useless. I’m being hurt by this person. It’s messing with me emotionally.” The profound psychological damage caused by racism is not adequately captured in the term “micro-inequity” or “micro-aggression.” As Joe Feagin points out in Systemic Racism (2006), the pain of racism is part of lived experience and to begin to even calculate its costs “one would need to add…the other personal, family, and community costs over the centuries—the intense pain and suffering, the physical and psychological damage, the rage over injustice, and the huge loss of energy” that could have been used for other purposes (p. 20). Perhaps we need a new vocabulary to identify these high costs.

Similarly, consider the example that Alvin Evans and I cite in our new book, The Department Chair as Transformative Diversity Leader (2015) of an African American faculty member who became the first African American department chair at his religiously-affiliated university. When he was first hired as one of the few African American faculty at that institution, a religious studies professor whose office was next to his refused to speak with him for 10 years:

He didn’t talk to me for 10 years, not a word. . . . He didn’t believe I was qualified, he didn’t believe that I was a real intellectual, I was only hired so that the university could say that we had Black professors.

In fact, the religious studies professor would talk about the African American faculty member with his door wide open so he could hear. Later, when the African American faculty member became chair, the religious studies professor had to speak with him. The chair would regularly ask him a question about diversity. The religious studies professor would inevitably answer, “I think we’re already diverse.” Needless to say, the chair was not invited to the religious studies professor’s retirement dinner.

Or in another interview study in 2012, we similarly found examples of the pain caused by exclusionary practices and behaviors in the workplace. For example, Claudia, an African-American administrator, was singled out in a staff meeting by her white male supervisor who was speaking of African-Americans in general: “Oh, I don’t mean you. You’re different, you’re an Oreo.’ Claudia responded, “You know, I’m sorry I think that most people would recognize that as being a racial slur.” The supervisor replied, “Oh I don’t mean that. You are one of them that has common sense.” The repeated actions of the supervisor caused Claudia extreme physical and psychological anguish:

When I had that very discriminatory supervisor, I had extremely high blood pressure. I was on three medications. They were at the maximum dosage and my blood pressure was still uncontrollable. My doctor kept telling me I needed to quit my job because he was said I was going to die. He said I was going to just have a stroke or heart attack because my blood pressure was so high.

These examples across the spectrum of students, faculty, and administrators illustrate the long-term psychological and physical damage resulting from what are more than microaggressions (actually, macroaggressions).

To counteract such practices, the Harvard VoD Project identifies the proactive work undertaken by Missouri State University, one of the institutional participants, to address the “silent suffering” of targets of racism and sexism and ensure that the experiences of minoritized students, faculty of color, and women are heard.

As Mark Warren indicates in Fire in the Heart (2010), building community is a process that must move us from passivity to positive action by “breaking down that separateness and achieving something that is more than the sum of the parts” (p. 229). To do so, we must first face the difficult realities that the VoD identifies and then move toward a deepened collective understanding and common vocabulary that help us activate and operationalize practices that enhance inclusion on our campuses.

Native Americans Mark Thanksgiving with ‘National Day of Mourning’ Protests


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Today, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Native Americans will gather to mark a “National Day of Mourning,” as they have for more than 40 years. The protests began in 1970 by Wamsutta Frank James and are carried on by his son, Moonaum James.


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In an interview with the Boston Globe, James said demonstrators are not against Thanksgiving, but rather want to “correct the history” of the holiday that suggests that the Pilgrims and Native Americans coexisted peacefully. “We’re not there to condemn, and not there to do anything other than point out some truths,” he said.



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It’s expected that more than 100 people will gather today at noon and then continue with rallies at Plymouth Rock and at the site of the Metacomet (King Philip) historical marker to remember the Native Americans who died after the Europeans arrived in the 1600s and to highlight the struggles some Native Americans face today.


Not Just Symbolic: The Harm of Indian Mascots

When seeing the dancing “Redskin” Wahoo fan below, many Americans think it’s okay as it’s “just fun,” or it is some kind of twisted way to “honor” Indians, or it’s “only a symbol” not meant to hurt anyone. However, there are real, pernicious effects coming from the public display and theatrical racism of these symbols and “race” costumes and all the antics that are an integral part of their use and history.

Protestor dressed as "Wahoo"

(Image Source)


When I was participating with the Black Hills Cultural Institute held in Spearfish, South Dakota, primarily for school districts on the Rosebud and other Lakota / Dakota “Indian reservations” with large numbers of Indian students, news came that the mainstream academic and media had finally acknowledged that the bodies of some of the Dakota men hung at Mankato by the United States military government, had indeed been immediately exhumed and given to those requesting the body parts, especially a prominent doctor in Minnesota (Dr. Mayo who later founded the famous clinic under his name).

Dakota survivors had long said they had done this, and much worse, but were always mocked and discounted. As a great grandson of Mayo apologized and returned the skeletal and other remains, (including skins made into lampshades and bones with tattooed numbers on them) the newspapers duly reported the genocidal stories as being true. One Dakota woman teacher of our group started crying, and then weeping, as we discussed this during a break in our workshops on “historical grief” and “generational trauma” for Indian descendants of these and many other infamous massacres. Finally consoled by her Dakota relatives, when asked what was the matter, she said “He was my great-grandfather, they are talking about my grandfather! My grandmother cried every night, and told us what they had done, and no one believed us and called us “liars” and worse, but we always knew our relatives were telling the truth.”


Postcard of Sioux  Hanging
The Hanging of the 38 on Dec. 26, 1862
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It is hard to imagine a more direct cause-and-effect of mass killings, or in this case of a mass execution, the largest government sanctioned hanging in our country’s history, than to see and hear from those who survived and yet were never allowed to tell their stories, much less be acknowledged how deep their grief may be. Symbols such as “Chief Wahoo” and team names and words such as “Redskins” racially categorize Native peoples as less than fully human, and harken back to terms such as “savages” (literally used in the Declaration of Independence) that depict “Indians” as uncivilized and war-like.

Actually, these terms have been used in genocidal attacks against both my bloodlines – the Dakota after the 1862 Mankato hangings as Minnesota offered “$200 for every Redskin sent to Purgatory” with proof from scalps or “dead bodies” for the bounty, and the Lakota as prelude to the killings of our families at Wounded Knee when newspapers stirred up racial hatred with headlines such as “Old Sitting Bull Stirring Up the Excited Redskins” and “Some Bad Redskins” with Big Foot in the winter of 1890.


Mass Burial at Wounded Knee

Picture of mass burial site at Wounded Knee
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In the denial of massacres and genocide and destructive conquest across the land, we must understand that these histories are not taught in the schools and universities of our nation, and they are not often  taught in the curriculum where Indian peoples attend. When I was giving my 1890 Ghost Dance on Standing Rock lectures as a Humanities Scholar at the High School in Fort Yates on the reservation, a few students came forward and would not leave, with one missing his bus ride to Bullhead because he wanted to talk after everyone left. It turns out his relatives had died at Wounded Knee, including headsman Big Foot, and this not only was never discussed in his classes, but was actually discouraged.

But with real relatives who experience the trauma of unresolved grief and unacknowledged wrongs, great psychological harm is transferred across generations.

It is amazing that a large portion of American society does not see this as racism, or even as hurtful, discounting both research and testimony of scholars and Native leaders and traditionals, and research, in how these images, names and antics cause psychological and cultural harm to Native children,


In their book Missing the Point: The Real Impact of Native Mascots and Team Names on American Indian and Alaska Native Youth, Erik Stegman and Victoria Phillips found that studies show such names contribute to a negative educational environment:

“Research shows that these team Indian-oriented names and mascots can establish an unwelcome and hostile learning environment for AI/AN students. It also reveals that the presence of AI/AN mascots directly results in lower self-esteem and mental health for AI/An adolescents and young adults. And just as importantly, studies show that these mascots undermine the educational experience of all students, particularly those with little or no contact with indigenous and AI/AN people. In other words, these stereotypical representations are too often understood as factual representations and thus “contribute to the development of cultural biases and prejudices.”


This kind of racism is repeated in the team fight songs for sports teams, for example in  “Hail to the Redskins,” the lyrics that fans sing are:

“Hail to the Redskins, Hail Victory, Braves on the Warpath, Fight for Old D.C.!… Scalp ‘um, swamp ‘um, we will take’um big score….”

These lyrics were written by Corrine Marshall, wife of R*dskins owner George Marshall.
American Indians have been experiencing a Renaissance of cultural revitalization. Part of this revitalization has been through work done with the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development.  This project has found the most productive efforts are those that emphasize “nation-building” where Native peoples utilize the skills that focus on Sovereignty, Institutions, Culture and Leadership Matters. Each of these critically important areas is in direct contrast with the images and words that mascots and racial team names represent. Native children are usually taught that eagle feathers are given in respect to those who earn them, whether for civic leadership, defending the people in war, or as living with the values the elders teach – so it’s insulting and confusing when they see these plastic and turkey feathers in mock behavior of sports fans. American Indian students are taught they are the descendants of Nations and societies worthy of recognition, respect, and even reverence – so when fans go “whup-whup-whup!” as they yell “Go Tribe” or “Kill Redskins” with Tomahawk chops and little fake scalps over painted faces, their heritage is called into question. Indigenous youth are instructed in ceremonies and traditions that are culturally valuable and sacred – even as be-feathered racist antics suggest that Americans mock and denigrate their cultures.

There is abundant evidence to support the negative impact of these racist stereotypes on children in indigenous cultures, such as Stephanie A. Fryberg, lead author of a 2008 study, Of Warrior Chiefs and Indian Princesses: The Psychological Consequences of American Indian Mascots. Most recently, Michael A. Friedman compiled a report on various studies in his The Harmful Psychological Effects of the Washington Football Mascot.


Redskins Fan (Image source)


American Indian students are involved in consciousness-raising over these issues and becoming more outspoken on the harmful effects that these represent to them as individuals and as tribal members. Recent studies are documenting these statements. The following are quotes from Indians that Stegman and Phillips spoke with on their views about names and mascots.

Dahkota Kicking Bear Brown, Miwok student and football player:

“One of our school’s biggest rivals is the Calaveras Redskins. … Worst of all, the most offensive stuff doesn’t even come from the Redskins. It comes from their rival schools, mine included. I have heard my own friends yelling around me, ‘Kill the Redskins!’ or ‘Send them on the Trail of Tears!'”

Joaquin Gallegos, Jicarilla Apache Nation and Santa Ana Pueblo:

“The issue impacts me because as long as the Washington football team and others retain pejoratives as names, mascots, and are allowed to do so, it says that it is ok to marginalize me, my family, and Indian country—that it is ok for Native peoples to remain on the periphery of American consciousness.”

Sarah Schilling, Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians:

“I distinctly remember listening to a radio talk show one morning discussing changing the mascot of a local northern Michigan school because it poorly depicted Native American people. Non-Native people defending the mascot seemed to populate the airtime. They all spoke about school and community pride, or fond high school memories. A Native American mascot seemed to have nothing to do with actual Native American people to them. A white person’s school pride was put above a Native American person’s sense of identity. A white person’s fond memories were more important than a Native American youth attending a school they felt still wore the mascot of oppression.”

Cierra Fields, Cherokee, member of the NCAI’s Youth Cabinet:

When I see people wearing headdresses and face paint or doing the tomahawk chop, it makes me feel demeaned. The current society does not bother to learn that our ways, customs, dress, symbols and images are sacred. They claim it’s for honor but I don’t see the honor in non-Natives wearing face paint or headdresses as they are not warriors and who have earned the right. My heritage and culture is not a joke. My heritage and culture is not a fashion statement. For me, it ultimately boils down to respect.


Even more surprising is that defenders of these sports mascots, particularly the Washington Redskins, deny any negative effects and even claim that Native Americans broadly support their use, up to 90% according to one poll quoted ad nauseam by team owners and fans. This is where bad social science intersects with institutional racism, and where my work on similar issues some 20 years ago in Cleveland needs to be redressed for Washington. In my earlier research, we ran our own survey with American Indian respondents, and the results are more in line with what we know Native peoples are feeling and talking about, finding the “large majority of American Indians, when properly identified and polled, find the team name offensive, disrespectful and racist.”



Wahoo shirt

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That research found that American Indians were 67% in agreement, 12% were neutral and 20% disagreed with the statement: “The Redskins team name is a racial or racist word and symbol.” Whites were 33% in agreement, 26% neutral, and 41% disagreed the term was racial, generally the reverse of American Indian responses. The neutral category played a significant role for whites in allowing them to not be seen as “racist” – upon further analysis more than 60% of whites reject the term Redskins as racist, while more than 60% of Indians see the term Redskins as racist.

We released the results of this study in the spring of 2014, but got little attention from mainstream media outlets. The Washington Post interviewed me about methods, asking who did the collecting (“were they Indian?”) and so on, but have not, to date, reported on it. The dismissal and denial of Indian genocide and its lasting effects runs deep in most sectors of American society, especially those cities and universities still employing these racial mascots.

Some twenty years ago I took my first tenure line position at a Jesuit university just outside Cleveland, Ohio, where the most pernicious sports mascot icon exists, the “Chief Wahoo” of the Cleveland Indians baseball team.   Just as in Washington, they claimed it was to “honor” Native peoples or it had nothing to do with race or Indians, sometimes in the same sentence response to our survey on such attitudes. Again, how can reasonable people make such claims to any of these racial sports mascots, much less the two most egregious examples, the Washington “Redskins” and the Cleveland Indians’ “Chief Wahoo”?

Some forty and more years since this issue was first charged to the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians, we still have “be-feathered, dancing Chiefs” in straight-out racist antics, with clear connections to the worst practices of genocidal racism in our nation’s history. We still have white elites, such as George Will and Dan Snyder  supporting and defending these deeply racist images and names, citing popular support and bogus polls, and denying this is just the same-old racism of yesteryear. And we still have Native American children suffering from having been surrounded by these racist images and words, and Indigenous students in conflict with what they are taught in their schools and textbooks.

When will America wake up, and see that the perpetuation of these racist images and terms is an ongoing insult to Indigenous Peoples and Native Nation?


~ James Fenelon, Professor of Sociology & Director of Center for Indigenous Peoples Studies, California State University-San Bernardino

George Will, White Elites, Justify Use of “Redskins”

White elites who first developed the terminology of Indians, Savages and Redskins, are now desperately trying to justify that racist language.

George Will has been the latest to weigh in on this defense of racial privilege and hegemony, while abusing the English language. In a column titled “The government decided ‘Redskins’ bothers you“,  Will arrogantly dismisses the controversy as the result of “some people” who are “professionally indignant” and chides what he sees as the overreach of government into being coercive “about wedding cakes and team names.” 

KKK discuss term "redskins"

Cartoon by Marty Two Bulls, Indian Country Today

Will insults the lead plaintiff, Amanda Blackhorse, Navajo, in a long-fought suit on trademark protections from the Washington Redskins, that itself borders on direct racism, then he “discovers” an infamous school on the reservation that uses the moniker Red Mesa High School Redskins, and then states All Navajo support its use, when if he had done the most basic homework, would have found the Navajo Tribal Council has recently condemned its use for professional sports.

But Will is not satisfied insulting Amanda Blackhorse and the Navajo Tribal Council, but goes on to repeat the mantra-like falsehoods that “90% of Natives support” the Redskins team name usage, even as my own survey work underscores that a majority of 67% of Native Americans say “Redskins” is offensive and see it as racist, a point reinforced in work I did on the (chief) Wahoo racist icon nearly 20 years ago with similar findings. The dominant society and its white elite discourse masters simply ignore any evidence that doesn’t support what they say, and this is acceptable to a general public that wants to believe these icons and words don’t really matter.


R2 chiefy R3 helmet R4 wahoo plain2


In his racist rant, Will states “The federal agency acted in the absence of general or Native American revulsion about “Redskins,” and probably because of this absence.” Even without acknowledging recent work on this issue, the National Congress of American Indians (representing 30% of Native people in the U.S.) has been criticizing this and other mascots use for more than twenty years, along with most other Native organizations, especially those in higher education.  Will and a host of others systematically ignore Native Americans, leading Indian organizations, and the voices of their supporters and then report false information that seems to support their position, created by a dominant elite to justify its position and use of racist icons and team names. They also just flat out lie about these issues, such as their claim it is only recently an issue, when the same newspaper the Washington Post has the article “The Great Redskins Name Debate of … 1972?” stating that “people have been complaining, very publicly, about it since at least 1972. At the Washington Post’s DC Sports Bog, Steinberg presents excerpts from eight articles published in 1971-72 that challenge the name, as well as an editorial cartoon from the same era.”


1972 Cartoon


Cartoon from 1972

This is also found in Will’s support for genocidal discourse, using a Choctaw set of words for Oklahoma in justifying an English word of R*dskins, and forgetting or ignoring that the state was originally called “Indian Country” by the United States that forced the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek and Chickasaw into those lands by what nearly all scholars call Genocide in what is known as the Trail of Tears.

Will makes reference to a study done by Ives Goddard from the Smithsonian Institution that finds Blackhawk as the first being recorded to use R*dskins, even as he leads a notable fight in resistance to U.S. invasion and conquest, and from there they decide that Native peoples invented the term as a benign description of themselves. This nonsense is underscored by reference to William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame) as a great influence over many students and leaders who learned from him, when Clark’s most powerful racist statement is in calling the Tetonwan Sioux (Lakota) the most “miscreant, savage race of people in the world” underscoring the rationale for the upcoming conquest of the Great Plains.


R5 Scalp D Review(Image from The History Commons)

All of this matters precisely because George Will is an erudite, refined columnist with a great command of language and meaning, however conservative his politics may be. Not only is Will ignorantly wrong, but he is playing to language that arose from the vast genocides of the 16th and 17th centuries where bounties were indeed paid for “scalps” of “Indian” men, women and children, all across this great land, going through the origin of the R word around 1800 (if accurate) and actually in print in 1863 Minnesota where the R word was used interchangeably with Savage, Indian and on the list goes.



R6 Bounty Minn 1863

“State reward for dead Indians” news clipping from The Daily Republican, 1863


In our research, we find the same conditions from studies done on the Wahoo to more recent work on the Redskins, including that 1.) institutionalized “white racism” (Feagin, Joe and Vera, Hernan.  1995.  White racism: The Basics, New York: Routledge) is evidenced in the display, distribution, and defense of the racial icon Chief Wahoo, and the team name Redskins; 2.) ethnic group orientation towards symbolic issues is influenced by perceptions of one’s own group interests, Gamson’s “framing” (Gamson, William. 1995. “Constructing Social Protest” in Social Movements and Culture edited by H. Johnston and B. Klandermans, Pp 85-106.  Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press)  of the issue (such as what Will does above) ; 3.) the racialized content and target of iconic symbols is controlled by dominant groups and a white elite  (Fenelon, J. “Indians Teaching About Indigenous Issues: How and Why the Academy Discriminates” American Indian Quarterly, Volume 27, number 1 & 2 (2004: pgs. 177-188) ; and 4.) collective ethnic group activism on racism is more likely to cause changes in perceptions of whites.

Dakota Conflict Concentration Camp (Image source) 


The George Wills of an educated elite join with the Snyders of an institutional  sports elite, to reinforce racist team names and sports mascots, deny their historical roots in genocide, redefine their meanings as benign or as honor, distort social science to fit the rationales, and denigrate those who resist their “white racism” calling them as “in the business of being offended” and “professionally indignant” as if their Native roots are cut off from the rest of Indigenous America. Will even ends his column in discussing these “serious matters” as including “comity in a diverse nation, civil discourse,” and “not only how we make decisions, but how we decide what needs to be decided, and who will do the deciding.”


Inadvertently Will touches on the heart of the matter. Will, Snyder and many other white elites want to define what race means and what qualifies as racism, with the foundationally racist and genocidal term Redskins twisted to mean “honor” and with Native leaders dismissed as radical outliers, so that racist rationales, words, images and denigrating statements can continue to be used with flagrant arrogance, and deep supremacist ideologies. As Joe Feagin points out, “white elite men get to decide what is, and is not, offensive and get to go unnamed as the racist progenitors in the first place.”


 ~ Guest blogger James Fenelon, is Lakota/Dakota, and serves as the Director of Center for Indigenous Peoples Studies and Professor of Sociology, at California State University – San Bernardino. 

Why do Many Whites Love Racist Epithets? The R-Word Again

James Fenelon and I are quoted a good bit in a fine Native American website article on the racist “Redskins” defenses by the DC team and many of its fiercest fans. Here.

Fenelon has done the only survey of real (vetted) Native Americans that I have seen. As the article quotes him:

Fenelon collected data for a poll about what “real Natives” thought about the baseball team. He went to large pow wows in the Cleveland area, and related events, and polled people individually, making sure that “at a high level of certainty” their tribal identity was legitimate; and that all who claimed Native ancestry were actually American Indian. “American Indians are the hardest to poll,” said Fenelon, who squeezed in an interview on his way to work. “And that’s because a lot of them claim to be Native, but it’s often dubious.”

Read more at Indian Country Today.

The Untold Story of the Iroquois Influence on Early Feminists

For 20 years I had immersed myself in the writings of early United States women’s rights activists — Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826-1898), Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), Lucretia Mott (1793-1880) — yet I could not fathom how they dared to dream their revolutionary dream. Living under the ideological hegemony of nineteenth-century United States, they had no say in government, religion, economics, or social life (“the four-fold oppression” of their lives, Gage and Stanton called it.) Whatever made them think that human harmony — based on the perfect equality of all people, with women absolute sovereigns of their lives — was an achievable goal?

Surely these white women, living under conditions of virtual slavery, did not get their vision in a vacuum. Somehow they were able to see from point A, where they stood — corseted, ornamental, legally nonpersons — to point C, the “regenerated” world Gage predicted, in which all repressive institutions would be destroyed. What was point B in their lives, the earthly alternative that drove their feminist spirit — not a utopian pipe dream but a sensible, do-able paradigm?

Then I realized I had been skimming over the source of their inspiration without noticing it. My own unconscious white supremacy had kept me from recognizing what these prototypical feminists kept insisting in their writings: They caught a glimpse of the possibility of freedom because they knew women who lived liberated lives, women who had always possessed rights beyond their wildest imagination — Iroquois women.

The more evidence I uncovered of this indelible Native American influence on the vision of early United States feminists, the more certain I became that this story must be told.


A Vision of Everyday Decency

It is difficult for white Americans today to picture the extended period in history when — before the United States government’s Indian-reservation system, like apartheid, concretized a separation of the races in the last half of the nineteenth century — regular trade, cultural sharing, even friendship between Native Americans and Euro-Americans was common. Perhaps nowhere was this now-lost social ease more evident than in the towns and villages in upstate New York where Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage lived, and Lucretia Mott visited. All three suffragists personally knew Iroquois women, citizens of the six-nation confederacy (Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, and later Tuscarora) that had established peace among themselves before Columbus came to this “old” world.

Stanton, for instance, sat across the dinner table from Oneida women during her frequent visits to her cousin, the radical social activist Gerrit Smith, in Peterboro. Smith’s daughter, also named Elizabeth, was first to shed the 20 pounds of clothing that, fashion dictated, should hang from a white woman’s waist, dangerously deformed from corseting. The reform costume Elizabeth Smith adopted (named the “Bloomer” after the newspaper editor who popularized it) bore an uncanny resemblance to the loose-fitting tunic and leggings worn by the two Elizabeth’s’ Native American friends.

Gage, appointed by a women’s rights convention in the 1850’s, worked on a committee with New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley to document the woefully few jobs open to white women. Meanwhile she knew hardy, nearby Onondaga women who farmed corn, beans, and squash — nutritionally balanced and ecologically near-perfect crops called the Three Sisters by the Haudenosaunee (traditional Iroquois).

Lucretia Mott and her husband, James, were members of the Indian committee of the Philadelphia yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends. For years this committee of Quakers befriended the Seneca, setting up a school and model farm at Cattaraugus and helping them save some of their territory from unscrupulous land speculators. In the summer of 1848 Mott spent a month a Cattaraugus witnessing women share in discussion and decision-making as the Seneca nation reorganized their governmental structure. Her feminist vision fired by that experience, Mott traveled that July from the Seneca nation to nearby Seneca Falls, where she and Stanton held the world’s first women’s rights convention.

Stanton, Gage, and Mott regularly read newspaper accounts of everyday Iroquois activities — a recent condolence ceremony (to mourn a chief’s death and to set in place a new one); the latest sports scores (a lacrosse match between the Mohawk and the Onondaga); a Quaker council called to ask Seneca women to leave their fields and work in the home (as the Friends said God commanded but as Mott opposed). Stanton, Gage, and Mott could also read that according to interviews with white teachers at various Indian nations, Indian men did not rape women. Front page stories admonished big-city dandies to learn a thing or two from Indian men’s example, so that white women too could walk around any time of the day or night without fear.

In the United States, until women’s rights advocates began the painstaking task of changing state laws, a husband had the legal right to batter his wife (to interfere would “upset the domestic tranquility of the home,” one state supreme court held). but suffragists lived as neighbors to men of other nations whose religious, legal, social, and economic concept of women mad such behavior unthinkable. Haudenosaunee spiritual practices were spelled out in an oral tradition called the Code of Handsome Lake, which told this cautionary tale (as reported by a white woman who was a contemporary of Stanton and Gage) of what would befall batterers in the after life:

[A man] who was in the habit of beating his wife, was led to the red-hot statue of a female, and requested to treat it as he had done his wife. He commenced beating it, and the sparks flew out and were continually burning him. Thus would it be done to all who beat their wives.

To Stanton, Gage, Mott, and their feminist contemporaries, the Native American conception of everyday decency, nonviolence, and gender justice must have seemed the promised land.

A Vision of Power and Security

As a feminist historian, I did not at first pay attention to such references to American Indian life because I believed what I had been taught: that Native American women were poor, downtrodden “beasts of burden” (as they were often called in the nineteenth century). I did not know what I was looking for, so of course I could not see it.

I remembered that in the early 1970’s some feminist historians flirted with the idea of prehistoric matriarchies on which to pin women’s egalitarian hopes. Anthropologists soon set us straight about such nonsense. the evidence just wasn’t there, they said. But Paula Gunn Allen, a Laguna Pueblo/Sioux author and scholar, believed otherwise. “Before we decide,” she wrote in 1981,

that belief in ancient matriarchal civilization is an irrational concept born of conjecture and wish, let us adjust our perspective to match that of our foresisters. Then, when we search the memories and lore of tribal peoples, we might be able to see what eons and all kinds of institutions have conspired to hide from our eyes… The evidence is all around us. It remains for us to discover what it means.

Allen’s words opened by eyes, threw into question everything I thought I knew about the nineteenth-century women’s movement, and sent me on a wholly new course of historical discovery. The results shook the foundation of the feminist theory I had been teaching for almost 20 years.

About eight years ago, early in my new phase of research, I sat in the kitchen of Alice Papineau-Dewasenta, an Onondaga clan mother. Over iced tea, Alice described to me the unbroken custom by which traditional Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) clan mothers nominate the male chiefs who go on to represent their clans in the Grand Council. She listed the qualifications: “First, they cannot have committed a theft. Second, they cannot have committed a murder. Third, they cannot have sexually assaulted a woman.”

There goes Congress! I thought to myself. Then a wishful fantasy occurred: What if only women in the United States chose governmental representatives and, like Haudenosaunee women, alone had the right “to knock the horns off the head,” as Stanton marveled — to oust officials if they failed to represent the needs of the people unto the seventh generation?

If I am so inspired by Alice’s words to dream today, imagine how the founding feminists felt as they beheld the Iroquois world. For instance, shortly after Matilda Joslyn Gage was arrested in 1893 at her home in New York for the “crime” of trying to vote in a school board election, she was adopted into the Wolf clan of the Mohawk nation and given the name Karonienhawi (Sky Carrier). In the Mohawk nation, women alone had the authority to nominate the chief, after counseling with all the people of the clan. What must it have meant to Gage to know of such real-life political power?

And Elizabeth Cady Stanton — called a heretic and worse for advocating divorce laws that would allow women to leave loveless and dangerous marriages — admired the model of divorce Iroquois style: “No matter how many children or whatever goods he might have in the house,” Stanton informed the National council of women convention in 1891, the “luckless husband or lover who was too shiftless to do his share of the providing” in an Iroquois marriage “might at any time be ordered to pick up his blanket and budge; and after such an order it would not be healthful for him to attempt to disobey.” What must it have meant to Stanton to know of such real-life domestic security?

A Vision of Radical Respect

While early women’s rights activists began to be successful in changing some repressive laws, an ensuing backlash in the 1870’s resulted in the criminalization of birth control and family planning; and child custody remained the right of fathers. How then, did Stanton and her daughter Harriot envision “voluntary motherhood” — a revolutionary alternative to the patriarchal family, with women controlling their own bodies and having rights to the children they bore? Well, a short distance from the Stanton home in Seneca Falls, the Seneca women practiced it.

Among the Haudenosaunee, family lineage was reckoned through mothers; no child was born a “bastard” (the concept didn’t exist); every child found a loving and welcome place in a mother’s world, surrounded by a mother’s sisters, her mother, and the men whom they married. Unmarried sons and brothers lived in this large extended family, too, until they left home to marry into another matrilocal clan. Stanton envied how American Indian women “ruled the house” and how “descent of property and children were in the female line.” Gage, while serving as president of the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1875, penned a series of admiring articles about the Iroquois for the New York Evening Post in which she wrote that the “division of power between the sexes in its Indian republic was nearly equal” while the Iroquois family structure “demonstrated woman’s superiority in power.” For these white women living in a world where marital rape was commonplace and forbidden by neither church nor state (although the Comstock Laws of the 1870’s outlawed discussion of it), Indian women’s violence-free and empowered home life must have looked like heaven.

It wasn’t simply that Euro-American women had no rights; once they married they had no legal existence. “The two shall become one and the one is the man,” preached Christianity. This canon (church) law had been turned into common law, according to which married women were legally dead; therefore married women could not have custody of their children or rights to their own property or earnings, sign contracts, sue or be sued, or vote.

Until women’s rights advocates began to change divorce laws in the last half of the nineteenth century, divorce was not allowed by church or state. Women fleeing from a violent husband could be returned to him by the police, as runaway slaves were returned to their master. Husbands could will away an unborn child, and the baby would be taken from its mother and given to its “rightful owner.” and until the Married Women’s Property Acts were slowly enacted state by state throughout the nineteen century, any money a wife earned or inherited belonged outright to her husband.

A married woman was “nameless, purseless and childless,” Stanton summed up, though she be “a woman, heiress and mother.” Calling for an end to this injustice, the early suffragists were labeled hopeless dreamers for imaging a world so clearly against nature, and worse, heretics for daring to question God’s divine plan.

From her firsthand knowledge of the Iroquois, Stanton knew that the patriarchal “women’s sphere” was not universal. When called a “savage,” for instance, for practicing natural childbirth, Stanton rebutted her critics by mocking their use of the word, pointing out that Indian women “do not suffer” giving birth — thus it was absurd to suppose “that only enlightened Christian women are cursed” by painful, difficult childbirth. Stanton, whose major work, The Woman’s Bible, was published in 1895, became convinced that the oppression of women was not divinely inspired at all. “The Bible,” she wrote,

makes woman a mere after thought in creation; the author of evil; cursed in her maternity; a subject in marriage; and claims divine authority for this fourfold bondage, this wholesale desecration of the mothers of the race. I do not believe God ever wrote or inspired such sentiments.

Gage agreed, naming the church the “bulwark” of women’s oppression. “In the name of religion,” Gage wrote in Woman, Church and State, published in 1893, “the worst crimes against humanity have ever been perpetrated.”

In the 1890’s, when the religious right tried to destroy religious freedom by placing God in the Constitution and prayer in public schools, and by pushing a conservative political agenda, Stanton and Gage (Mott had died) determined to challenge the church. Their theory held that women in indigenous cultures had respect and authority in egalitarian and woman-centered societies that worshipped a female deity. This matriarchal system was overthrown, Stanton contended, when “Christianity putting the religious weapon into man’s hand made his conquest complete.”

A common mythology held that Christianity and civilization meant progress for women, but Stanton and Gage saw through it. At the 1888 International Council of Women, they listened as Alice Fletcher, a noted white ethnographer, spoke about the greater rights of American Indian women. Fletcher made clear that these Indian women were well aware that when they became United States citizens, they would lose their rights. Fletcher quoted one woman who told her:

As an Indian woman I was free. I owned by home, my person, the work of my own hands, and my children should never forget me. I was better as an Indian woman than under white law.

Fletcher also quoted an Indian man who reproached white men: “Your laws show how little your men care for their women. The wife is nothing of herself.” He was not alone in chastising white men for their domination of women. A Tuscarora chief, Elia Johnson, wiring about the absence of rape among Iroquois men in his popular 1881 book, Legends, Traditions and Laws, of the Iroquois, or Six Nations…, commented wryly that European men had held the same respect for women “until they became civilized”. A Cayuga chief, Dr. Peter Wilson, addressing the New York Historical Society in 1866, encouraged white men to use the occasion of Southern reconstruction to establish universal suffrage, “even of the women, as in his nation.” Today, try as I might, I cannot begin to imagine how such Iroquois men’s radical respect for women’s lives must have sounded to early feminists’ ears.

A Vision of Responsibilities

A few years ago I was invited to lecture at the annual Elizabeth Cady Stanton birthday tea in Seneca Falls with Audrey Shenandoah, the Onondaga nation Deer clan mother. A crowd of my feminist contemporaries packed the elegant, century-old hotel, and I spoke of my deep gratitude for the profound influence of the Iroquois on early feminists’ vision of women’s rights.

Than Audrey talked matter-of-factly about the responsibilities of Haudenosaunee women in their system of gender balance. Iroquois women continue to have the responsibility of nominating, counseling, and keeping in office the male chief who represents the clan in the grand council. In the six nations of the Iroquois confederacy, she explained, Haudenosaunee women have worked with the men to successfully guard their sovereign political status against persistent attempts to turn them into United Stated citizens. In Audrey’s direct and simple telling, the social power of the Haudenosaunee women seemed almost unremarkable — “We have always had these responsibilities,” she said. I caught my breath again, remembering that radical suffragists also knew such women who lived their vision.

My feminist terminology, I realized, had revealed my cultural bias. Out of habit I had referred to women’s empowerment as women’s “rights.” But for Iroquois women who have maintained many of their traditional ways despite two centuries of white America’s attempts to “civilize and Christianize” them, the concept of women’s “rights” actually has little meaning. to the Haudenosaunee, it is simply their way of life. Their egalitarian relationships and their political authority are a reality that — like my foresisters — I still but dream.

Mother Earth Does Not Revolve Around the Son: An Afterward

I arrive, hurried, at the home of Ethel, a friend with whom I work. We have exactly an hour to meet, squeezed into a tight travel schedule. After pleasantries we get down to business, moving along at a smooth clip, and it looks as if we will finish on time when suddenly her son enters. A strapping 17-year-old, he fills the room with his presence. Ethel beams at him and hangs on his every word as he describes his teachers’ deadlines, clean uniform needs, other mundane details of his day. Virginia Woolf got it right: His mother’s admiring gaze reflects him twice life size. He never acknowledges my presence, she doesn’t introduce us, and our work is forgotten. When finally he walks out, Ethel and I scramble to tie up loose ends, some of which still dangle as I dash out the door.

Ethel is Euro-American; her son stands poised to inherit the world.

A week later I sit in my friend Jeanne’s living room, enjoyably chatting. I hear her 17-year-old son in the kitchen rattling pans, perhaps cooking or washing dishes. Minutes later he appears and places cups of tea in front of us, his gift offered unobtrusively, his demeanor without display. I look up to thank him but he is gone, his back already turned as he repairs to the kitchen. Jeanne seems not even to notice, and our conversation continues.

Jeanne is Onondaga, a Haudenosaunee, descended from the traditional, “pagan” Iroquois –those who refused to be “Christianized” and “civilized.” Her son recognized his mother, and all women, as the center of the culture.

Such sons of such mothers belonged to our foresisters’ vision, too. They are sons who learned from their fathers to respect the sovereignty of women. They are sons of a tradition in which rape and battering of women was virtually unknown until white contact.

~ This post was re-blogged from and brought to our attention by Jennifer Reft (@refpt). The post was written by Sally Roesch Wagner and was originally published in the On the Issues, Winter 1996.

The Superbowl Ad You Won’t See, but Should

The National Congress of American Indians did not have the funds to run this ad during the Super Bowl. You should watch it and share it anyway.

Want to get involved? Here’s how to contact the DC team, the NFL, and the DC team’s hometown paper: DC Team Roger Goodell & NFL @NFL @NFLcommish Washington Post DC’s hometown paper is still using the R-word in its coverage of the team.

More ways to take action at


~ originally posted at Films for Action 

Nelson Mandela: The Invisible History of Indigeneity

A few years ago, I was in conversation with American Indian Movement leader Russell Means when the subject of Nelson Mandela randomly came up. I said something along the lines that Mandela was such a unique inspiration of groundbreaking political ideas. Swiftly, as is the custom of Indian elders, I was rebuked. Mandela, I was informed, was the man he had been raised to be. His ideas were those of indigenous peoples around the world. Long held, time tested.

His uniqueness was that white people actually listened and tried out those ideas. His uniqueness was not in his ideas, it was in his ability to interact with the white world while still thinking and being the tribal chief he had been raised to be. His great accomplishment in the face of overwhelming assault: “He did not let whiteness invade his mind and his heart.”

Nelson Mandela(Image source)

The admonishment to me was that I had in fact succumbed to the white portrayal of Mandela. Honestly, if I ever knew, I did not consciously incorporate the information that Nelson Mandela was raised in the tribal society of the Xhosa. He was assumed to be a future leader of his people and trained for that eventuality. I had often marveled at how seamlessly his quotes about the land and the people and the values of humanity coincided with those of my native elders. However, I had never put together the fact that this was because he had listened and absorbed the same teachings from his native elders.

Only the release of Leonard Peltier could have inspired more joy and celebration in Indian Country than Mandela’s release from prison in 1990. See Peltier’s response to Mandela’s death here.

Mandela joined the call of many around the world for the release of Leonard Peltier. Mandela and most indigenous people see no difference between the circumstances which led to the formation of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and reasoned, sometimes violent, defense of life and liberty from government sponsored terrorism and the formation of the African National Congress (ANC) and the decision, made by Mandela himself, to form the military wing called Umkhonto we Sizwe, or the Spear of the Nation.

Mandela was released after 27 years for defending his homeland from segregation, violence and murder by an oppressive white government. Leonard Peltier has served 40 years for doing the same. Three U.S. presidents will travel to South Africa to honor Madiba, an indigenous freedom fighter. All three passed up the opportunity to free Leonard Peltier.

Leonard_Peltier(Image source)

Writers in Indian Country have challenged President Obama to honor Mandela by honoring his wish to see Peltier freed.

When he was elected the first black and indigenous president of South Africa, there were acknowledgements at all of the ceremonies in Indian Country of how “our brother” has assumed his rightful place as leader of his freed people. White education and white frames conditioned me to hear this in the same way as the accolades from white liberal groups around the world or the inheritors of white colonials in governments across the globe. It was not the same. Nelson Mandela was celebrated in Indian Country as an indigenous tribal leader, acting true to his hereditary teachings, elected to preside over a modern colonial nation state. It was as if an aboriginal leader had been elected Prime Minister of Australia or Canada.

It was as if Russell Means were elected President of the United States. Native leaders, particularly traditional leaders, saw this as a validation that indigenous ideas could survive and rise in a post colonial world. He was one of us. He stayed one of us. And he made them see us and hear us.

Mandela the man and South Africa the nation have been seen as a hallmark of race relations between blacks and whites around the globe and particularly in the United States. These are important, obviously. Musa Okwonga, British black poet and activist, provides a wonderful view of this with a simultaneous takedown of the whitewashing of Mandela entitled “He will never, ever be your minstrel.” Nelson Mandela’s kinship with people like Malcolm X and Dr. King are secure enough to survive this onslaught of white platitudes.

Madiba’s indigenous identity and ideas have, as is always the case, been whitewashed to invisibility. His constant references to the beauty, importance and identity marker of the land in his famous speeches and quotes are not viewed as the universal perspective of indigenous peoples everywhere. They are seen as inspiring quotes of a singular nature from a unique iconic figure. Chief Seattle and many other indigenous leaders have talked of the land and the people in this way for centuries. I am grateful to have lived in a time when the world listened, if only briefly and partially, to Nelson Mandela speak from an international microphone with the voice of an indigenous person. I am grateful that these words, if not their historic context, will be replicated and available for all to absorb.

As president, Mandela proposed the revolutionary “new” idea of truth and reconciliation to take the nation from its bloody past to its unified future. This idea relied heavily on the indigenous African tribal concept of ubuntu. (See Bishop Tutu’s explanation of this in No Future without Forgiveness or this extensive rundown of its meanings and application with a video from Mandela himself explaining it.)

Ubuntu has its corollary in most indigenous groups. The Lakota say mitakuye oyacin, meaning everything is related or we are all one. The ideas of forgiveness and survival with dignity have been echoed by many indigenous leaders toward white oppressors. A particularly poignant rendition is this message from a Choctaw chief in 1832 preparing to relocate his people on the long Trail of Tears that would see more than half of them die. If you listen, you will hear Madiba from prison refusing to be freed while his people are banned, President Mandela as he talks of South African reconciliation and retired global icon Mandela as he discusses how every man should have a house in sight of where he was born. Perhaps, you will hear as indigenous people hear through the cacophony of whitewash which obliterates indigenous people, land and ideas.

Oneida Indian Nation Leads Effort to Change “Redskins” NFL Team Name

The Oneida Indian Nation of New York is leading a national effort urging the Washington NFL team to drop its offensive “redskins” name and mascot. The first ad in its “Change the Mascot” campaign has been released and some key people seem to be getting the message.

Recently, the NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has declared that league and team officials “need to be listening” to the mounting calls for change. The commissioner’s declaration, made during an interview with a Washington, D.C. radio station.  Reporting on Goodell’s comments, the Associated Press noted that “momentum for a switch has been growing.”

Oneida Indian Nation Representative Ray Halbritter said:

“We are encouraged to see that Mr. Goodell is joining us and so many others in calling for a serious discussion about ending the Washington team’s use of a racial slur. Mr. Goodell is absolutely right – it is time for the Washington team’s owners to start listening. If Dan Snyder continues to be dismissive of the concerns of Native Americans and disdainful of the fact his franchise bears a name that is defined in the dictionary as an epithet, it will be incumbent upon the other owners, the League and the Commissioner to step in and take action.”

The plan is to have ads that run each week in every city the Washington NFL team visits. The campaign isn’t about mere ‘political correctness’ because this sort of language carries with an implicit violence.


(Image posted by Twitter user @Mzhakdo)

Even if the NFL commissioner and the Washington, D.C. football franchise doesn’t want to change the mascot because it’s racist, perhaps they will be moved to change it so that they can distance themselves from images like the one above.  Surely, someone at the NFL thinks this sort of symbolic racial violence hurts their brand.