On Saturday April 10th, I attended the 38th annual Dance for Mother Earth Powwow in Saline, Michigan. This was the fourth Powwow I have attended in the past few years. As soon as I walked into the Saline Middle School gym, the sights, the sounds, and the smells brought back fond memories of powwow past. I remember living in Grand Portage, Minnesota and laying in bed at night as the distant beat of the drums echoed across the open bay from the powwow grounds many miles away. I remember the beautiful colors and the intricate designs of the regalia at the United Tribes International Powwow I attended in North Dakota. I remember smelling the sage, the leather, and the sweat of dancing human beings mixing in the atmosphere. I remember the strong sense of community that is the hallmark of every powwow I have attended. It's truly a unique and uplifting experience that everyone should experience at least once in their life.
For me the most fulfilling aspect of the Powwow (outside of the dancing of course) was meeting the fine folks from the Michigan Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media (MCARSM). This group is a grassroots coalition formed to fight against racist Native American imagery and mascots. Through activism and information campaigns at area Powwows as well as in the wider community, they are fighting to put an end to some of the more offensive and egregious Native American references in sports and media. In particular, I would like to bring to your attention one local example.
In the lovely little town of Clinton, Michigan there is a problem. You might never know it driving through town or talking with the locals, but on a Friday night in the Fall you probably couldn't miss it. As the Clinton High School football team runs onto the field to play the local rivals, the fans in the bleachers aren't hollering go bears, or go hawks, or even go warriors. Instead, they shout at the top of their lungs, "Go Redskins!" If this thought sends shivers down your back, good. If it does not, let me do a little explaining.
The term "redskins" has a history dating back hundreds of years. While no one is sure of the exact origin of the word, one of the common etymologies is that the term comes from the practice of scalping or "skinning" Native American peoples. Thanks to centuries of misinformation and outright lies in art, literature, film, and television, most Americans define scalping as an exclusively Indian practice. The reality could not be more different. The practice of scalping exploded with the arrival of Europeans on the shores of North America. Bounties were placed on the heads of native men, women, and children. What had been an infrequent practice confined to conflicts became a bloody wave that spread across North America. Spurred on by the lure of hard currency, Native Americans were hunted down and murdered for their bloody trophies. Even worse, colonizing Europeans used money to spur on their Native allies to scalp rival Native Americans and Europeans. Native cultures were warped and destroyed in this process as human being were treated no better than animals.
To use this term today as a team name and mascot imagery is unacceptable. Perpetuating these stereotypes through their continual use demeans native communities today, undermines their efforts to define their own culture, and warps everyone's perspective on our fellow human beings. Don't believe me? Ask the experts.
On Monday, April 19th the Clinton School Board will be holding a regular meeting at 7:30 PM. An hour before the meeting, MCARSM will be protesting outside the meeting place. They will then be speaking at the school board meeting to convince the board to change the team name. While this effort is not as high profile as the movement against professional or college sports teams, it is simply a small step in the right direction that if taken enough times can move mountains.