Setting aside the Leonard Peltier matter for a moment, there is a recent development at a local Cincinnati area high school.
The Issue: In 1937 the School Board decided to change the name from the bland “Comets” to the Anderson Redskins.
Much later, the name provoked controversy for its potential racism and in 1999, apparently after much debate and emotion on both sides, the School Board decided to keep the name. However, out of respect for Native American religious beliefs the Board later modified the school mascot and removed the Peace Pipe and Tomahawk from its logo.
The issue has resurfaced and on March 19th there was a well-attended School Board meeting. The matter of the school name was not on the agenda but the Board did allow some community comment.
I had no desire or intention to begin the debate; I was there only to support an eighty-year tradition. I placed my name on the roster believing that I would be one among many given a few minutes to voice an opinion on the issue to change or not to change the school’s name. It didn’t go as planned, and I was the first one to broach the Redskins issue. I had been doing more research during the day and prepared a brief statement.
Background: There are a few fundamental facts that need to be understood or at a minimum aired for community awareness.
There is no doubt where I stand when it comes to Native American history and rights. Prominent on the home page of the NPPA website since its inception on April 30, 2000 is the following:
Correcting Wrongs of the Past : Anyone who has even a basic understanding of the history and plight of Native Americans recognizes their terrible treatment at the hands of the U.S. Government. That history cannot be altered. Nothing can change the broken promises and treaties and subjugation of the first peoples to inhabit this continent. (Footnote 1)
Two young people spoke passionately in support of changing the school’s name. One mentioned a number of abuses including the infamous Trail of Tears.
There are many fundamental facts relevant to early North American history and the First Americans. There is often a misconception that before the arrival of the white Europeans that in some way the continent was a peaceful place, a Valhalla where the various tribes lived in harmony with their neighbors. History shows otherwise. Before the Pilgrims arrived there was ample inter-tribal warfare where some tribes destroyed or enslaved others. This was no different than what was happening during this same period, and throughout history, in Europe, Asia and elsewhere around the world—quite simply the result of human nature.
As heinous as the Trail of Tears was, it’s also important to remember that the displaced Cherokees brought with them their own African slaves. (Fn.2)
It is undeniable that American history is replete with white supremacy. Theodore Roosevelt wrote that Indian “life was but a few degrees less meaningless, squalid and ferocious than that of the wild beasts who seemed to the White settlers devils and not men,” and that “Nineteenth-century democracy needs no more complete vindication for its existence than the fact that it has kept for the white race the best portions of the new world’s surface.”
The recent efforts to remove Confederate monuments are arguably a reaction against those early attitudes and perceptions. Many monuments were erected in the 1960s as a backlash to the Civil Rights Movement. But, as we know, many of our early Presidents and founding fathers were slave owners. Recently some, to the extreme, have even suggested renaming Washington D.C. Would it be beneficial to call it, for instance, D.C. Town?
But at what point do we stop? All the good, bad and ugly that built this great nation is integral to our collective history.
If one person is offended by a word that matters to them—a perceived slur—they must be heard, along with all others who offer the same or differing opinions.
However, and without fostering a rhetorical premise, there are at least three Native American high schools in the country that proudly proclaim themselves as Home of the Redskins.*
Would it be appropriate to force the same standard on those schools and communities that have embraced the term as one of pride, honor, bravery, and their shared history and heritage?
At the school board meeting many people on both sides of the issue were wearing orange, the high school’s color. Some showed support to keep the school name, others also wore buttons with #wordsmatter. Certainly they do, but the color worn showed that people were concerned and passionate, regardless of their opinion. Does the connotation of certain words change with time? Certainly, and in that regard, context also should matter.
Eight decades ago when the School Board chose the Redskins name, its meaning and history—and unquestionably it did have a dual meaning—they apparently chose the one that represented all those positive traits of Native culture that they wanted to proudly represent their school. (Fn.3)
(Not altogether ironically, just the other evening (3/21/18) on the History Channel was a segment entitled, The Men who Built America/Frontiersmen, and at one point showed the storied Warrior Chief Tecumseh preparing for battle against the U.S. Militia by applying red paint to his face [not an uncommon practice]. That was the final battle he lost as his coalition with the British collapsed. Our collective American history is very complex.)
The School Board has formed a Committee that as of the moment is but a mere shadow of the previous one that contemplated the naming issue. That early Committee was broad and inclusive of many interests in the community. Half of the current Committee consists of School Board members that give the appearance that the Board will be making a recommendation to itself. Perhaps this may be challenged as a procedural issue or legal matter. The Committee undoubtedly should listen, unbiased, to all opinions, research the matter thoroughly and honor their mandate for due diligence and make a recommendation independently to the School Board. The Board will make the final decision but the entire community needs to be heard.
Please see the 2004 Editorial Essay, Pilgrimage to Pine Ridge. (Fn.4)
“In the Spirit of Coler and Williams”
2) http://inamerica.blogs.cnn.com/2012/02/25/pain-of-trail-of-tears-shared-by-blacks-as-well-as-native-americans/ (Last accessed 3/21/18)
3) As early as 1769 references to the term Redskin:
* Red Mesa High School, Arizona; Wellpinit High School (Middle school; Warriors), Washington State; Kingston High School, Oklahoma.