"For a subject worked and reworked so often in novels, motion pictures, and television, American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all."

-John F. Kennedy in
the introduction to The American Heritage Book of Indians

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Clinton Redskins Demonstration- a narrative

On Monday, April 19th I drove to Clinton, Michigan to experience first hand our constitutional rights in action. I attended a demonstration and school board meeting to address the issue of the Clinton High School mascot, the Redskins. In the course of a few hours, I learned a lot.

When I arrived, I saw a group of peaceful demonstrators holding signs and expressing their opinions. They held signs saying “teach respect, not racism,” “stop identity theft,” and “Native Americans are not mascots.” The crowded included people of all races and backgrounds. I was surprised to learn that many of the people were there not to demonstrate but rather for protection. This thought was quite unsettling as I later learned about previous actions directed against the demonstrators- dead animals left on doorsteps, people saying racial epithets under their breath, and car break lines being cut.

The evening changed when an opposing demonstration started to grow across the school entrance. It consisted of high schoolers from Clinton High proudly wearing their “Redskins forever” T-shirts. They said their “Go Redskins!” cheers with all their youthful exuberance and received “Go Redskins!” responses from many honking cars driving by. It was quite a striking image hearing these chants and seeing a giant cardboard Indian head thrust into the air when just 20 feet away stood a group of Native Americans. Somehow calling this situation ironic felt a little like an understatement. This went on until it was time for the school board meeting.

The school board meeting was inside the High School library, local residents on one side and the school board on the other. As they finished their business, it finally came time for public comment when Elspeth, who together with sister Kylista has spearheaded this movement for more than a year and a half now, spoke first. She argued the merits of her case: the history of the term Redskins, it's attachment to the murder of Native people, how mascots steal the identity from real Native Americans.

By this time the students from outside came inside and lined one entire wall of the library. They were well-behaved and some spoke in defense of the Redskins mascot. Essentially, it was thirty minutes of back and forth between supporters of keeping the mascot and supporters of changing the mascot.

Some of the arguments went as follows:

Keep the mascot:
"I don't see anything wrong with the name."
"This name was chosen to honor and respect the native people"
"I'm a card carrying member (while holding the card) of the (fill in the blank) tribe and I am ashamed of these two women bringing this up. I'm proud of my Redskins."

Change the mascot:
"I find the name truly abhorrent and it does not honor my people."
"The name Redskins is directly attached to the bounties put on native people and the murder of innocent people."
"Using Native American as mascots not only harms the self-esteem and well-being of native people, but also teaches all young people in this place of learning that it is somehow okay to stereotype an entire group of people."

One of the most striking arguments was from Jeanette Henagan, a local resident and president of the Lenawee county NAACP. When you watch this video I want you to watch not only Jeanette but the people sitting around her.

After 30 minutes had elapsed, the school board called an end to public comment (a surprise to some people) and the crowd slowly dispersed. I talked with many of the demonstrators after and learned some interesting things. The most surprising was how one person had been approached by some of the students after he left. They asked him about his position, unsure of which side he supported. This person then went ahead and challenged the students to do their own research and come to their own conclusions, even giving them copies of a paper he had written on this topic. Otherwise, the evening ended peacefully and people went their own ways.

I'm currently putting together my thoughts about the evening and the issue. They will be posted as soon as I can think it all through and write it down.

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