R is for Respect. Respect because I respect (and love) all of God’s people. R does not stand for “redsk-n”.
Recently, my advocacy for removing my alma mater’s mascot (“redsk-n”) revealed that I need to listen and talk to Native people to make sure I am advocating properly. I want to ensure my advocacy is accurate and aligns with what Native people want, not what I think they want.
So, about a week ago I was able to speak with Aminah Ghaffar, a native activist. That conversation was enlightening, educating, and inspiring to say the least. Aminah taught me so much in an hour’s conversation and, as a historian, it was a great chance to learn about a history that is often told in a limiting way.
Too often, the history we teach our children in schools (and that was taught to us) is told from the viewpoint of the oppressors and not the oppressed. The vital details of survival, overcoming, endurance, greatness, tradition, beauty, and success are often left out of the story. This is true for the history of Native people, Black people, Hispanic people, or any other history of non-White ethnicities.
Moreover, in history language is important in conveying the story. Aminah told me that instead of saying ‘the genocide of Native people’, we should say ‘the attempted genocide of Native people’. Aminah said: “We are still here.” That was powerful.
Native people’s stories extend past the India Removal Act and the Trail of Tears, although important, we must not limit the narrative to the past and its oppressions. Why are not learning about the Aminah Ghaffars? The Amanda Blackhoreses? As Aminah said, Native people are still here.
I am excited to learn more about Native history, not just the oppression but the victories and triumphs they occurred outside of colonization, as unique people in their respective tribes and nations.
Aminah and I discussed how Native people feel about being mascots, what it really means to be Native, the Lanham Act, sports, what it means to be an activist, and oppression, among other things. I hung up the phone after the conversation feeling like I had so much more to learn from Native people, but I felt confident that I was on the right path. It gave me more courage.
In our conversation, we spoke about my alma mater’s mascot and, it’s only been about a week, but Aminah’s insight has shifted my own perspective and advocacy. In the beginning, I was unsure if I should be advocating for the renaming of the mascot or the removal. I was leaning towards renaming in the beginning and then I hesitated. I wanted to ensure whatever side I was on was what Native people were also advocating. Our conversation revealed there is no respectful way to honor Native people as mascots. Renaming and keeping the imagery still offered the chance for cultural appropriation.
R is for Respect because there is no respectful way to honor Native people through mascots. R is for Respect because we can respect Native people by removing our mascots (especially at SCCS).
Before our conversation ended, I asked Aminah if she would be willing to write a letter to the Social Circle Board of Education to provide a much-needed Native viewpoint about the mascot.
Even though Native people may not physically be in my town to speak up for the removal of the SCCS mascot, their voices and stories still deserve to be heard, listened to, and acknowledged.
As non-native people, we cannot decide whether or not Native people see our mascot as an “honor” or if they are “okay with it”, nor can we claim to be “1/8th Native American and say we are okay with the mascot”. That is not up to us… Instead, I have decided it is my job to listen, research, learn, and then advocate based on what Native people are telling me…
To me, there is more at play when we discuss a mascot’s removal.
That letter Aminah sent was… just wow. I learned even more. It revealed the necessity of listening to people who our mascot impacts the most. With Aminah’s permission, below is the letter. Please, take the time to read it. Her words are so vital in shaping our perspective on this term and the decision for the removal of our mascot.
Monday, July 13, 2020:
I hope that this email finds you all well. Over the weekend, I was contacted by one of Social Circle’s Alumni concerning some resistance regarding the change of the school’s mascot from the R-word. My goal in sending this email is to bring better understanding to the symbolic act of denouncing harmful imagery and racial slurs that affect Native Americans, as a Native American woman, and to promote more solidarity between Native Americans, other people of color, and non-melanated allies.
I would like to express my gratitude to Adoris Gibbs for contacting me, and for being a voice for Native American people in our absence. I am a Lumbee and African American activist from Pembroke, NC. The statement of my identity brings me to my main concern:
It is my understanding that several counter-protesters have declared that they have “Native blood.” Since they have Native American ancestry, they feel entitled to deem that the R-word is not racist, and having a Native mascot is okay. In my experience as a Native person, I’ve never heard a Native American person with a tribal affiliation use blood quantum or say that their grandmother was a Cherokee princess. Native Americans do not have, nor have ever had princesses. You either are Native or your are not; percentages are not acknowledged.
A DNA test alone is not enough to be considered a member of a Native American tribe. DNA tests do not have enough genetic data, especially from Eastern Woodland tribes, to determine accurately if someone has Native ancestry. It’s important to note that the Native American result includes DNA from North and South America, and it is almost impossible to use the DNA test method alone to trace tribal affiliation. (https://www.genome.gov/news/news-release/DNA-tests-stand-on-shaky-ground-to-define-Native-American-identity)
An individual also has to have a connection to the tribal community. If estranged from the community, the individual has to go through a rigorous process to become an enrolled member. Using an arbitrary connection to Native American culture is not an acceptable way to cloak racism and bigotry. Even if true Native American people feel as if they are not offended by the mascot, their token opinion does not outweigh the collective Native American community.
The name and imagery associated with Native American mascots perpetuates harmful stereotypes against Native Americans, and affects the identity development of Native American children. It also sends a message to non-Native students that using the slur, dressing up as Native Americans, and mimicking Native American culture is acceptable. (https://www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/indian-mascots)
The Washington team is currently in the process of changing their name, because of decades of work by Suzan Harjo, Amanda Blackhorse, and a number of other Native American activists. Harjo started the movement against the name in the early 1990’s in trademark court. Under the Lanham Act, the trademark board cannot register something that is disparaging to a group of people. In 2014, Blackhorse et al won their case against the R-word franchise, during which the judge declared the name to be disparaging and a racial slur against Native American people. Yet, it has still taken 6 additional years and a national uprising to get the franchise to finally act. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/early-lead/wp/2014/06/18/who-is-amanda-blackhorse-in-redskins-trademark-case/)
Native Americans are constantly questioned about our history, culture, and identity. We are told what should and shouldn’t be offensive to us. We are tired of being patronized. Our erasure has ultimately resulted in our dehumanization. Speaking about us in past tense only, and speaking over us instead of listening to us continues to promote the idea that we are a remnant people with no voice. We are still here. We are not your mascot.
As an educational institution, it is vital to denounce the use of the R-word, Native mascots, and imagery. This sends a stern message to students and the community about empathy and finding common humanity with individuals who do not share the same background as them. This creates a less hostile and more nurturing environment for any potential Native American/Indigenous students, and other students of color.
I hope that this email assists in your decision. Please contact me if you have any questions, or require further documentation or evidence-based research to substantiate claims made in this email.
Again, thank you Aminah for sharing your perspective and advice with me (and all of us!). Please continue to hold us all accountable.
R is for Respect!