Why 'Indian' is offensive

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

By Abbie Crites-Leoni

The much anticipated Southeast Missouri State University Board of Regents meeting in regard to the mascot/nickname issue is today.

If I'd been asked whether or not there was anything wrong with an Indian mascot five years ago, I would have said no. I am a second-generation alumna of the university.

After months of researching and debating the issue, I have a different opinion.

Dr. Kenneth W. Dobbins, university president, recognized that the institution has had a dysfunctional relationship with the mascot for nearly 20 years and appointed a mascot/nickname committee . The committee has performed admirably.

One of the things that has made the work of the committee exceptionally challenging in finding consensus within the community is the generation gap. Older generations, including my parents, have memories associated with the Indian at Southeast -- fond memories and that should never change.

The problem is, students attending the institution for the last 20 years have no connection with the Indian -- no tradition, no allegiance -- because there has not been a mascot.

The other issue, and probably most substantial barrier to reaching greater consensus in the community on the need for change, is a lack of education.

One of the most striking things I've read as a result of studying this issue is that the Anglo-American understanding, or lack of understanding, of why the use of an Indian mascot could be offensive to anyone has to do with cultural illiteracy. Few Anglo-Americans have had the opportunity to acquire a full understanding or appreciation for the history relative to the American Indian experience.

In 1755 the British Crown offered a bounty for the scalps of American Indians living in the New England colonies. To demonstrate that there had been a kill, soldiers were required to skin the body of the Indian. "Redskin" is in particular a horrifying reminder of what amounted to genocide of many of the American Indians.

Once free from England, the war on Indian nations continued in the United States. Leaders such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson sought to exterminate the Indian race for more land.

Some leaders believed Indians were similar to lice. To get rid of lice you also have to kill the young lice called nits. Colonial America found it easy to justify its extermination plan for both adult and young Indians. (Churchill, 1994)

"To valorize the image of the 'fighting Indian' without soberly recognizing the degree to which the United States sought to summarily conquer and control Indians" has created what scholars on the issue have labeled "dysconscious racism." (Staurowsky, 1999)

The Wisconsin Indian Education Association encourages schools to "teach respect, not racism." The association believes that schools with Indian logos are "teaching a course in hands-on racism ... teaching students how to stereotype a group of people on the basis of race, religion, ancestry, and cultural ethnicity. It is teaching students to maintain these stereotypes and to promote them by carrying them into ... sports competitions."

"So-called Indian mascots reduce hundreds of Indigenous tribes to generic cartoons. These 'Wild West' figments of the white imagination distort both Indigenous and non-Indigenous children's attitudes toward an oppressed -- and diverse -- minority. Schools should be places where students come to unlearn the stereotypes such mascots represent." (Pewewardy, a Comanche and Kiowa, assistant professor at the University of Kansas).

The National Collegiate Athletic Association, of which the university is a member, is guided by a Principle of Nondiscrimination, which states:

"The NCAA shall promote an atmosphere of respect for and sensitivity to the dignity of every person. It is the policy of the [NCAA] to refrain from discrimination with respect to its governance policies, educational programs, activities." Southeast has an obligation to provide an environment free from racist stereotyping.

People in this community are still asking, "Why can't we be like the Washington Redskins (and others)?"

The Washington Redskins football team utilize the name and symbol of the genocidal practice of paying white soldiers a bounty for the bloody skins of murdered American Indians. Why would we want to be like them? The fact this question is continually asked by those opposed to change demonstrates that the opposition is not listening to the facts surrounding this issue.

Finally, in an article written by a professor of sport sciences from Ithaca College in New York, Dr. Ellen Staurowsky challenges educators, coaches and athletic administrators.

"This issue asks for our introspection, our courage, and our insight in facing the flaws in our own education. If the students who we care about are to have the best chance of apprehending the complex history which contributes to their world view, we ... must be as culturally literate as possible."

It's time for change. The regents have the opportunity to demonstrate leadership -- to take a stand in support of cultural literacy. Let's hope they take the research to heart and just do it.

Abbie Crites-Leoni of Cape Girardeau is a 1993 graduate of Southeast Missouri State University.

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