Tell Me About Yourself

“Imagining: Creating Spaces for Indigenous Ontologies” reminded me of a video we watched in another one of my classes, Sociology 273. It’s called In Whose Honor? and focuses on the use of Native Americans as mascots in sports. (Here’s a link to a synopsis: http://www.pbs.org/pov/inwhosehonor/.) Particularly, it addressed the more derogatory ones such as the Washington Redskins. Charlene Teters is the woman behind the movement to abolish such practices in the documentary. She began protesting after seeing the University of Illinois mascot, Chief Illiniwek, dressed with inappropriate clothing and performing dances that did not represent any Native American culture.

The connection that I see between these two is that they are both concerned with the authenticity of Native American representations. On the one hand, Charlene Teters is endeavoring to ensure that cultural depictions of Native Americans are accurate. That covers a wide swath of things ranging from depictions on apparel­­—Illinois merchandise still have inaccurate representations of Native Americans—to halftime dances that don’t symbolize anything—Chief Illiniwek was “retired” but still has “unofficial” halftime appearances. On the other hand, “Imagining: Creating Spaces for Indigenous Ontologies” addresses the power that naming provides. Even the term “Native American,” the politically correct term, promotes the grouping of many different tribes as a single entity. Native Americans are referred to as “the invisible minority” for a reason. Mainly, they have been largely forgotten and their histories are entirely marred by a collective representation. I can’t tell you what tribes were forced into the West during the Trail of Tears. I can only tell you that Native Americans were forced.

That gets at the heart of what Duarte, Belarde-Lewis, and Teters are trying to say. The problem with current representations of Native Americans is that there is a single cohesive image, which is easily digested by nonindigenous people but largely inaccurate. I think the only solution to that issue is to let tribes teach and inform the majority for once. If you think about the progression of Native American naming, the majority has always dictated it. First it was Columbus who errantly referred to them as Indians. That name was perpetuated and gave way to far more derogatory names. Eventually that was curtailed somewhat and Indian was reinstated. Then American Indian was deemed more accurate. Finally, Indian was considered completely incorrect and Native American was popularized. All of this was done with little or no consultation of the indigenous peoples to which the name referred, more of a “Would this be good for you?” than an actual dialogue. So I think the only solution, and I think Duarte, Belarde-Lewis, and Teters would agree, is to allow Native Americans to teach and inform the majority on naming and every other cultural misinterpretation. And if nothing else, it produces a more accurate ontologies. Saying “Tell me about yourself” is a much better way to get to know someone than creating an image to guess and check with them.

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2 Responses to Tell Me About Yourself

  1. Gabriella Bulgarelli says:

    Hi Thomas,
    I enjoyed reading the synopsis of the video from you SOCI class. I agree most with your closing statement that initiating a dialogue is endlessly more helpful than the extant systems of colonially minded guess and check. I think this video is pertinent, although not connected to Charlene Teters’ work. I did see you mention the illustrious Christopher Columbus in your post, so check this out if you have time: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fYTXRDtYzYc. The power and emotion behind it are nothing compared to the simplest statement of fact: it is shocking and alluring to me and other products of American society because of what it challenges. It shakes us to the core because it denigrates, violates and opposes one of the pillars of our society–the maintenance and celebration of specific, “patriotic” holidays. The irony in this traces provenance, however, when you consider the denigration, violation and opposition of Native American and indigenous cultures, especially how we did in an archival-based setting during our readings and discussion this week. By taking a more systemic approach–i.e. valuing pieces of a whole in connection to the whole they create, rather than just glossing over the unique pieces to create a “presentable” “westernized” image–we can being to solve the extremely prevalent issue at hand.

  2. Daniel White says:

    I liked your mention of the Native American sports mascots because just the other day I was actually talking about this very thing with one of my friends. My friend loves playing devil’s advocate, and she was pointing out the fact that the NFL team the Vikings could also be considered a “cultural appropriation”, but that no one really cared. The more I thought about it, the more it oddly made sense, because if we’re going to say that having a Native American as a mascot is offensive and wrong, shouldn’t it be wrong to have a Viking as a mascot? The Vikings and Scandinavian people are also a people historically misrepresented quite often. For starters, the Vikings mascot is historically inaccurate because Vikings never really had horns on their helmets, yet this is a trademark for the team. To my knowledge at least, I don’t think anyone finds the Vikings team offensive–but should we be consistent? Should it be offensive? Should all sports teams and mascots based on other cultures or peoples upset us, or only the ones that are relevant to us (like Native American ones)? It doesn’t seem consistent to me. But of course, now I’m the one playing devil’s advocate, haha.

    And as far as the term “Native American” being too broad and clumping a bunch of different tribes together, I find another inconsistency. We often use the terms “white” and “black” to describe people. This also forces people together into groups, yet no one seems to have an issue with using those words. When people say “white”, they are clumping together a large portion of not just American people, but the entire world. Almost every country in Europe has “white” people. Countries in Asia, Africa, the Americas, Oceania, etc. all have “white” people, yet all of these people have different cultures, different languages, different peoples, too. Categorizing a large group of diverse and different peoples is nothing specific to Native Americans. Of course this doesn’t make it right, I’m just noticing inconsistencies.

    Bringing it back, however, I do like your point about educating ourselves and others, because that’s really what it comes down to. People just need to be educated properly and know the difference between a silly depiction and a true history. And like you said, perhaps a lot of this responsibility for educating people about true Native American cultures and peoples falls on Native American tribes and peoples themselves.

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