Why it’s only right to retire relics like the Redskins

The recent debate about the Nepean Redskins is getting tired. Frankly, it’s a debate we’ve had over and over again, both in the U.S. and in Canada.

Despite the very real fact that the term Redskin is nearly universally understood as offensive, White sports fans loyal to their high school, college or professional sports mascots insist they are ‘honouring’ Us. Prompting Us to write articles and letters, create petitions and polls, and, more recently, use Twitter and Facebook to express our dissatisfaction. And I suspect we’ll continue to do so, so long as football players need savage beasts to emulate on the field. So for our ever-forgetful, sports-loving dogmatists, here’s a refresher on why “I’m not a mascot,” as Simon Moya-Smith puts it.

The last time the mascot issue came up in a serious way was the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals. It was hard to miss the omnipresent headdress-wearing, painted-faced, ancient Indian warrior mascot of the ‘Hawks. I cheered for the Flyers that year (even though as a Leafs fan, I hate the Flyers). And a few years before the Blackhawks yipped and scalped their way to victory, the Cleveland Indians nearly made it to the World Series, inspiring inebriated beer-bellied men to do their best “Chief Wahoo” imitations — “tomahawk chop” and all. Indeed, they became the red-faced and smiling buffoon “Indians.” Of course, to many actual Pottawotami and Delaware people, these fans’ war paint and nylon feathers were embarrassing and humiliating.

While the Cleveland Indians make the Blackhawks look progressive by comparison, both mascots — really, all mascots claiming to honour First Nations or Inuit peoples — do nothing of the sort. It is also puzzling why this “honour” is reserved nearly exclusively for Lakota and Cree peoples. The Redmen or the Braves are so commonplace, there is one in every division. But of course one sees never team names like ‘the Chinamen’ or the Moors who, in very general terms, have just as storied military histories to be “celebrated.” Granted, teams like the Vikings and Fighting Irish do exist, yet they exhibit but a fraction of the scope or absurdity with which “Indian” teams proliferate and are ‘celebrated.’

And if this is really an honour, should we not expect Blackhawk fans to at least know who Blackhawk actually was? I suspect very, very few actually do. In fact, he was a Sauk leader named Makataimeshekiakiak (right) who vehemently opposed American encroachment into, and annexation of, his people’s lands. So much so, he fought alongside the British to repel the Americans in the War of 1812. But he was captured, imprisoned, and then forced to tour the United States as a demonstration of the new country’s power while White onlookers often burned him in effigy. Is this what the Chicago Blackhawks honour?

But this issue goes well beyond Makataimeshekiakiak and the Blackhawks. Take any Redskin or Indians fan, or, take those of the Nepean Redskins, and ask them what they know about Native peoples outside of the image of the naked, tomahawk-wielding savage of their prized mascot and the response will be a blank stare. So not only is the ‘honour’ a farce, the Indian mascot phenomenon can actually contribute to perception that Native peoples are not actual living people with culture, language, economies, art, politics, and so on. The image traps Indigenous peoples in an archaic and doomed state. As long as Native peoples are depicted as ancient and primitive warriors, they’re not real. They’re relics of a bygone era. They don’t exist in contemporary times (part of the reason we have to deal with the near ubiquitous “Funny, you don’t look Native” comments from Canadians).

Moreover, and particularly problematic, this is an image that been used historically by colonists to justify the slaughter of Native peoples (the savage, ruthless, raping, murderous Indian who circled the wagons and presented a threat to civilization generally). In fact, if it weren’t for the constructed image of the Redskin, Americans would have had difficulty raising militias to fend off the British in the Revolutionary War. Without the image of the Redskin, Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison wouldn’t have run for president and won, based on their record of killing Indians. The Redskin trope permitted/permits all manner of horrors against Creek and Comanche peoples because it rendered/renders them inhuman.

Remarkably, the past few years have increasingly seen discussion over the use of Indian mascots. In the United States, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has adopted policies against their use in college sports (the Fighting Sioux being the latest casualty). More recently, here in Canada, the Vancouver Board of Education as well as the Toronto District School Board have voiced their concerns over public and high school Indian mascots. And, of course, there is the renewed campaign to “change the name” of the Nepean Redskins led by Ian Campeau (aka DJ NDN) of A Tribe Called Red, with support from the AFN, TRC, Ottawa CitizenLeanne SimpsonPam Palmater, among others. A campaign that has been partially successful. At the time of writing, the President of the Club has told APTN that he’ll take the name change discussion to parents. Whatever that means.

Critics will continue to cry foul and claim political correctness on the warpath. But this isn’t about misplaced over-sensitivity. It’s about being socially and morally responsible. It’s about respect. It’s about recognizing that there is no such thing as an “Indian” — rather, there are Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and Mushkegowuk people — and they don’t wear war paint or throw tomahawks (well, most don’t). They are not savages devoid of humanity, but real people: real, living, breathing people, not caricatures to be trivialized. But the fact that we still have to write articles and letters, create petitions and polls to remind Canadians (and Americans) of these basic facts, year after year, well demonstrates the invisibility sports mascots ultimately confer.



Shameless Scapegoating: A catty critique of how Canadian media cover Indigenous people

Yesterday marked the United Nations’ International Day of Indigenous Peoples. This year’s theme for the Day: “Empowering Indigenous Voices.” As the UN noted, the aim was “to highlight the importance of challenging stereotypes, forging Indigenous peoples’ identities, communicating with the outside world, and influencing the social and political agenda.”

And while we should take this opportunity to celebrate outlets likeAPTNAnishinaabek NewsIndigenous Waves, and MEDIA INDIGENA, among others, I’m not sure the Canadian media got the memo. In fact, I could hear, read or watch more coverage of this week’sInternational Cat Day than of the International Day of Indigenous Peoples. But I guess cats are cuter than Crees.

Reflecting on this coverage, or lack thereof, I recalled a 2008 Canadian Journalism Foundation conference entitled, “The Greatest Media Failure in a Century: Reporting on Aboriginal Issues.” The event was a response to a series of news stories that led to the most sustained media coverage on Native issues since 1990. Along with Parliament’s apology for residential schools and the newly-released report of the Ipperwash Inquiry, the conflict in Caledonia was in the papers daily (not to mention the United Nations and its Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples). The conference concluded, not surprisingly, that newspapers and broadcast journalists were doing a very poor job.

Allow me to preface what follows by noting that not all mainstream media are unfair to Indigenous peoples… just most of them. Take the case of Ipperwash, where, as Ryerson’s John Miller would write, “the coverage was not based on the facts of the occupation, but on crude generalizations about First Nation people that fit many racist stereotypes.” Here, the primary stereotype was of the savage or lawless Indian, a stereotype that would once again be promulgated in later coverage of Caledonia. As evidence for the latter, I submit the following headlines, which ran in the Globe and Mail in the Spring of 2010:

The “strong” in this latter case were Native thugs immune from law enforcement; the “weak” were peaceful, persecuted White homesteaders.

Then there is the stereotype of the lazy, taxpayer-leech Indian. This notion was apparent even at a time like the residential school apology. The National Post editorial that same morning — “Six reasons not to apologize” — argued that an apology would encourage dependence and discourage Indians from getting jobs. This stereotype has never been more apparent than in the media coverage of the housing crisis in Attawapiskat late last year. Stories revolved around the salary of the Chief, corruption, sustainability of isolated reserves, wasted taxpayer dollars — all of it without a modicum of context. Most media outlets uncritically toed the government line, messaging now confirmed asshameless scapegoating.

This stereotype is even more pervasive in on-line editions, in particular, within the comment sections that typically follow articles. In any given story on any subject relating to Cowichan or Dene peoples you’ll find comments such as “money, money, money, that’s all these lazy freeloaders want,” which was the first comment upon the Reuters article, “Canada reopens its ‘most disgraceful’ act” — an article that you’d expect would evoke compassion. It’s gotten so bad that newspapers have begun to actively monitor these comments. As a consequence, the most frequent (and perhaps most telling) comment onGlobe and Mail stories about Oneida or Salish peoples is “This comment has violated our Terms and Conditions, and has been removed.”

At the same time that Canadian media perpetuate such stereotypes, they also cultivate a culture of indifference. There is no better example of this than the widespread use of the term “Aboriginal.” Canadian lawyers adopted the word to be inclusive of the three recognized Indigenous peoples in Canada: First Nations, Métis and Inuit. It was then included in the Canadian constitution. More recently, the Department of Indian Affairs dropped the ‘Indian’ in favour of ‘Aboriginal,’ thus becoming the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, a move lauded by most in the media yet despised by those so-called Aboriginals themselves.

As Patrick Madahbee of the Anishinaabek Nation pointed out, “the history, cultures and contemporary issues facing First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples are entirely different. The best way to [deal with them] is not to call us all by the same name.” For Madahbee, among others, the result of employing the term “Aboriginal” is homogenization rather than inclusion. And for the media to miss this most basic of facts by using the term ‘Aboriginal’ almost exclusively — even when the specific subject of a story may be Dakota or Tlingit — speaks to reporters and editors’ lack of qualifications to cover Dakota or Tlingit peoples. By contrast, a correspondent in Europe would surely be expected to know the difference between Spaniards and Swedes as well as Europeans generally.

And yet, the media keeps on keeping on. Amidst this international day of empowering Indigenous voices, you’ll see, hear or read very few of those voices (and nearly none in the mainstream media). Earlier this week, the Globe and MailNational PostToronto Star, Ottawa Citizen, and the Winnipeg Free Press were just some of the newspapers to publish multiple articles and editorials on the potential privatization of reserve lands. Collectively, they tended to include just a single perspective from a Native person, Manny Jules, one of the architects of the plan. That’s it. Little critical investigation, faithfully toeing the government line, and even employing a few stereotypes (notably, “the taxpayer leech”).

The perpetuation of stereotypes, a culture of indifference and a lack of Indigenous perspectives — endemic across Canadian media — all amount to an uneducated public. It means that Canadians know very little about Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and Mushkegowuk peoples, or the differences between them, or even how to pronounce those words. As long as ‘aboriginals’ continue to be defined as lawless or lazy on the one hand, and rendered nameless, faceless, and invisible on the other, Canadians will never appreciate Indigenous perspectives. They’ll never even hear their perspectives. And the next generation of Canadians will still be wondering who these Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee, Mushkegowuk peoples are.

But there is some good news to share: a ton of cats got adopted this week.

Originally Published: http://www.mediaindigena.com/hayden-king/issues-and-politics/shameless-scapegoating-a-catty-critique-of-how-canadian-media-cover-indigenous-people

A new Assembly of First Nations for the people? Second thoughts on a ‘One Indian, One Vote’ AFN

Last month’s election for the Assembly of First Nations’ National Chief has once again stirred calls for change.

On election eve, for example, fellow MEDIA INDIGENA contributorWaubgeshig Rice published an op-ed on CBC.ca entitled, “How to make the AFN more relevant.” Then, in the midst of the election, authorRichard Wagamese wrote an opinion piece in the Globe and Mailentitled “We want an AFN of the people.” Both articles captured a broad sentiment among Ojibwe, Cree and Lakota peoples: a desire to participate in First Nations politics beyond the Band. Indeed, this AFN election garnered considerably more attention than any in the past, a clear testament to that desire for engagement. In both cases, Rice and Wagamese eloquently identify the problem — the Assembly’s issues with political representation (or lack thereof) — and a potential solution — in effect, a new “one Indian, one vote” AFN. But in considering this idea over the past few post-election weeks, I’m not so sure it’s the answer.

In the first place, such a new ‘AFN of the people’ could lead to an even more unhelpful pan-Indianism than the current AFN perpetuates. Despite working hard to keep Metis and Inuit peoples out (and avoiding Aboriginalism), as well as “respecting our diversity as First Nations peoples” (as noted under the AFN Charter), National Chiefs have nonetheless had a tendency to claim unity among First Nations. This presumes, or at least results in, a sort of homogeneity across nations, thereby stripping away our regional, cultural and political distinctions. (In reality, the only unity that probably exists among First Nations lies within our near unanimous resentment of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada). An AFN of the people would therefore see even more diversity disappear under one umbrella, both magnifying this perception of sameness and stretching the AFN to something far beyond what it could realistically represent. The result could be a general, simplistic, and generic voice.

Alternatively, instead of striving to represent everyone, an ‘AFN of the people’ could come to suffer from issues of skewed representation, specifically, an Assembly in danger of capture by particular interests. We already see this to an extent: First Nations who lobby for treaty rights versus those who lobby for Aboriginal rights. But the potential concern here is the growing urban First Nations population (more than half of us live outside our communities already). While urban peoples are in desperate need of political representation, their significant numbers could lead to an erosion of advocacy for the very communities AFN was created to serve, and who would still require an active and focused coordinating and lobbying organization into the future.

Moreover, an ‘AFN of the people’ would effectively endorse the structural conditions that currently bedevil the organization. In other words, and I say this without irony, a completely transformed AFN along one Indian, one vote lines would maintain the status quo. The AFN is a very bureaucratic, process-oriented organization, steeped in Western-inspired legal and policy discourse. It mimics Canadian electoral politics, voting by majority (often very slim majorities). And it’s funded nearly exclusively by Canada, rendering it subject to AANDC discipline. An ‘AFN of the people’ might placate Algonquin, Pottawatomi and Dene peoples, even convey empowerment, but it seems more likely that we’d merely entrench mediocrity and stasis.

Finally, an ‘AFN for the people’ would constitute a de facto new order of government, a move which would malign actual nations. And while we’re voting once every three years for a National Chief — a superficial conception of participation and democracy Canadians have come to accept — we might see ourselves forgetting about truly solving the problem of political representation. Of course, that would mean investing in the revitalization of authentic forms of Indigenous governance, e.g., the clan system, the potlatch, the Great Law, adapting them all as needed to contemporary circumstances. It would also mean getting involved in community and nation re-building. Not least, it would mean honoring our differences and re-establishing international relations and international confederacies between and among unique nations.

The thoughts expressed here are in no way an endorsement of the AFN in its current form. Like Rice and Wagamese, I think we do need change in a serious way. I also agree that we need an outlet for the desire for political engagement that’s so apparent among Mohawk, Wet’suwet’en and Maliseet peoples. While an option to directly vote for the AFN’s National Chief is appealing (reallyappealing), it could lead to more harm than good. In fact, the whole discussion makes me think about the Cleveland Indians or Washington Redskins; while they’re really bad images of Native people, they’re often the only representation that exists, so we find ourselves supporting images and icons like Chief Wahoo. But it’s probably time to start cheering for another team. Rather, to start playing for another, and in a whole different league.