Racism, Segregation & Ignorance: The Paw Paw Redsk*ns Mascot Debate

Sea of red shirts in Paw Paw, Michigan on January 18, 2017. Native News Online photo by Levi Rickert.

Guest Commentary 

Published January 27, 2107

By Jeff Chivis, Ph.D. and Elizabeth Pigeon

The Indian mascot issue has been a strong point of contention for decades. For us Native American peoples, this is an issue firmly rooted in civil rights, a quest to gain racial equality and respect from the majority population. Past efforts to eliminate Native American mascots have met with some success (for example, Eastern Michigan University, University of Illinois, University of North Dakota, among others), but major opposition in the form of ignorance, closed-mindedness, and racism remains.

On January 18th and 23rd, the Paw Paw (Van Buren County, MI) school board held public input sessions to discuss the possibility of eliminating their Redsk*ns mascot.  In addition to opening up the floor for outside-community input, local residents, speakers in favor of the mascot, and representatives from several local tribes were invited to attend and express their opinions. This is an account of the two input sessions and the types of resistance we experienced. It also places the larger mascot issue within a more appropriate context, which will help readers to better understand the key issues of this controversy.

We were both apprehensive about meeting the local residents who suggest that the use of the Redsk*ns mascot is intended to honor the Native American community. We both intended to document the proceedings on behalf of our individual families, clans, and communities. Upon our arrival to Paw Paw high school, we were informed in the parking lot that the ceremonies we traditionally conduct before these types of meetings in order to spiritually prepare ourselves could not be done anywhere on or near the school grounds, under threat of police arrest.  The school board stated that smudging, singing, drumming, and a pipe ceremony breaks policy and they are “too loud.”

As we walked into the building, we noticed scores of Paw Paw residents carrying in boxes filled with red t-shirts.  The red shirts were freely given to any community member who supported the Paw Paw mascot.  Most community members put the shirts on immediately, forming a unified mass of red-colored ignorance and racism.  On the back of these shirts was a long list of local businesses supporting the retention of the current mascot, a clear indicator of the level of ignorance firmly entrenched among many members of that community.

We also noticed the police present in full force, represented by an alarmingly high number of police vehicles in the parking lot. In the building, we saw several officers closely observing the Anishinaabe community as they walked into the building and auditorium. We heard an officer state to another, “I’m going to go upstairs, and make sure none of THESE people are wandering around getting into stuff.”  Later, a member of the school board slipped up and referred to the Native community as “those people.”  In response, one Anishinabe individual remarked, “what do you mean by THOSE people?” The school board member quickly apologized, realizing the inappropriateness of the comment (and perhaps the inherent racism that oftentimes is unconsciously held by non-Native American people).

Elizabeth Pigeon

Segregation, a discriminatory custom we assumed was no longer practiced, was on full display as well.  As we walked into the auditorium on the first night of proceedings, we observed our local Anishinaabe people being required to sit in the back of the room, while Paw Paw community members were seated up front. Of course, those local community members, most of whom sporting the “red resistance shirts,” vastly outnumbered Anishinaabe peoples and filled up most of the auditorium. Despite these “seating arrangements,” we strategically decided to sit in the section filled with Paw Paw mascot supporters so we could observe their behavior and hear their remarks. Fortunately, we were not asked to leave, but others were not as fortunate. As the seats around us filled up, a few Native American individuals attempted to sit in the row behind us. The proud, red-shirt wearing citizens of Paw Paw told them they could not sit there since it was reserved for their fellow Paw Paw mascot supporters. They commented that the Native Americans belonged “back there,” while pointing to the back of the room.

We also saw our Anishinaabe veterans and elders attempt to place our sacred staffs in back of the room and heard the many Paw Paw residents quickly complain about having to walk by the staffs and our Anishinaabe community.  Statements such as, “why do those people have to put that stuff right there” and “those people shouldn’t even be here; they’re not from here” spread among the Redsk*n-loving crowd.  Throughout the comment period, anyone (Native American or not, including our tribal councilmen and other tribal leaders) who did not support the current mascot were heckled and insulted with inappropriate and even racist remarks.  Although we were extremely offended by the behavior of many of the Paw Paw residents, we also realized the resiliency and honor of our people and were pleasantly surprised by the number of non-Native individuals from the Paw Paw community who publicly spoke out against the mascot.

Jeff Chivis, Ph.D.

One of the most disappointing events occurred when the Paw Paw Board of Education chair introduced a full-blooded Lakota woman, Eunice Davidson, a member of a tribe far removed from this state’s local politics. This is a common colonialist “divide and conquer” tactic that was employed, meant to pit local Native peoples against other Native people and mascot supporters. As we listened to her presentation, we realized we were witnessing an example of the powerful role of mascots in the assimilation and internalization of Euro-American ideals and stereotypes, even among other Native Americans. Her main point was that if Indian mascots are eliminated, Native Americans will lose our culture and cease to exist.  This ridiculous statement brought the sea of red shirts rising to their feet in applause, and conjured up so much “pride” in one local student that he loudly vocalized the highly offensive and stereotypical Hollywood War Cry (as if he were on the warpath himself). We were dumbfounded over this Lakota woman’s statements, for several reasons.

First, Indian mascots and their images are not reflective of our authentic cultures, or the diversity of cultures across the country.  Very few non-Native American people (and some Native American people) realize the history and process behind the adoption of a Native American mascot.  When non-Native peoples and entities (such as schools) choose to adopt Native American mascots, it qualifies as a form of cultural appropriation.  In other words, non-Native American entities have historically stolen aspects of Native American identity without the consent of Native American peoples, and have reimagined and redefined these images to meet their own conceptions of what a “real” Native American embodies.  Accordingly, these mascots are imbued with the stereotypical qualities of being noble, strong, or blood-thirsty and violent, or they conform to the “Plains Indian” archetype.  Ironically, the majority of non-Native people view the quest for the elimination of the Indian mascot as an encroachment on their definition of the American tradition.  Historically, however, these stereotypical images (such as the “Red Savage” or “Noble Redman”) have been created and adopted by Euro-Americans throughout history to further oppress our people through our colonization and the theft of our lands and cultures.

In reality, Indian mascots are false representations of our truly diverse identities and cultures, and are largely negative representations of Native American people. They also grossly overgeneralize our cultures, as if all Native Americans share the same cultural traits (primarily that of the “Plains Indian”). 

Therefore, when Mrs. Davidson goes so far to state that the elimination of Indian mascots would represent “another genocide of our history,” she essentially calls for the support of the false depiction of our cultures. We certainly do not agree with this stance. We acknowledge that our real (and diverse) cultures have survived, without any reliance on Indian mascots, for centuries. We are a resilient and modern people and we do not conform to stereotypes that have been imposed upon us by Euro-Americans. We are not barbaric, wild, blood-thirsty savages, or noble Indians. We don’t live in tepees and we don’t ride bare back on horses for our primary mode of transportation: we drive cars.  We are attorneys, doctors, professors, students, mothers, fathers, mechanics, musicians, among many, many other occupations and talents. Above all else, we are human beings, beautiful inside and out, with unique cultures and historical circumstances, strengths, and weaknesses just like all human beings and societies.  It is merely the recognition of this basic quality of humanity, and the respect that comes with it, that we seek.

A second issue we take with Eunice Davidson’s remarks is precisely related to her acceptance of a false portrayal of our people. Scientific studies have shown that Indian mascots have acted as a tool of assimilation. Since these images are portrayed in popular media, our people constantly receive false images of what it means to be Native American. Unfortunately, this has led our children and other Native (and non-Native) peoples alike to internalize and adopt for themselves this erroneous and warped identity, one created by non-Native peoples! Ultimately, these types of false images prevent our own people (and everyone else) from learning the true culture of the hundreds of unique tribes in this nation.  Therefore, when Mrs. Davidson suggests we should support Indian mascots, she is (perhaps unknowingly) supporting cultural appropriation and perpetuating the further assimilation of our people, the further oversimplification of our diverse cultures, and the eventual extermination of our true cultures and identities.

In light of these misunderstandings demonstrated by Mrs. Davidson and others at Paw Paw High School, we think we should present additional facts about Indian mascots, facts derived from legitimate scientific studies. First, evidence suggests that Indian mascots have negative connotations for Native people. Psychological studies have shown that Native American mascots and the stereotypes associated with them are associated with disengagement, lower self-esteem, decreased aspirations for careers and leadership, and decreased feelings of community worth for Native Americans. Therefore, mascots place limits on the potential of Native Americans and limits what Native people see as possible for themselves in the future. This is something we have both observed in our communities. Furthermore, since there is a lack of positive images of real Native Americans for our people to view in U.S. popular culture, it is no surprise that Native Americans have the highest suicide, school dropout, poverty, and unemployment rates of any ethnic group in United States.

Conversely, other empirically-based studies have shown that while mascots have negative psychological effects on Native Americans, they have positive consequences for Euro-Americans.  This includes increased levels of self-esteem and confidence, and a sense of superiority over Native peoples.  Additionally, since Native Americans comprise less than 2 percent of U.S. population and false portrayals of our people are so entrenched in popular culture today, most non-Natives do not have any sustained interaction with real Native American people. The only form of “reality” they have to draw from about what constitutes a Native American derives from Indian mascots or other forms of popular culture.  As a result, most non-Natives perceive Indian mascots and Native American people as one and the same; they are interchangeable. Therefore, most non-Native people have unconsciously developed negative and stereotypical attitudes about Native American mascots and people (in comparison to non-Native American people and mascots) due to the inaccuracy of Native people in popular culture.  These findings cast doubt on the claim of the many Paw Paw residents who suggest that the Redsk*ns mascot is meant to honor our people.

Instances of perceived superiority, ignorance, and the unconscious retention of negative views of Native Americans was on full display at Paw Paw High School in the form of the young white kid yelling out the Hollywood war whoop, the numerous offensive and racist remarks hurled at critics of the mascot, and the utter lack of respect for our people.  The question must then be posed: how can one seriously suggest that the Redsk*ns mascot honors us when these same people simultaneously disrespect us?  Rather than the honoring of our people, the behavior of the Paw Paw mascot supporters clearly supports the evidence outlined above that states that Indian mascots imbue non-Natives with a sense of superiority and that it ultimately leads to the development of negative attitudes towards Native peoples.

As yet another example, one red-shirt wearing woman even remarked, “I don’t think the Indians, or anyone else, should come in here and tell us this offends them.”  We think it is entirely ironic and indicative of white superiority (and privilege) that the UNAFFECTED members of a society dictate how the affected party should feel and decide what is demeaning and racist to the oppressed party.  It is also ironic that she wholeheartedly has adopted a Redsk*n identity, despite the fact that it represents a stolen identity that was reimagined by Europeans, and is therefore a false identity.

One other presenter (Andre Billeaudeaux), brought in on behalf of the school board, was a self-proclaimed “amateur historian” who possessed 30 years of experience working in the U.S. Coast Guard. Among his most prized of accomplishments is a 36 page children’s book that describes the origin of the Redsk*n word. Although full of historical inaccuracies and erroneous connections to the actual Redsk*n term, he concluded that the term is not offensive because (as he surmises) it did not have an offensive origin.  The ocean of red shirts waved up and down in support of this conclusion.

We felt sick as the crowd ignorantly roared in support. We overheard one person actually state, “those Indians don’t even know their own culture.” His presentation ultimately worked to promote a feeling of superiority for all of the Paw Paw mascot supporters, acting to further elevate themselves above the Native attendees.

The key point that most people were, of course, overlooking is the fact that regardless of the original intent of the term, it has undisputedly gained a very negative and racist connotation over time.  Harkening back 1) to a time when our “red skins” were targets of U.S.-paid bounty hunters, 2) to the use of the term during the “Hollywood Western” era and thereafter to regularly refer to Native peoples as especially primitive and war-like, 3) to the 1930s when racism, racist mascots, and discrimination were commonplace and when Native Americans were not permitted to leave their reservations, and our traditional dances and cultures were outlawed by the United States, and 4) to more recent times in which the term is clearly meant to disparage and denote inferiority and savagery of Native American people and our cultures: the R-word is undeniably offensive. In fact, most Native people consider the R-word to be the most offensive term applied to them and liken it to being the equivalent of the N-word for African American people. The N-word and racist African-American mascots have been acknowledged for their racist insensitivities, so why has the R-word been retained?  Regardless of the reason (something we do not have time to explore further here), there have been some recent successes in the elimination of this term (most notably the Belding High School’s recent severing of the Redsk*ns mascot).

When we chose to attend the input sessions at Paw Paw High School, we saw it as an opportunity to shed the racism and harmful stereotypes too often present in our society and to create a positive change for both Native and non-Native communities. One way in which some local tribes have approached the mascot issue with schools and universities is to use the opportunity as a lesson in education in order to dispel stereotypes. For example, the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi has worked with the nearby Athens public school system to retain and more accurately depict the “Indians” namesake, one which many tribal members have taken pride in.  Similarly, the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe and its members have largely supported the “Chippewas” name for Central Michigan University.  In these instances, proper education becomes the key factor that guides the relationships between school entities and local tribes.  The development of a historically accurate school curriculum that dispels myths and stereotypes of Native peoples, includes cultural sensitivity training revolving around Native Americans (as well as other minorities), eliminates all aspects of potentially negative and stereotypical images of mascots and logos, and eradicates inappropriate behaviors among the student body (war chants, dances, etc.) are the types of issues that can be negotiated and implemented. These types of agreements provide an opportunity to positively promote growth, understanding, and respect for Native American people, an effort we both support. They can work to limit and completely eradicate the type of oppression, segregation, isolation, assimilation, prejudice, and racism that we were forced to endure during the Paw Paw input sessions.

On February 8, the Paw Paw Board of Education will make the final decision to either eliminate or keep the Redsk*ns mascot. They must grapple with the question: if their mascot causes real harm to our people and continues past forms of hegemony, colonization, racism, and oppression (which is strongly supported by scientific studies and the behavior of some Paw Paw mascot supporters), how can the school board really justify the retention of its name and image?  We are certain the school board noticed statements from Redsk*n supporters who said, “why should we cave in to the opinions of such a small minority, even if it does (or may) do harm to a few of them.”  This line of thinking clearly parallels the long history of Euro-American hegemonic practices and prejudices against the indigenous peoples, such as our forced removal, genocide, assimilation, the theft of our lands, among others.  We can only hope that the Paw Paw school board will acknowledge these facts and make the ethical decision to positively effect social change. After all, these mascots have functioned to allow non-Natives to ignore the painful reality of past and present Native American oppression and the current levels of Native American marginalization in American society.

Jeff Chivis, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI and a citizen of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi nation, Fulton Michigan and Elizabeth Pigeon, Eagle Clan, W’Okimakwe Wabameme, Treasurer of the Midewewin Mide Widjig and a tribal citizen of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. 


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