Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Saginaw Chippewa and People-as-Mascots: there's a Santayana joke in here, somewhere

A while back, this interview showed up on my Twitter feed, about the stance of the Saginaw Chippewa tribe with respect to sports teams that use Aboriginal names and likenesses as logos and mascots. In short, they're supportive of these symbols provided that they aren't used mockingly and serve to educate, and teams like the Western Warriors (a high school basketball team) and Central Michigan Chippewas (a College team) have their full support.

Just in case you're a TL;DR kind of reader: folks on Twitter claimed that the above interview might lead some to re-think their position on such mascots. But it shouldn't. And that's what this particular blog is about.

I have some strong feelings on this topic - which I've shared before - but I'm not entirely opposed to the sentiment that's expressed in the article. Education is certainly a good thing, and if a mascot can actually increase historical awareness, that would be pretty awesome.

The problem is, I don't think it can, or at least it hardly ever does. And for an argument that's premised on historical awareness, there's at lease this one little bit of unfortunate irony, offered by Frank Cloutier, public relations director for the Saginaw Chippewa:
Our position is that if it's not derogatory and it's being used appropriately, with an opportunity to share or cross-share our culture, then it's fine. There's nothing derogatory about "Warriors" or "Braves." There's nothing derogatory about "Indian." But terms like "Redskin" or "Half-Breed," those are derogatory terms to us. 

Now, I could take the easy path, here, and argue that "Brave" and "Indian" certainly can be derogatory but I won't. That's less an irony than it is a disagreement. Instead, I'm going to take a closer look at the "Redskin" team that he's referring to. (It's oblique, in this instance, but he later says that it would be "most appropriate" if the Washington Redskins changed their name.)
The irony, instead, that the football team's logo and mascot might exist, and have persisted, precisely because an earlier Aboriginal leader advocated for it. From a 2002 Washington Post article that's since gone offline:
“I said, ‘I’d like to see an Indian on your helmets,’ “ which then sported a big “R” as the team logo, remembers [former chairman of the Blackfoot tribe and president of the National Congress of American Indians Walter] Wetzel, now 86 and retired in Montana. Within weeks, the Redskins had a new logo, a composite Indian taken from the features in Wetzel’s pictures. “It made us all so proud to have an Indian on a big-time team. . . . It’s only a small group of radicals who oppose those names. Indians are proud of Indians.”

For all that emphasis on history and education, Cloutier has ignored the very history of racist logos - and how that Redskins name and logo that he finds distasteful is, itself, a product of compromise and collaboration between white owners and a Native-American leader. Clearly, what's worth celebrating, and the value or meaning of educating, is highly relative. What strikes Cloutier as offensive is perfectly acceptable to Wetzel. And, presumably, Wetzel had his own line-in-the-sand, marking the division between the Redskins and the space where unacceptable mascots and logos lay.

For what it's worth, I'm in agreement with Cloutier with respect to the Redskins - the mascot should go, the logo should go, the name should go. But I'm not on-board with his argument that the names and logos are okay provided they're well-intentioned and have some educational component. Intentions don't speak all that well to the large contingent of fans who don't respect the culture, and education doesn't mesh particularly well with the ethos of organized sports. (If sport and critical thought tended to accompany one another, we wouldn't have to have conversations like 'is this racist?' all the time.)

And if history has taught us anything, it's that, eventually, another Frank Cloutier will come along and suggest that the Western Warriors and Central Michigan Chippewas are just bad as the Washington Redskins.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

oh oh, i found a spelling/grammar mistake. bad boy neil, bad boy!