"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

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.

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