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Saturday, June 3, 2017

Say, "No" to Mascots

No matter what "percentage" of indigenous ancestry, if you haven't grown up with the negative repercussions for practicing your culture or realized there are/were laws against practicing language, traditions, celebrations, songs, and dances; or felt resistance for speaking the truth about history, resistance, and contributions; or been harassed or discriminated against because of appearing Native American possibly resulting in low tracking in school, loss of work, reliance on government housing or food; then you really don't know what's it like for many of us who are indigenous people in this country.

I don't want to hear about how "mascots don't affect you."
Claudia Fox Tree (6/3/17 Facebook Post)

To: Committee on Education (for Hearing at the MA State House on June 6, 2017)
Re: S.291 End Race-Based Mascots in Massachusetts Schools
I am a mother of five, a public speaker and presenter, an educator of both children and adults, on the board of Native American organizations, and a woman of Arawak descent.
If you have never heard about the Arawak, you are not alone.  If you have heard of Christopher Columbus, but not the Arawak, my point has already been made.
Author, Chimamanda Adiche, says, “The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”  For far too long, the dominant culture has been telling our First Nations stories from its own perspective in the way IT wants to view US, just like the Columbus legend which views us as generic "Indians," and not as the specific and varied tribes and nations we actually are.  We have been denied a voice in our own narrative.  The problem with "mascots" is that it often includes songs, gestures, costuming, and the like - an entire culture of racism based on a single image that is supposed to represent us.

Self-creation of one's identity is commonly experienced in the United States and other Western societies during the period of adolescence. Though the foundation of identity is laid in the experiences of childhood, younger children lack the physical and cognitive development needed to reflect on the self in this abstract way and ask questions, such as: Who am I now? Who was I before? Who will I become? One problem with stereotypes is that more people see stereotypes instead of actual, real, authentic images. Stereotypes misrepresent Native American history and cultures.

One single image can be assigned to all indigenous people with little regard to individual differences. Images like these affect all children. They model what Native Americans are supposed to look like, act like, and do based on a European ideology. Songs, dances, art, and stories that are “taught” are not our true songs, dances, art, and stories. Stereotypes, by their negative nature, do not focus on contributions, role-models, or resistance. 
Matika Wilbur researched the 5,868 blockbuster films between 1990 and 2000. 12 included Native Americans, all showed us as spiritual or in tune with nature, 10 showed us as impoverished or beaten by down by society, and 10 depicted us continually in conflict with whites.

John Sanchez from Pennsylvania State University did an extensive study between 1990 and 1999 of the “big three” television networks – ABC, CBS, and NBC.  During that time frame, the 3 networks produced 175,889 news reports. Of those, a combined total of 98 reports were about Native Americans or Native American issues. The majority of these stories framed by stereotypical 18th century imagery, such as Native Americans in buckskin clothing riding horses and wearing traditional headdresses.  The least common type of story was those representing 21st century Native Americans in a positive light. Most Americans believe that Native Americans are either assimilated, or extinct – that we don’t exist anymore.

Sarah Shear (and others) at Pennsylvania State University in Altoona analyzed the U.S. and state history standards from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Based on results, Shear says, students are graduating from high school without even basic knowledge of contemporary Native American challenges or culture.  Across all the states, 87% of references to Natives portray them prior to 1900, with no clear vision of what happened after that. In half of the states, no individual Native Americans or specific nations are named. The most commonly named people are Sacagawea, Squanto, Sequoyah, and Sitting Bull. Only 62 Nations are named in standards (there are 562).  One nation, the Iroquois, is mentioned in six states and only 4 states (AZ, WA, OK, and KS) include boarding schools.  Washington is the only state to use the word “genocide” in relation to Native People (in the standards for 5th grade U.S. history). Nebraska textbooks portray Natives as lazy, drunk or criminal. 90% of all manuscripts written about Native people are authored by non-Native writers. There is nothing about treaties, land rights, or water rights, nor the fact that tribes are still fighting to be recognized and determine sovereignty.  All 50 states lack any content about current Native events or challenges.

If we were represented in all subjects at all grade levels K-12, had a mega movie industry portraying our various histories and cultures, and had best-selling books, then MAYBE a stereotype wouldn't be a "big deal," next to a continuum of accurate, self-representation.  But we do not have those things in our own country, or anywhere else in the world, so a stereotype carries much, much more weight for us, our developing indigenous children, and all children who are subjected to the misinformation created by stereotypes.

I need to take a moment to discuss the Native American boarding schools that were established in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries to educate Native American children and youths according to European-American standards. Children were immersed in Euro-American culture through appearance changes with haircuts, were forbidden to speak their native languages, and traditional names were replaced by new Euro-American names to both "civilize" and "Christianize."  The experience of the schools was often harsh, especially for the younger children who were separated from their families. In numerous ways, indigenous people were encouraged or forced to abandon their identities and cultures. Investigations of the later 20th century have revealed many documented cases of sexual, physical, and mental abuse occurring at such schools. 

Why do I point out boarding schools? Because the, "Kill the Indian and save the man" mentality is the historical treatment we have received.  Boarding schools illustrate the problem with mascots and other forms of cultural appropriation.  Why has it been okay to mock, mimic, and pretend to be "Indian," but it is not okay to actually BE “Indian”?
This is a Civil Rights issue, not an individual school system or town issue.  This models what we want ALL children to know and be aware of, not just indigenous children.  When you keep seeing “Native Americans” behaving a certain way, even when it is inaccurate, you begin to BELIEVE that is the way ALL Native Americans behave.  Mascots, and associated antics, are not who we are, not part of our story, and not the way we want to be seen, treated, or represented.  It's a form of harassment, bullying, and all the worst things schools have to offer and are "supposedly" fighting against.  Schools did not want to “integrate” either.  Legislation and the National Guard had to be used to help schools do the right thing.  I hope the Massachusetts legislation is able to see the future more clearly than Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas and the William Frantz Elementary School in Tylertown, Mississippi

Respectfully Submitted,
Claudia Fox Tree