Playing politics and Indians

Posted: Aug 21, 2005 12:00 AM

When playing cowboys and Indians as a kid, I always wanted to be the Indian. Little did I know.

Back then, I thought pretending to be an Indian was neat, even better than watching Saturday morning cartoons.

According to my childhood mythos, Indians were swift runners, wise planters, crafty hunters and brave warriors. My slippers became moccasins; I would walk, silently, sneaking up on people. My jittery parents endured.

It wasn't that I thought Indians always went sneaking about, mind you; I knew they didn't. It's simply that — on TV anyway — their ability to sneak up on their enemies was amazing. Not being the biggest kid in school, I appreciated their stealth and cunning.

Indians were exotic, yes. Different. Romantic — in the James Fenimore Cooper sense. But they seemed something more. The Indians I admired were heroes; they deserved respect for how they lived and how they fought. I looked up to them. Had any pro-cowboy bigot challenged me way back when, I would've responded with a simple "What's not to like about Indians?"  

Well, according to some of today's more sensitive folk — to those who stand as guardians of our schools and universities and overseers of government-produced speech — there appears to be a whole lot not to like about actually being one. The folks at present visitors with the information that more than 30 percent of Indians living on reservations are below the poverty level and 40 percent are unemployed. (Does that mean that one out of four unemployed Indians on reservations live well without working?)

Furthermore, more than 15 percent are living without electricity and roughly one in five homes lacks indoor plumbing. And most shocking of all, today one out of five Indian girls and one out of eight Indian boys attempt suicide.

This is serious business. The destruction of Native American culture is more than terribly sad, it's tragic. The European settlers and the U.S. government decimated the Indians through systematic brutality and broken treaties, and even more through the (usually) innocent spreading of disease.

And now added to the injury of this horrific past is the insult of modern-day sports mascots that present Indians in a negative light.

Or so we're told.  

That's why the National Collegiate Athletic Association passed a new rule saying college teams with Indian names and mascots cannot participate in NCAA championship events. "We believe hostile or abusive nicknames are troubling to us and it can't continue," said Walter Harrison, the NCAA committee chairman. "We're trying to send a message, very strongly, saying that these mascots are not appropriate for NCAA championships."

Hmmm? Teams can still have Indian mascots, but only if they're not going to be champions. That's the silent bigotry of low expectations!

The Florida State University Seminoles have caught a good bit of the controversy because of their successful football program. The school's mascot troubles the NCAA brass, whose sensibilities apparently outweigh the resolution in support of the team's name passed by the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

Or consider the University of Illinois's Fighting Illini. The Illini tribe is the state's namesake. Protestors say the team's name is disrespectful and should be changed. But would that be enough? Shouldn't the name of the state be changed while we're at it?

The University of North Carolina-Pembroke is the Braves, which is usually a "hostile and abusive" name according to the new NCAA rule. But the school is exempted because more than 20 percent of students are American Indians. Wait a second . . . doesn't that mean that more than 20 percent of the student body must be deeply offended and humiliated by the Indian mascot?

What am I missing?  

Oh, enough politics. I just like sports. I want to watch the game on TV. And, frankly, offend as few people as possible. So, for goodness sake, please change the names of teams like The Savages of Southeastern Oklahoma State University.  Is the name Savages really such a tough call? It would be the polite thing to do.

And please do something about the NFL's Washington Redskins. I'm as offended by their name as I am by their pitiful play in recent years. Clearly, if any city should not feature an Indian mascot, Washington is that city. It's not just that politicians in Washington used to lie and cheat the Indians. (After all, they still haven't unscrambled all those misplaced Indian Trust Fund accounts.) It's also that they lie and cheat to the rest of us, too.

But on the other hand, how is a name like the Chiefs or the Braves offensive? Braves are good, right? They're brave, that's for certain. How can anyone equate the obvious hero-worship of some names with the more tasteless denigrating names of others? How can they equate the Seminoles and the Braves with the Redskins and the Savages? If civilization is in the business of making the right distinctions, why can't some people make any distinctions at all?

Of course, in the end, I'm not an Indian; I only pretended to be one as a kid. I cannot speak for what they think and feel.

So, how do Native Americans see it? The University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Election Survey in 2004 asked 768 randomly selected Indians (in the continental 48 states) if they found Indian mascots "demeaning." Overwhelmingly, they did not. For example, only 9 percent were offended by the Washington Redskins moniker.  

If Native Americans, and not just liberal political activists, actually wanted an end to sports imagery involving Indians — if, in their eyes, such depictions belittled their culture and offended their sensibilities — then I'd hope they would find success. But I'd still miss the imagery, because I see Indians as proud and noble. As heroes and not merely as victims.