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Statement to North Dakota State Board of Higher Education

James McKenzie
November 16, 2001
Board of Higher Education Meeting, UND Campus

 

A Board member asked yesterday why it was that 99% of the people he talked to do not understand what the issue is with regard to the use of Indian names for athletic teams, logos, and mascots. It’s a good question, one that members of Campus Committee for Human Rights have thought quite a bit about. How to explain the fact that everybody seems to “get it” that you wouldn’t name a predominantly white sports team after any other minority group: there are no “Fighting Negroes,” or “Blacks,” no “fighting Jews.” We are much too culturally sensitive to do that. Nor would we employ religious symbolism from another group as we do eagle feathers and other cultural materials of Native Americans. You’ll never see the head of a priest with a white collar on the jerseys of an athletic team.

What is different about the use of Native American symbols in American sports, much on the decline everywhere, at last, but still dividing this university in serious ways? Two main explanations come to mind.

The first has to do with the deep American romance about Indian peoples. Their images have been used, without permission, for well over a hundred years now. A stereotype of the American Indian has been a stock of American entertainment and advertisement since long before the Wild West Shows. We all grew up with the Lone Ranger and Tonto, John Wayne movies, playing cowboys and Indians, and truly uncountable other glamorous (for whites) exploitations of the history of the ‘conquering’ of the West. The ‘taming’ of the West (as we like to refer to it) is probably our most powerful cultural story. It’s our story of triumph over the people who lived here first. Then we Hollywoodized it all and turned it into play. The use of American Indian names, logos, mascots just continues that romanticized fun, and the white majority does not want to have all that romance and fun stripped away.

Which gets at the second, deeper, level of why the vast majority of North Dakotans don’t “get it,” or, frankly, want to. And that is because if you strip the fun and games away you have to look at the shadow of genocide. Extermination was the official policy of the United States for its indigenous peoples for more than a hundred years: “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” General Philip Sheridan famously said. To look honestly at the nickname question, as it has been raised for more than thirty years now by young Indian students on this campus, is to pierce through the Romance, the fun and games, and acknowledge that painful history of extermination. And who wants to do that?

So, it’s romance and fear that block us, and until we are ready to give those up, the majority of people will not “get it.”

 

James McKenzie, for the Campus Committee for Human Rights