"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

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Oversized Plastic Toy Indians by Yoram Wolberger

The sculpture of San Francisco based visual artist Yoram Wolberger may be bright and colorful but the meaning in each piece is profound and sincere.  He takes the beloved toys of our childhood and subverts their innocence all in the name of making a point.  Here is the artist profile from his website:

"Yoram Wolberger uses childhood toys and everyday domestic items to create his large scale sculptures, foregrounding the latent symbolism and cultural paradigms of these objects that so subtly inform Western culture. By enlarging this ephemera to life size, Wolberger emphasizes the distortions of their original manufacture disallowing any real illusion and conceptually forcing the viewer to reconsider their meanings. When enlarged beyond any possibility of dismissal, we see that toy soldiers create lines between Us and Them, plastic cowboys and Indians marginalize and stereotype the Other, even wedding cake bride and groom figurines dictate our expected gender roles."

And here is what he makes:

Red Indian Chief, 2005
No Reservations: Native American History and Culture in Contemporary Art
The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
(Source: flickr)

 Red Indian #2 (Bowman), 2005
No Reservations: Native American History and Culture in Contemporary Art
The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
(Source: flickr)

Red Indian #4 (Spearman)
Brooklyn Museum

And you can never leave the alpha without its omega:

Blue Cowboy #3 (Double Gunslinger)
(Source: tumblr)

These works are a perfect case study in the obsession with everything Native.  The Israeli born artist Yoram Wolberger has taken two of the most potent symbols of Americana, Cowboys and Indians, and revealed them for what they are- rough-edged, bloated, one-dimensional caricatures.

His art is similar to that of Kent Monkman recently profiled on the Beyond Buckskin blog.  They both take symbols of the past- plastic toy Indians and classic western landscape painting- and completely turn them on their heads.  Monkman inserts the sick and silly in his attempt to "queer the frontier" and subvert traditional white dominance.  Wolberger brings the miniature distortions of tiny toy Indians into full scale, making their stereotypical imagery easier to grasp.

Wolberger is someone like myself, a person obsessed with the obsession.  He understands the power and impact these toys had on untold millions of American children. As he puts it so succinctly, "plastic cowboys and Indians marginalize and stereotype the Other."

The question remains: Will people get the message in his work?

Take a look at this photo:

Here is how I would caption it: "Check it out dudes, I'm a cowboy!"

The reason I posted this photo is because I couldn't find one of a gallery visitor next to "Red Indian Chief" with their "how" hand up or their hand covering their mouth (which is very a good thing).

I've been accused before of being too hard on people, claiming that they would never "get" the subtleties in pieces like this or works of satire.  These sculptures once again fall under that broad category of "using stereotypes to debunk/satirize stereotypes," though considering the power of the artist's own statements, he assuredly knows what he's doing.

That being said, the pessimist in me feels that there will still be people who will see these sculptures and have their stereotypes reinforced.  But thankfully the artist's own words give me confidence that anyone who visits these sculptures in a gallery will never look at "Indians" the same way again.

In case you're wondering, Wolberger has not limited himself to just Cowboys and Indians.  Below is another beloved childhood toy re-sized so that the gallery visitors will never see it the same way again:

Title unknown
(Source: artbusiness.com)

Happy Memorial Day!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Dudesons: A Retrospective

It was exactly two weeks ago today that I was innocently flipping through TV channels as I lay comfortable in bed.  I skipped the news, didn't find anything interesting on History or Discovery, and finally reached the 50s.  That is your music/entertainment section of the TV dial.

Let's see VH1 (some trashy "celebreality" show), Spike TV (extreme fighters punching each other senseless), and MTV (heavily-accented foreigners dressed like Indians escaping from jail).

My heart skips a beat as I scream out loud- "Whoa, Hipster headdresses!"
Then I learn they are fulfilling several native "rites of passage."
Then I see Saginaw Grant- "King of All Indians."
Then I wonder if anyone else in the world is seeing this.
Then I start typing.

I started this blog three months ago as a written record of the ever-increasing instances of Native culture, imagery, names, and themes in everyday life.  I never expected it would be so easy.

An Example of "Native Imagery in Everyday Life"

Before I knew it, my post had been picked up at the Newspaper Rock Blog.  Then the comments started pouring in everywhere ranging from "this is absolutely racist and horrible" to "it's only a joke/satire, get over it."  Then the AIM Santa Barbara chapter started asking people to call MTV and complain.

I have absolutely no regrets for writing about The Dudesons and bringing it to people's attention for one simple reason.  IT GOT PEOPLE THINKING!  So in my book, mission accomplished.

That being said, I'd like to add one more interesting element to the mix.  Aside from all the heated rhetoric about whether the Dudesons were racist or funny, rude or satire, there is the underlying question of why?

Why would a group of Finnish performance artists choose a Native American theme for their show about coming to America? 

Here's one theory:

Stereotypes beget Stereotypes:

To begin, I'd like to quote Dudeson Jukka himself:
 (Entertainment Weekly interview)

"The whole spirit of the show is that everything we do is something very themed, very American. On one of the episodes we tried to become the first Finnish Native Americans. So we got a 73-year-old Indian mentor, and we go through all these ridiculous rites of passages we could think of. We tried to prove we are worthy of becoming a member of his Indian tribe."

Jukka again:

"Yeah, we brainstorm and come up with all the stuff we do. It’s an ongoing process. You can see something funny on the street, and think, 'Oh, that would be fun to try. How can we make it even more silly?' Some of the things you see in movies or cartoons, you think of a way to recreate it or add a unique twist to it. Usually, it’s taking something to a totally wrong place."

But wait there's more:

"With the spirit of the show and how we are, we never make fun of anyone except ourselves. Doing the show in that spirit has been great. Americans have been laughing and saying, 'Oh my God, what are you guys doing?' They don’t really know what to think. 'These guys are nuts but I love them.' Being here in America and doing the show here, we try to do a lot of things with Americans, and there are a lot of local people involved as well."

An Example of a "Local Person Involved"

In my mind, these quotes reveal three things about the Dudesons:

1. They thought of American Indians as a fundamental theme of America.

2. Their "research" consisted of simply brainstorming, stuff "we could think of," and gleaning ideas from "movies or cartoons."

3. They didn't think there was anything wrong with what they were doing.

Together, these three elements reveal a group of young men who were exposed to simple stereotypes and caricatures while growing up.  They simply collected their thoughts, feelings, and childhood nostalgia for Indians, lumping them together into one hot mess known as "Cowboys and Findians."

Regardless of how you feel about the Dudesons or their honest intent, you have to agree that Indian stereotypes in popular culture played a fundamental role in the creation of this episode!

Cowboys and Findians is a perfect example of the pernicious nature of these stereotypes.  Growing up in Finland, the Dudesons must have learned about America and American culture through cultural imports- particularly film and television.  They probably received a steady stream of cowboy and Indian flicks (hence the stunt with the Findians trying to escape from jail).  They only ever utilize the most salient and camera-friendly elements of native culture (feathers, totem poles, canoes, etc).  And thanks to popular notions of noble savagery, the Dudesons' Indians are simultaneously savage and noble (catching fish with their mouths like wild beasts but also strong and brave with "balls of steel").

Lastly, they honestly didn't think they were ridiculing anyone because in their minds, the silly stunts and Indian motifs fit with what they learned growing up.  How can you find something offensive if it feels so right and you know no alternative?

Right or wrong, the Dudesons would never have created this episode if it were not for the stereotypes that came before...

...and the ones still to come.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Tales from Grand Portage: The Great Hall Spirits

During the summer of 2008, I worked at Grand Portage National Monument in the northeast corner of Minnesota on the shores of Lake Superior.  Located on the Grand Portage Chippewa reservation, the monument commemorates the historic fur trade and in particular the North West Company trading post that operated on the site for almost 25 years.  I served as a costumed interpreter, dressing like a historic voyageur and giving talks and tours about the history and culture of the area.

I learned many things during this time but the greatest lessons were not about history but real life.

The Great Hall

The showpiece of the reconstructed trading post is the Great Hall.  Built on the original foundations, it consists of a large central dining hall with four additional side rooms.  Historically, the North West Company partners would entertain guests, conduct business, and relax within the walls of this massive wooden structure.  Thousands of people, young and old, sick and healthy, native and European, passed through this very space.  They laughed, they cried, they danced, and they died.  Fortunes were made and the fates of many were sealed with the stroke of a pen or the grasp of a handshake- all within this very room.

Today, thousands of visitors stream through this magnificent building every summer.  Most learn a few historical facts and go along their merry way but on one innocuous morning, one woman experienced something beyond ordinary.

I go through my regular morning routine- open the side rooms, light a fire, stock brochures, and sit down in my chair to await the first visitors.  A few trickle in now and then.  A typical slow morning.

Two women are now standing in the doorway of the kitchen across the way, ready to walk the short distance across the wooden planks into the Great Hall.  I rise from my chair and slowly walk toward the middle, the thump of my buckled shoes echoing across the cavernous space with every step.

The first woman is middle aged and dressed like an average visitor to the monument- shorts and a top.  She takes three steps inside the Great Hall and stops dead in her tracks.  Before I can even get any words out she is already talking.

"Did you feel that?" She exclaims, "I feel like there is a presence in this room.  I feel like there are spirits in here."

The woman behind her steps in and stands still without saying anything.  I simply stare at them both not knowing how to react.

"I know my grandmother used to tell me that she was part Indian but...," her sentence trails off before she continues, "I don't feel comfortable in here, I have to leave."

The two women quickly depart.  Through the hazy panes of hand blown glass, I see two figures walking diligently toward the entry gate.  I haven't moved since they left, my mind processing the scene I just witnessed.  My mind is screaming out, "What on earth just happened?  Spirits in the Great Hall, please...  This lady must be crazy!"

The Great Hall by candlelight

I immediately have to tell someone.  Somebody has to corroborate my feelings.  With an empty Great Hall, I walk over to the kitchen where I find one of my co-workers.  I immediately start:

"The craziest thing just happened in the Great Hall.  This woman walks in and stops and is telling me that she can feel the presence of spirits.  She's telling me that her grandmother was part Indian and I just don't know what to make of all this.  Have you ever heard of such a thing?"

He looks taken aback and says, "No, that's real strange."  I am reassured that someone else thinks this is as weird as I do.

I walk back into the Great Hall and find another of my co-workers, one of the tribal maintenance staff, painting on the front porch.  I walk up to her and repeat my story, "So this crazy lady walks into the Great Hall and tells me she can feel spirits.  She says she's really uncomfortable and she might be part Indian and then she leaves without saying anything else."

My co-worker responds:

"Oh yeah, I have felt the spirits in the there too.  There are spirits all around here."

Now, I'm staring at my own co-worker not knowing what to say.  I respond with a quiet, "um okay" and head back inside.  I feel like a complete ass for having talked about the lady in such a dismissive manner and now my co-worker standing right in front of me completely agrees with her.

I spend the rest of the day reassessing the events that transpired.  It's a complete shock to my system.

To this day, I will never know what the first woman felt but my co-worker responded with such conviction and candor that I will never think about native spirituality the same way again.

Up until that point, native religion was something I read about in books.  It was a historical concept that I used to explain trading patterns and periods of warfare.  In my mind, the spirits were quaint beliefs from a time long gone.

I learned an important lesson that morning in Minnesota.  Native spirituality is alive and healthy today.  While I may not totally understand it or agree with it, I do need to respect it.

I have since had many more run-ins with living spirituality.  I listen, I learn, and I thank everyone for sharing what they do.  It may be a cliche but it is worth repeating: Never judge a book by its cover.  Especially when that book is another person and the pages within are filled with such powerful personal conviction.

Manido Giizhigance or Little Cedar Spirit Tree

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Yoga Indians

In the current edition of Newsweek magazine, there is a great article by Lisa Miller about a unique Indian spiritual practice that is currently practiced by over 16 million Americans.

Yoga of course!

Lisa Miller makes some great points about America and its obsession with appropriating anything and everything exotic.  The parallels that can be made between this topic and issues of American Indian spirituality and culture are striking...

"Sixteen million Americans practice yoga, according to Yoga Journal, and in 2008 we spent nearly $6 billion on classes and stretch pants. Yet aside from "om" and the occasional "namaste," Americans rarely acknowledge that yoga is, at its foundation, an ancient Hindu religious practice, the goal of which is to achieve spiritual liberation by joining one's soul to the essence of the divine. In its American version, yoga is a mishmash: Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, 12-step rhetoric, self-help philosophies, cleansing diets, exercise, physical therapy, and massage. Its Hindu roots are obliterated by the modern infatuation with all things Eastern—and by our growing predilection for spiritual practices stripped of the sectarian burdens of religion."

I literally went back and read this paragraph a second time, inserting Native American references where appropriate.  (For example, the sweat lodge and its appropriation by New Age types.)

Miller notes how Americans have this unique ability to take other spiritual or cultural practices and completely strip them of their religious context.  We sanitize them to make them more comfortable and palatable for us Americans who don't care for the religious aspects.

She quotes Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero who says:

"America has this amazing capacity to make everything banal. That's what we do. We make things banal and then we sell them. If you're a Hindu, you see this beautiful, ancient tradition of yoga being turned into this ugly materialistic vehicle for selling clothes. It makes sense to me that you would be upset... But you can't stop people from appropriating elements in your religion.  You can't stop people from using and transforming yoga. But you have to honor and credit the source."

Miller finishes the piece essentially saying it is alright to appropriate Yoga and transform it into something new so long as you "honor and credit the source."

Lisa Miller definitely takes a pragmatic approach to the topic of cultural appropriation.  I agree with her that Americans will and do appropriate things all the time.  I also agree that Americans should have an accurate understanding of the origins of anything they appropriate.

She does not however answer the toughest question of all.  Where do you draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable appropriation?  And is it all really a matter of honoring and crediting the source?

Can you ever "respect the origins" of a cultural or religious practice while simultaneously stripping it of religious or cultural meaning?

All food for thought...

Thursday, May 13, 2010

"The Dudesons" Mark a New Low...

I thought the Hipster headdresses were weird enough and our new "Indian" friends at the Stanford Powwow equally awkward.  But ladies and gentlemen, there is a new winner.  And I'm still trying to pick my jaw up off the floor.

Meet The Dudesons- four Finnish friends whose new MTV television show combines wild stunts and outrageous comedy...

...and the most unbelievable ignorant and disturbing take on Native culture seen in years!

Here's the full episode summary from the official website:

The Dudesons want to know if they can hack it like the original Americans once did, so they have found a Native Indian mentor named Saginaw who has agreed to lead them through seven painful rites of passage. Ranging from a canoe ride from hell to a game of ball busting dominoes with totem poles - even a 911 trip to the hospital won't stop the Dudesons from pursuing their goals of becoming honorary members of the tribe.

Not only do they dress in outrageous Indian headdresses and outfits but they make a complete mockery of Native spirituality and culture.  They rescue their "Indian" brothers in jail from the evil cowboys by being yanked off a horse.  They attempt to fly like the eagles by driving an SUV off a ramp and into a moving target.   And as "Saginaw" instructs them, they must only catch fish with their mouths like "real Indians" using a rotating fish slapping machine of course.

This episode entitled Cowboys and Findians includes a Native elder named "Saginaw- King of all Indians" who looks completely uncomfortable throughout the entire process.  He even welcomes them into the tribe at the end of the episode saying "you have earned the right to be one of our tribal members."  He then gives them four "golden eagle" feathers.

Here is your photo slideshow

...and finally the show:

And in case you are wondering.  Former Jackass star Johnny Knoxville is the one to thank for not only bringing these four idiots to American shores but producing the television show as well.

Ladies and gentlemen- we have reached a new low.  God help us all!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Hipster Indians

Remember this photo?

It shows Dallas Cowboys cheerleader Whitney Isleib in black face pretending to be rapper Lil' Wayne at a Halloween party in 2009.  It made headlines across the nation as at best an ignorant Halloween costume choice, at worst a completely racist and insensitive one.

For many people, this photo stirs up strong emotions about our nation's history of discrimination towards African-Americans and the racism that still continues today.  People were rightly offended and it was a good thing that Ms. Isleib learned her lesson.

Now, look at this photo:

(click to super-size!)

What we have here are six young ladies from northern California decked out in their finest fringed leather, long braids adorned with feathers, and an occasional splotch of warpaint.  This could be anywhere in America come October 31st.  These young ladies clearly passed on the store bought sexy Indian costumes and instead went the do-it-yourself route to become just another sexy Sacajawea or provocative Pocahontas.

Except it's not...

This photo was taken just last week at the student Powwow at Stanford University.  I first discovered this little gem of a photo thanks to Adrienne at the Native Appropriations blog:

When Non-Native Participation at Powwows Goes Terribly Wrong

This trend is part of a wider trend of playing Indian that has sprouted up in recent years.  It is centered mostly on young, affluent, white Americans- or as they are sometimes known HIPSTERS!!!

The current fashion trend is the Hipster Headdress which you can read about here:

But Why Can't I Wear a Hipster Headdress?

And you just have to check out the site of one Mr. "Howling Wolf" (if that even is your real name [hint: it isn't]): I Am Howling Wolf

To all this I'd like to add another startling artifact to this growing collection.  I was watching some recorded shows on my DVR the other day when I fast forwarded through a commercial.  I immediately noticed the unique headwear of the participants.  That's right, the Hipster Headdress has gone commercial.  Check it out:

I could go into a long tirade about why wearing these headdresses and outfits is at best misguided, at worst racist and insensitive, but I feel I'd just be repeating Adrienne at the Native Appropriations blog.  Therefore, I will foolishly attempt to answer the larger question at work here...

Why do these seemingly well-educated, upper-middle class, mostly white, young people don this type of headgear and outfits?

I'll admit that I didn't know a whole lot about Native Americans and Native American culture before I got to college.  Like most upper-middle class white suburbanites, I received a typical native education that ended at Wounded Knee and then I filled in the gaps with Dances with Wolves and Pocahontas.  "But aren't Indians all about feathers and Nature and hunting buffalo?"

Well, no.  But in many ways I am the exception.  I've been lucky to learn a lot through my teachers, friends, and co-workers but as someone who once wallowed in the darkness I also have that experience to draw upon.

I wonder if the six ladies at the Stanford Powwow had ever attended a powwow before or if this was their first one.  My experience has taught me that most Powwows do a decent job of educating the general public on at least the basics.  It's regalia not costumes, the different styles of dance/dress, and usually something about the significance of the Powwow as a religious/cultural/community event.

Clearly, somebody didn't get the message.  I was originally going to make a pithy comment reminding the ladies that, "It's all fun and games till the minorities show up" but then I realized it wouldn't work.  They were not at a music fest or hippie commune free from the prying eyes of "real Indians."  Instead, they chose to go to the Powwow dressed like that.

That takes ignorance and guts!

Indians = Freedom and Rebellion:
When you grow up in the lily-white suburbs, the people are just as cookie cutter as the houses.  Anything "ethnic" that breaks away from that white majority pumps those little teenagers full of excitement.  What better way to escape the suburban desert than to play Indian.

Dressing in Indian attire has so much allure because Indians are the ultimate symbols of freedom and rebellion.  Throughout American history, Native people were seen as perfectly exemplifying the American ideals of unlimited personal freedom and rebellion.  (I mean the original Tea Partiers did dress as Indians after all and we put their likeness on our currency)  It was only when they got in the way of our attempts to act out our freedom (by moving west and settling their land) that Indians suddenly became the vicious savages ready to be put down and neatly boxed into a reservation.

The history of Indian perceptions also shows another aspect to this conundrum.  It was exactly the places where Indians "no longer existed" (read: at least no longer in a primitive "Indian" state) that this idealized image of the Indian particularly took hold.  When you live on the frontier, you're not exactly going to glorify the guy who is trying every way possible to get his land back from you.  Historically, this began among well-educated, well-to-do white easterners who created societies and charities to help Indians.

Zoom forward to today and there are not any "Indians" left.  Since our media and culture insist on reminding us that Indians are those feather-wearing, war-drum beating, tree-hugging stoic figures, then clearly there aren't any left so we can wear all their stuff.  Well everyone, "it's all fun and games till the minorities show up."  But the thing is...

...they were here the whole damn time!

I believe that the MGMT music video for Time to Pretend perfectly exemplifies this Indian escapism run amok.  Notice the fine use of furs, body paint, bows and arrows, Mayan temple, and crazy "Dances with Wolves-esque" dance around the campfire:

Whoever has been to an awkward elementary school Thanksgiving pageant raise your hand!!!  I bet it didn't look like this one:

Go Wednesday Addams!

Seriously though, these pageants are commonplace throughout our American schools.  And if it isn't a full blown pageant, it's at least construction paper headdresses to go along with the plastic Pilgrim hats.

Oh, and it doesn't always have to be young people or white people either...

Then let's throw in Scouting (a whole topic on it's own):

And Summer Camp:

So, um when you think about it.  Isn't playing Indian kind of like mainstream?  No, wait, what am I saying.  The stereotypes are so powerful that Indians can never become mainstream.  They will always be that other, whose likenesses, clothing, and culture will forever be ripe for the picking.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

April 29 Clinton School Board Meeting

I am going to write out the usual narrative about the evening to fill you in on the details. You will find my comments interspersed in italics.

The night overall was very peaceful and orderly and for that I congratulate the Clinton community and all the guests in attendance. Strong words and emotions were thrown about and I'm glad people kept their cool and conducted themselves properly.

The night began with many in the Clinton community, mostly students, demonstrating along the main road in front of the school. Essentially it was a large demonstration in favor of the school mascot. Typical pep rally fare- cheers, signs, etc.

I was grateful to see city, county, and state police were in attendance and that signs and banners were not allowed in the gymnasium. It quickly filled up as people filled the bleachers and the proceedings began. Those supporting a change in mascot sat together in the front three rows while all the others were mostly community members strongly in support of keeping the mascot

One interesting note- everyone was given a flier setting out the meeting agenda, it read as follows:

1. Call to order- Pledge of Allegiance
2. Native American Presentation
3. School Board Determination Regarding Mascot
4. Public Comment

I hope that order of events looks odd to you since the meeting was called for the community to express their opinions to the school board before a decision was made.

Regardless of your side on this issue you can't help but see the hypocrisy here. The school board set up this meeting so that all sides could voice their opinions in front of the school board and then a decision would be made. Their choice of voting before public comment is like them saying, “We don't care about your opinions, We've already made up your minds and you can't change them.” And these people are the public servants of Clinton, Michigan!

The majority of the Native American delegation came in as a group led by elders and at least two eagle staffs. The staffs remained near the entrance while everyone else sat down.

The Native American presentation:
The presentation was essentially a slide show presentation and three different speakers. Elspeth Geiger and her sister Kylista gave their account of the name Redskins being from bounties and mentioned all the resolutions passed against race-based mascots. They expressed their personal feelings as graduates of Clinton High School.  They talked about their hesitation to express their own Native American heritage while attending Clinton High School due to the mascot which they found even then personally offensive. They also pointed out inconsistencies between the mascot and the Clinton High School student handbook. Then Jim gave an impassioned speech describing the bloody origin of the term redskins. His presentation included graphic details of cutting off genitals to demonstrate the gender of the bounty and photos of American soldiers posing with dead Native Americans.

I applaud all the speakers for their bravery that night. It is not an easy thing to get up in front of more than 2,000 people and say some very unpopular things. Their impassioned speeches and the accompanying photos pulled a pal of silence over the crowd. Everyone listened and learned- the goal of the meeting.

Concerning the evidence. The origin of the term redskins is still up for debate but the truth remains that even if it did not originate with bloody bounties, it did turn into a highly offensive and disparaging term. When all the Hollywood cowboys referred to the Redskins and Redmen, it was not a compliment. The truth is that the name and the accompanying images are very offensive for many people, many of whom expressed this exact sentiment at the meeting.

The Student Handbook:
1. The Clinton High School student handbook says that students must do the following: “respect the Civil Rights of others

The United States Commission on Civil Rights issued the “Statement of U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on the Use of Native American Images and Nicknames as Sports Symbols” which:

“calls for an end to the use of Native American images and team names.... It is particularly disturbing that Native American references are still to be found in educational institutions, whether elementary, secondary or post-secondary.”

Furthermore, the American Psychological Association says:

“The continued use of American Indian mascots, symbols, images, and personalities presents stereotypical images of American Indian communities, that may be a violation of the civil rights of American Indian people.”

How then does the school board protect the Civil Rights of Native Students from their school who are saying to them they did not feel comfortable being in their own school?

2. The Clinton High School handbook also says that students must “work cooperatively with others... regardless of... race... or ethnic background.”

Once again the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights states:

“Schools are places where diverse groups of people come together to learn… but also how to interact respectfully with people from different cultures…. The stereotyping of any racial, ethnic, religious or other groups when promoted by our public educational institutions, teach all students that stereotyping of minority groups is acceptable, a dangerous lesson in a diverse society. Schools have a responsibility to educate their students; they should not use their influence to perpetuate misrepresentations of any culture of people...

3. Finally, that same handbook says students must “help maintain a school environment that is safe, friendly and productive.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights continues:

“these Indian-based symbols and team names are not accurate representations of Native Americans. Even those that purport to be positive are romantic stereotypes that give a distorted view of the past. These false portrayals prevent non-Native American from understanding the true historical and cultural experiences of American Indians. Sadly, they also encourage biases and prejudices that have a negative effect on contemporary Indian people… they block genuine understanding of contemporary Native people as fellow Americans.

In my opinion, the most damning indictment all night was this evidence. Not once did the school board try to refute this evidence. Why? Because you can't. When students from Clinton High School say they did not feel safe in their own hallways because of the pain this mascot caused, how can you say it is a “safe, friendly, and productive” environment?

The Clinton High School Mission Statement says it is their mission: “To provide individuals a variety of educational opportunities which enables them to become life long learners and productive members of a “CHANGING WORLD.” Tell me how providing such readily available ethnic stereotypes prepares anyone for the REAL WORLD!?

If not for the Native American activists, the school board should at least change the mascot so that their own students will become CULTURALLY COMPETENT to work in the real world that is our diverse nation.

Finally, Daniel Krichbaum, the interim director of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, got up and said three main things. One, he was there offering his services as a mediator to the community to help them get through this tough issue. Then he declared two truisms- 1. People in the community take pride in the redskins mascot and mean no disrespect and 2. Some people find the term and mascot imagery highly offensive. Essentially, it was a quite neutral speech in my opinion

The speech was not seen that way by Clinton schools superintendent David Pray. To quote the news article here: lenconnect.com

Prior to the vote, Superintendent David Pray took issue with Kirchbaum’s comments and appearance. He pointed out that a pair of complaints against Clinton schools are pending before the civil rights commission.

“It is clear you are taking sides seeking to become an advocate,” Pray said. “That role is inappropriate. The department is supposed to act as an impartial investigator. It is obvious that Clinton schools is not being treated fairly.”

I thought this was simply a whiny statement. It he believes so strongly in his mascot, why is he so worried? Because a court of law is different from a small town gymnasium. In a court of law, the case rests on the merits of the evidence presented and the word of the law. The fact remains that the school board did nothing to refute the overwhelming evidence from respected sources that demonstrate that these stereotypical images and mascot have a demonstrable negative impact on not only Native students but all young people- who are most susceptible to these negative images during their developmental years.

If anyone was not treated fairly, it was the community at large and the guests that evening who were denied an opportunity to speak to the school board and express their opinions before the vote.

The Vote:
Before the final vote, each school board member (except one) took their turn using 5-10 minutes to make their own comments. Their arguments included: Redskins per dictionary definitions is not always offensive. We chose this term to honor the Native Americans. We will not be "bullied" by a small minority. They made personal attacks against the Geiger family expressing doubt as to their sincerity since they did not bring this issue up previously. Several of the members admitted they used Wikipedia as a source for their research. And finally to directly quote Superintendent Pray, "I believe the people of Clinton respect our mascot and believe they are paying homage to Native American bravery and resourcefulness."

Can you trust your local school board when in their attempts to educate themselves, they use a resource that would not even be acceptable in the classrooms they themselves oversee? (no offense to Wikipedia). What this demonstrates in my mind is that they simply went to the easiest and most convenient source for their information. But the school board members are adults. They understand the idea of nuance and the difference between a stereotype and reality, right?

May I remind you that we're talking about a school. If the kids get no exposure to real Native Americans and Native American culture, they will simply have to educate themselves on the issue. And just like their own role models, the school board, I recommend they look to the most easy and convenient source of information for their answers. In fact, why they don't just look on the walls of their own gymnasium. Tell me is this a real Native American?

This is their Wikipedia. This is their source of easy information.

The last quote, “I believe the people of Clinton respect our mascot and believe they are paying homage to Native American bravery and resourcefulness,” also comes in near the top for silliest thing said all night. I'm glad I didn't bring my irony meter with me to the evening cause it literally would have exploded! Can somebody please explain to me how this mascot with its outright caricatures and demeaning nickname pays homage to anyone? With this quote, the school board director is directly linking these images and redskin name to real native people and culture? That is the same as saying these images and names are real Native Americans. Tell me once again is this a real Native American?

He must think it is since he directly linked these images and names to real Native people today! Funny, none of the Native Americans sitting around me that night looked like this.

But then again it is true Native Americans were very resourceful.  Necessity is the mother of all invention.   It's truly amazing how well they coped when they were being killed, rounded up, and stripped of their culture? I'm surprised they even lasted as long as they did.  It's kind of like how all the Jews were very resourceful scratching together scraps of food and any semblance of culture in the ghettos of Europe and then the extermination camps?   Should we proudly make them into a mascot? Of course, there was a horrible genocide against them, we're not disputing that.  We just simply think that their actions are honorable and we only wish to honor them with this mascot.  They were strong, brave businesspeople who knew how to get things done and make a little profit. (positive images, no?) Sure, when the name was chosen decades ago it may have meant one thing but today we don't have any problem with it.  I don't understand what's the problem.

So ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the Clinton High School fightin' Goldstars!

The argument of the school board in a nutshell was, "Our community feels strongly in favor of the mascot, it is a positive symbol, your arguments are weak, we will not acknowledge your feelings, we will not be bullied, majority rules."

To no one's surprise they voted 7-0 in favor of keeping the mascot.

The Public Comment:
The most electric moment of the night came when Jeanette Henagan who is the President of the Lenawee county NAACP and long time supporter of this movement decided to speak. Earlier in the evening, she had spoken to the school board in regards to the order of the events: voting before public comment. Jeanette was one of the first people to speak during public comment. She spoke about 10 words when a school board member stopped her to allow people in the bleachers, who had already started to depart, to get up and leave. Jeanette was not happy at all when this happened because it was in her opinion adding insult to injury that the school board would take part of the public comment period to let people leave. So she started speaking, despite having the microphone cut off, and continued when her alloted 3 minutes officially began. This is where this comment came out- ABC local

While I do not condone her outburst, I can certainly understand her strong emotion.

Otherwise, all the whole debate between the Native American presentation, the school board members, and the public commentators came down to two phrases...

1. The definition of Redskins is...

2. I feel that...

I was so upset that the debate collapsed into bickering over polling data and whose dictionary has the more accurate (read convenient) definition.  It literally was dueling dictionaries!

Keep the mascot comments:

People arguing against the name change made a big issue out of the Geiger family saying “why wasn't this brought up ever before?” They also accused Elspeth of "bullying" and "harrasing" the school board. (apparently dealing with any strong, out-spoken, self-confident woman goes so against "their ways" it will feel like "bullying") People attacked the Geiger sisters saying they aren't "real" Native Americans. Others said, "I think it's wrong to bring kids into the issue like this."

I found this comment particularly misguided. In my opinion, this whole issue is all about the kids! People argued that the activists were wasting their time and should go after bigger targets like the Washington Redskins. To that I say this... the Redskins of Washington DC are a professional football team and private company. While I am not comfortable with their mascot, they are after all a private company. Clinton High School is a school!!! A school should be a place where you go to learn about the world. It should also be a safe refuge. How is Clinton High School either of those things when its own students did not feel comfortable inside its walls and all the students are fed a constant stream of stereotyped images! Adults (hopefully) have the maturity to understand the nuance of stereotypes- children do not. It's a struggle already with the Indian stereotypes in our media, how then do we change people's minds when they are taught these things in school!

One high school aged girl got up and said more or less this, "How can these people talk about this mascot issue when there are bigger issues in the world. Every day hundreds of woman are sold into slavery." She spent three minutes talking about sex slavery during a discussion of Indian mascots. Another woman said the Geiger sisters would be better off spending their time reading to kids at the hospital.

This prompted me to say to myself, "but how can they read to those kids in the hospital when all those women are being sold into slavery!"  Don't get me wrong, all these issues are important, but to bring up such petty arguments shows the weakness of their arguments.

The absolute scariest thing all night was when a community member went to the mic and decided to take this debate to the next level.

A local man while speaking invoked the Sports Illustrated poll that says 75% of Native Americans support these mascots and 25% are against them to say the following and this is a direct quote: We need "to instruct the other 25% why this word is good." He didn't just say I disagree or I believe this word means this. He came right out and in a very strong way said that it is the Native Americans who need to be educated on this issue.

I found this be an equally ironic and hostile statement. The audacity for someone to say we should instruct them that the word Redskins is okay. My mind honestly thought back to the worst days of the boarding schools. This comment more than anything else all night made me angry. And to top it all off, a second community member got up and said essentially the same thing, "we should try and change the 25%."  To learn why I think using this polling data is a weak argument, read this post.

Change the mascot comments:
Many varied arguments were made in support of changing the mascot.

14-year old Native American student Angel Cooper talked about how at her school she'd been bullied for being Native and she literally was in tears by the end of her three minutes. We had a non-native veteran tell a story about how he had a Native soldier in his squad who taught him the hurt he felt from Indian mascots. People argued that the symbols were sacred and they displayed real emotion when they said how the redskins name and mascot made them feel. People did invoke the school handbook to show the contradictions with the mascot (but not as much as I'd hoped). One of the more thought provoking lines which really helped diffuse some of the "us vs. them" tension was when one woman got up and said "I am not a Native American but I am a person."

I was frustrated in some ways with the tactics used by many arguing to change the mascot. In my opinion, (and this is truly my opinion) the overemphasis on the words "racist," the emphasis on the word redskins (as opposed to imagery!), the parallels made to the word Nigger, all seemed to hit brick ways pretty quickly. I personally found that when people said, "I think this is an offensive and racist term and it should be changed" it was not the best tactic. Why? Because always with the I... I think this, I think that. I am of the opinion that it's better to argue not "this offends me" but rather "this is bad for the community and young people and here's why..." Maybe it's because I'm not Native myself and I struggle to truly understand this issue from a Native perspective. I simply approach this issue from my own perspective and my own personal belief in the welfare of everyone.

My comments:

When I spoke, I surprised even myself with my passion

I began by saying, "this issue is not about political correctness as some say but in my opinion is about correctness." I pointed to the Indian caricature on the wall in the gym, literally of a brown skinned, arms crossed, war painted, head bonneted, loin clothed, "Indian" and said to the school board while pointing, "Can you honestly tell me that that image is okay, that that image is correct?"

I continued saying how the community feels this is a positive mascot and image that they honor, but I went on to argue that "even the positive stereotype of a brave, honorable Indian is still a stereotype and prevents Native people from defining themselves."

I continued with an even more compelling question, "Can you honestly tell me that all the good aspects of this mascot on one side, truly outweigh the personal trauma that people here tonight have experienced because of this same name and image." I went on to invoke my own history of being bullied and made it clear that these traumas stay with you for the rest of your life (while most leave the mascot post-12th grade).

Finally, I made one last impassioned plea. I mentioned how so many words and different definitions had been thrown around that night. I finally said, "but there is one word that has not been said tonight and I think it is a very important word... that word is EMPATHY." How could the school board members or people in the crowd not honestly be affected by these impassioned pleas and personal tragedies? (my theories: comfort in the majority, peer pressure, insecurity, and the big one for the seven folks at the folding tables- job security).

The public comment time ended, the meeting adjourned, and everyone started to leave. I was exhausted but was surprised when several people came up to me and said how impressed they were with my comments. (And I thought I was just sharing my opinion!)

Final Thoughts:

1. I felt the organization and argument strategy for changing the mascot could use some tweaking.

2. The arguments made on that side were otherwise really, really good.

3. Not once did the school board or community refute the hard evidence of negative psychological effects, stereotyping, and demonstrable damage done to members of their very own community (whether native or not)!

4. The mascot isn't changing anytime soon but the fight continues.

I would like to end with one final comment from President Obama when he gave the commencement addresss at my alma mater, the University of Michigan this past weekend:

“I look out at this class and I realize for four years at Michigan you have been exposed to diverse thinkers and scholars, professors and students. Don’t narrow that broad intellectual exposure just because you’re leaving here. Instead, seek to expand it. If you grew up in a big city, spend some time with somebody who grew up in a rural town. If you find yourself only hanging around with people of your own race or ethnicity or religion, include people in your circle who have different backgrounds and life experiences. You’ll learn what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes, and in the process, you will help to make this democracy work.”

I say simply to the people of Clinton, Michigan- take a walk in someone else's shoes... you may surprise even yourself.