The Honor of the Mascot, Or A Team By Any Other Name
By Jay Adler
A lot of sports fans sighed the usual big one recently when the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, on a technicality, upheld a lower court decision in favor of the Washington Redskins, against plaintiff’s suit to force the team to change its name. Some of the Native plaintiffs are now considering taking the case to the Supreme Court.
At just about the same time, Nazune Menka, a graduate student in environmental science participating in the Native American Political Leadership Program at George Washington University, had the opportunity, with other students in the program, to meet with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The students were given the chance to ask questions of Scalia, and Menka began a question about a significant recent decision, Carcieri v. Salazar, that had not been favorable to Native interests. Menka’s impressively sincere and ingenuous account of the meeting in Indian Country Today relates the rudeness she felt in Scalia’s cutting her off mid question and embarrassing her before the other students. “The case is a laugher,” she reports he told her.
That’s how many people feel about the team name and mascot issue too. Come on. Get real. Let’s talk about something serious.
Of much greater significance is Menka’s account of a question posed by another student. “He had earlier stated to another Indian student brave enough to stand and ask a question that the U.S. right to rule was by conquest and all Indian law was based off that.”
What Scalia referred to was the 1823 Supreme Court decision Johnson v. M’Intosh, in which the court held that only the U.S. government, and not private citizens, could purchase land from Native Americans. European nations, and their American inheritors, had assumed free title to the lands they had “discovered” – by right of discovery: “Discovery is the foundation of title, in European nations, and this overlooks all proprietary rights in the natives,” whom the court in its decision further acknowledged were being treated “as an inferior race of people, without the privileges of citizens, and under the perpetual protection and pupilage of the government.” Johnson v. M’Intosh formed the foundation for what has since been known as the “Discovery Doctrine,” the basis in law for all further U.S. government relations with Native Tribes.
Of course, few Americans are aware of the court case or familiar with the doctrine as a doctrine of American law rather than a historic and philosophical belief behind the de facto conquest of Native America. They do not know that American law, and U.S. treatment of and relations to Native Americans, is founded in and rationalized by such a doctrine. Thirty years earlier than the far more famous case, Johnson v. M’Intosh was the Dred Scott decision for Native America, sustaining the U.S. government’s plenary power and jurisdiction over Native peoples and lands, and no Fourteenth Amendment has rendered it void. The United States cannot even begin, truly, to recognize its crimes against Native peoples until Johnson v. M’Intosh is overturned.
Tall order. How might we get there?
The argument over athletic team names and mascots may seem to some triflingly symbolic, but symbols are symbols of something, and in this matter it is of the seriousness – or lack of it – with which many Americans consider the history of European-Indian contact.
So here is a question worth pondering: Would they be mascots if they’d won?
The suit that is the subject of the ICT story is not the first to be brought in this regard. Periodically, because of such suits – and actions on a more local level, against school athletic teams – the subject gains a degree of national attention. Some non-Natives are automatically sympathetic. Of course, there shouldn’t be such team names. No Washington Redskins anymore than a Los Angeles Kikes, Washington Niggers, New York Spics, or Cleveland Bohunks.
Those less sympathetic generally argue from two positions. One is that of an apparently deep fatigue (so arduous has been the burden) with what is sometimes referred to (for instance, now, in the conservative opposition to the Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor) as “identity politics.” This is a fatigue generally, ironically, experienced mostly by those who have never been the victims of the original identity politics, namely racial or ethnic discrimination. (Ah, but give them credit; they are born again.) And there is no group identity that has been longer both under attack and disregarded on this continent than that, collectively, of the various Native nations.
The other position – less explicitly presented but quite apparent – is that of the sports fans who don’t want their hallowed traditions messed with. Team names, statistical records, stadium rituals are all part of the mythic regalia of an athletic Valhalla. You want to disrupt all that for – the Indians? Of course, few say exactly that, so one defense of current practice with regard to the Washington Redskins is that “Redskin” is not a derogatory term like those others I used. But fans and the irate resistors of what they call the language police go further. Sports Illustrated, of all publications (how curious) conducted a poll in 2002 that offered results indicating that an overwhelming majority of Native Americans did not object to the term. In 2004, the Annenberg Public Policy Center produced a similar poll.
Setting aside consideration of the particularly problematic nature of polling what is, at this point, a very demographically complex Native population, one has first to note that there still, nonetheless, appear not to be athletic teams named the Los Angeles Semites, Washington Negroes, New York Hispanics, or Cleveland Slavs. Continuingly curious. And we might point out, too, as a reasonable and parallel historical argument that, hey, the Indians signed all those treaties, didn’t they? They agreed to it! That must make it all right.
Besides (goes the further argument), we’re paying them a compliment. We’re honoring them (but not those Semites, Negroes, and, well, you get the point) for their courage and dignity and similar such encomiums. Yet, one has to wonder, if the Native population had actually managed to hold off and limit the European advance on the continent in any significant way, had achieved any measure of victory – at, obviously, far greater cost to non-Native life – would the present-day fans of Redskin “courage” and “dignity” still be similarly enamored of the noble redskin? One tends not to ennoble one’s conqueror. The defeated don’t make pets of the victorious.
Check the major American dictionaries: “Redskin” is defined as a derogatory term. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the American Counseling Association, and the American Psychological Association have all adopted resolutions opposing the use of Native American images as athletic symbols and mascots. Yet there remains something essential that most Americans do not get.
A couple of months ago, I spoke with Chad Smith, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma:
For generations now, what is the language or frame of reference we’ve accepted? Because of American history, it is based upon color. It’s very simplistic. Those are fairly shallow criteria…. There are a lot of other barriers that the United States and the American people don’t even recognize as a barrier. A very clear one is the Washington Redskins…. If we look in D.C. today, here is the capitol, here is the class of people who really should understand American history…but have so little understanding that the Washington Redskins – half the congress goes to those games, and you can go to their offices and see those derogatory caricatures.
The dominating mentality of the conqueror persists, little altered by time. The ownership of the Washington Redskins and its executive leadership condescend to praise Native Americans as they belittle them, by exercising a power that only the dominant can wield against those subject to that power – in this case, the force of an arrogant cultural disregard masking unremitting greed. So it was in previous centuries; so it is now. Twice in the nineteenth century the Cherokee had their Tribal lands removed from them because, beneath all the subterfuge, the government and whites simply wanted the land for their own economic gain.
In the now thirteen-year-old lawsuit of Cobell v. Salazar – the Individual Indian Money Trust Fund suit against the Department of the Interior and its Bureau of Indian Affairs – plaintiff “seeks reform of the trust system, and an accounting of money ostensibly held in the trusts.” However, independent auditors long ago established that no accounting is possible, and the system will not reform itself. Then Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez testified to congress that as much as $200 billion might be owed to individual Indians for whom land has been held in trust for now over 120 years. Yet just last month government lawyers – in an Obama administration – argued that plaintiffs are owed nothing.
An underlying truth in the case of the Washington Redskins is that a team name change, affecting branding and team identification would have significant economic consequences for what is currently the second most valuable team in the National Football League. There were rationalizations one hundred and fifty and three hundred years ago. There are rationalizations today.
Until now arguments in court have centered on trademark law and the timeliness of the plaintiff’s applications. So it has always been. But if there were a Los Angeles Kikes or a Washington Niggers, all quaintly dressed up in their most recognizable cultural stereotypes, how long ago would growing popular outrage have forced the issue beyond the bounds of the blind technicalities of law?
If the Supreme Court of the land still makes law based upon a doctrine that asserts Indian inferiority, how will we ever recognize a condescension dressed up as an honor? And if we can’t do something as “symbolic” as that, then what can we do?