From our Colonial period right through to the present day, Native Americans have always been the victims of an intrinsic “institutional racism” in the United States. Or, put more bluntly, it’s always been okay to be flat-out disrespectful.
Don’t think so, huh? Ready to join the gutless, no name-given and no address-given e-mailers who will undoubtedly post their “enough with the political correctness” mantra to this commentary on this newspaper’s website?
Let’s keep it simple then. In this newspaper, when dealing with slurs for gender, color, creed, or ethnicity, you certainly wouldn’t find the “B”-word for women, the “N”-word for blacks, the “S”-word for Hispanics/Latinos, the “K”-word for Jews, the “T”-word for Muslims, the “M”-word for the Irish, the “W”-word for Italians, and so on.
But, in this newspaper, and in almost all of the newspapers around our country, you will commonly find the word “Redskins.” Indeed, there it is: The BDN has no problem with it. And, of course, you’ll hear it all over the radio, and on television, and on the Internet, often spoken by many of our most respected people in the media.
The term is not the racial epithet it should be, I believe, merely because it’s been acceptable for so damn long. For instance, it was commonplace to call Louis Sockalexis, the great Penobscot baseball player who inspired the Cleveland Indians nickname and the subject of my 2003 biography, “a redskin” and “a savage” on newspaper pages in 1897, and things truly haven’t improved all that much.
You still think the term “Redskins” is acceptable? I love what my friend Paul Bisulca, former chairman of the Maine Indian Tribal State Commission, said in trying to demonstrate to the Wiscasset community the clear epithet, the clear pejorative nature of the term, during the contentious fight to get that high school to drop its “Redskin” nickname and mascot: “Try going over the bridge to Penobscot Nation Indian Island and yelling to the first person you see, ‘Hey, Redskin, how do you get to the community building?’ and see what kind of reaction you get.”
Further, we find junior high, high school and colleges and, for God’s sake, even the professional football team in our nation’s Capitol, all claiming they are “honoring” Native Americans by using such nicknames and mascots. “Honoring?” Is it honoring a race of people when you have the nickname “Redskins” but know you can’t yell out your team’s nickname at athletic contests, the way it once was at Sanford High School? Or you’re the principal at Nokomis Regional High School in Newport, and you have to keep cautioning youngsters not to wear warpaint and not to do mock war whoops.
I’m frequently challenged that there are so many greater concerns facing our dwindling, frequently poverty-stricken Native American population that the mascot issue should go far to the back-of-the-line of issues to be addressed.
In response, I’ve told everyone from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Ford (who claims a mother of part Native American ancestry) to representatives of the five Wabanaki villages in Maine that they’re wrong to see this as trivial. When a group of people in a society isn’t taken seriously enough to be spared the ignominious fate of being reduced to racist nicknames, silly little caricatures and thoughtless mockings of its culture, that group of people isn’t going to be taken seriously at any other level above basic respect.
Because I was so outraged that the Cleveland Indians baseball team continues to insist it is “honoring” Louis Sockalexis, through the use of the nickname “Indians” and the mascot “Chief Wahoo,” I joined in partnership with MITSC to put on a school mascot symposium in May of 2010 at the Bangor Public Library, to see if I couldn’t help “change the world” on this issue in my own backyard — before I continued on with the tilting of windmills in Cleveland.
In research for that symposium, I learned, from the national website www.aics.org, which tracks Native American mascot usage for all 50 states, that there were 33 elementary, junior high and high school communities in Maine in the early 2000s using such nicknames and mascots. But it was heartening to discover, as I called around to all the schools on the list, to discover that, at the time of the symposium, there were actually only eight schools which deserved to remain on the list. And, as I write at this moment, there are now only three schools in all of Maine resisting the plea to stop this insidious practice.
Yes, unlike communities from Scarborough to Fort Kent, from Old Town to Peru, and, most recently, from Wiscasset to Sanford, three Mane communities – Newport, Skowhegan and Wells – stubbornly and arrogantly stick to the “we’re honoring them” claim. Indeed, these three communities remain, apparently, blissfully recalcitrant: They do not have to join this nationwide movement, and they can continue to embarrass the rest of the state, keeping us from becoming one of the first states to completely eradicate the practice.
Sadly, Nokomis and Wells High School could merely do what Principal Tim Doak and Fort Kent Community High School chose to do, years ago, by simply becoming the generic “Warriors” and abolishing all use of Native American images. Principal Mary Nadeau of Nokomis, who actually attended the mascot symposium in Bangor in 2010, and Jack Molloy, director of student activities and athletics at Wells High School, have both e-mailed me to say their schools have no present interest in a policy change.
And then there’s Skowhegan Area High School. Principal Rick Wilson and the 23 people who sit on the school’s education board are not interested in any dialogue on the issue. Period. Not one school board member responded to my e-mail plea for community debate. They’re the “Indians,” and if their girls softball team members enjoy vilely badgering their opponents by incessantly war whooping, well, apparently, that’s part of how they “honor” Native Americans in their community.
Sad, that the community that boasts native daughter Margaret Chase Smith, the little lady from Maine who stood up, alone, to confront national bully Joe McCarthy, can’t find any individuals of integrity in its educational hierarchy to even discuss this issue, let alone do the right thing.
More than ever, bold action is required here.
I appeal here to the young, to those students in Maine at the elementary, junior high and high school levels, learning about the philosophies of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., studying the bold and heroic actions of individuals like Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson. Don’t be intimidated by the idea that these are “our national heroes,” the stuff of statues and books and movies. They began, like you, in school, reading about and being inspired by those who seized a moment. They were people who would not accept the status quo and dared to be the first to say, “No, I will not accept this treatment.” And the beauty of this is … you can do it, too.
Just imagine if Maine school boys and girls led the way, perhaps using the civil rights teams created by our state attorney general’s office. What if they delivered a collective stern message to Nokomis, Skowhegan and Wells to stop the unnecessary offense to a race of people? What if the rivals of these schools put human respect before sporting matches and even dared to boycott games with these schools? Just imagine.
The day of use of Native American nicknames and mascots would end sooner than later in Maine.
Ed Rice of Orono is a journalist, adjunct college instructor and author of “Baseball’s First Indian.”