Still Better Dead Than Red?
An Anarchists and Anti-authoritarian Evaluation of Native American Mascots and Symbols
by Dana Williams

 

Attempts to analyze the hijacking of Native American culture by mainstream America could benefit from an anarchist and anti-authoritarian perspective.

A very simple definition of "anarchism" is "opposition to all forms of domination and oppression". It means "without rulers" (but not necessarily without rules). Anarchists make it their task to seek out forms of oppression and challenge their legitimacy. The anarchist desires the opposite of domination: liberation and freedom for all.

The following is a brief review of the forms of domination inherent to the U.S. phenomena of using Native American mascots, nicknames, and logos.

HOW DO NATIVE MASCOTS OPPRESS?

Capitalism
Joseph-Pierre Proudhon (the first to call himself an anarchist) once famously declared that property was "theft". Nothing could be truer today. The very nature of "property" requires that some have it and thus others don't. In the case of Native mascots, the ability of White America to possess these symbols and cultural markers (and to trademark them) is a theft from Native America.

Capitalism's goal is to commodify everything. It also seeks to romanticize the past, which helps to perpetuate the present. Thus, it is important to make the myths of "Westward Expansion" economically profitable, partially through the illusion of "honor" towards Native Americans by way of mascots and symbols. Many convince themselves that they are somehow "honoring" Natives by these practices.

The use of Native mascots and symbols is a multi-million dollar industry. Professional and collegiate sports benefit enormously from the appropriation of Native culture. From the jerseys athletes wear to the paraphernalia that fans buy in thousands of stores throughout the country, Native imagery is a ubiquitous part of professional sports in America. The Kansas City Chiefs, Washington Redskins, Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians, Chicago Blackhawks, and Golden State Warriors all feature their names and logos splashed across all manner of clothing and media. These garments are produced under abusive sweatshop conditions the world around, only to be sold at grossly inflated prices to individuals who further distract themselves from matters of importance to their everyday existence.

How much of this profit goes towards rebuilding Native communities? None. Are "royalties" ever paid? Ha! How often do those in power discontinue such use on their own "ethical" accord instead of blindly following the profit motive? Never.

Racism & Sexism
The practice of displaying decapitated heads (which is what logos essentially are) of previously displaced, abused, conscripted, and eliminated people is an act of utter moral depravity. Imagine the German people "honoring" their (former) residents by naming a soccer team the "Auschwitz Jews"? Or perhaps Mississippi State University changing it's basketball team name to the "Obedient Negroes"? Placing the culture of those who have faced an incredible genocide in a position of "fun and games" (thus making genocide "all in good humor") deflects all true criticism. In essence, it completes the genocide.

Entwined with the racial dynamic of Native mascots is a trend that directly targets Native gender and sexuality. The regular usage of the word "squaw" as a team name (in reference to "Native women") -- not to mention also thousands of geographical place names -- is incredibly sexist and offensive. The term is a lewd reference to female genitalia. White frontiersmen adopted it when they took Native women for sexual pleasure, using the word to refer to all Native women. It essentially labels any Native woman as a _____ (insert the "c"-word here).

Additionally, sports propaganda often pits opposing team mascots against each other. Since many mascots are animals, some fans have created t-shirts that portray Native people (both women and men) in bestial sexual acts with animals. This practice severely degrades the humanity of Native people to the level of animals, which furthers the goal of marginalizing them as people with legitimate rights. Even when animals are not employed in such propaganda, Natives are routinely portrayed as mere sex objects to be used by the dominant culture.

Cultural Imperialism
Two things occur when oppressed people are culturally plundered: 1) it belittles their struggles against domination, and 2) it insures that all reference to them is placed in a historic context. The former reduces their self-determination and self-appraisal, while that latter facilitates an ignorance of present-day Native struggles. Placing Native people alongside historical relics as Buccaneers, Cowboys, 49ers, Kings, Patriots, Pirates, 76ers, Vikings, and Wizards suggests that Native people are no longer alive to object to their portrayal. Their problems and concerns can then be ignored.

Rarely are the many nations, tribes, and ethnicities consulted about the use of their names, imagery, culture, traditions, etc. They are merely taken, reprocessed, and exploited. This theft does a number of things to Native Americans. First it robs them of their ability to determine how they are portrayed to others in society. Secondly, it casts out stereotypes, misconceptions, and historical inaccuracies to the public mind. Thirdly, it tarnishes the self-image of many Native American youth, who grow into adulthood viewing themselves through the fractured and obscene lens of corporate America.

"Don't you have anything better to do?" is repeatedly asked of anti-mascot activists. Some people point towards the multitude of problems facing Native Americans such as unemployment, alcoholism, drug abuse, suicide, obesity, diabetes, and low education attainment. True, these are problems, but only the na´ve can deny what these things all have in common: a low self-esteem. And where does such low self-esteem come from? It comes, in large part, from the onslaught of negative images and stereotypes enforced by the mass media about Native Americans. Along with poverty, Native mascots are a genocidal cancer that kills the aspirations of thousands of Native youth.

WHY SHOULD ANARCHISTS CARE?

We must resist this practice for two reasons, both direct and indirect: 1) anarchists are anti-racists and anti-imperialists; 2) The State and Capitalism rely upon the subjugation of Native Americans.

In aiding our Native sisters and brothers we help to improve their abilities to seek self-determination and follow their own path to liberation. Especially as a movement that is heavily White, we have a great responsibility to remove the external systems and dynamics which oppress those with less defenses, and to allow them breathing room to navigate and struggle for their freedoms and rights.

As Native activist Ward Churchill states, the American Empire rests upon unhindered access to resources within the domain of Native American reservations. Large reserves of coal, oil, and uranium reside under the theoretical control of Native tribes. As a result, the U.S. government continues to restrict the rights of Native Americans, hoping to gain unrestricted access. Therefore, to assist Native Americans in any of their important struggles is to indirectly fight the forces that repress Native Americans.

Although the struggle against racist Native mascots may seem like a "minor" one compared to the fight against militarism, patriarchy, capitalism, et al., it is still an important one. It is the link between the shameful and genocidal basis of the political/territorial U.S. and the present. It forces the public to uncomfortably acknowledge the conditions of some of the most invisible racial minorities in the hemisphere. If properly linked, it is a struggle that could bring instant challenge to an oppressive political climate.

Finally, this is a struggle that we can win in the foreseeable future... by linking with Native activists, civil rights activists, environmentalists, and human rights activists. And it is a struggle we must win!