Saturday, October 19, 2013

President Obama, Mascots, Children's Literature, and American Indians

Listen to President Obama's remarks regarding the Washington Redskins:

At the :43 mark, President Obama says "I think all these mascots and team names related to Native Americans... Native Americans feel pretty strongly about it, and I don't know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real legitimate concerns that people have about these things."

Let's think about attachment. How do we become attached to something? How do we become attached, specifically, to a stereotyped mascot that is meant to represent Native people? Here's a photograph of Zema Williams. He's been dressing up to personify the Redskin's mascot for many years.

Photo credit: Jonathan Newton, Washington Post

The photo is from a Washington Post article Mike Wise wrote about Williams. In the article, he says that his job is to entertain people. This started back in 1978 when he went to a costume shop and bought feathers and a spear. His costume is more elaborate now. If you do an image search on "Chief Zee" you'll find plenty of photos of him. He wears a feathered headdress.

Let's turn, now, to children's books. They tell us that kids have been playing Indian for a long time.

We'll start with Ernest Thompson Seton's Two Little Savages. Set in Canada, it was published in 1903. It is about how a boy named Yan who loved Indians and animals. By the end of the story, he is living like an Indian. Here he is in the final pages:

Seton established the scouting tradition.  Playing Indian was--and is--a big part of scouting, but scouts don't call it playing Indian. How do they, I wonder, speak of what they do? They associate it with positive feelings. They are emotionally attached to what they do.

Dressing up like an Indian/playing Indian takes place a lot in life. It is captured in children's picture books. They embody that attachment to playing Indian, and playing Indian as a form of entertainment, too.

Do you recognize these characters? Do you know the book in which they appeared? Do you know the author/illustrator that created them?








No guessing on this one! This is Leo Politi's autobiography.

The characters above are from older books, but characters dress like Indians in newer ones, too. Take a look at these ones, in books from the 90s to the present:





That's a lot of playing Indian, isn't it? Let's turn, now, to American Indians.

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) put together a report titled Ending the Legacy of Racism. It includes a timeline on page 18. Here's some things to note:

In 1919, American Indians on reservations were not allowed to leave those reservations without written permission. Did you know that?

In 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act was signed into law. It allowed American Indian citizens the right to vote, but, most were still confined to reservations. Moreover, "Civilization Regulations" criminalized traditional practices, dances, ceremonies, and ways of being Native. I'm going to repeat and emphasize what the Civilization Requirements did: criminalized traditional practices, dances, ceremonies, and ways of being Native.

In 1926, "Chief Illiniwek" started dancing at the University of Illinois. In case you don't know what that mascot looked like, here's a photo of a recent portrayer:

The mascot "Chief Illiniwek" began doing its half-time routine during a period when it was illegal for actual American Indians to carry on with our traditional dances.

I'm glad there's a lot of pressure on Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, but I'd like all of us to think about the role that children's books play. In past writing at AICL, I've referenced research studies that document the harm that stereotypes do to Native and non-Native children. The NCAI report references Stephanie Fryberg's study, in which she and her colleagues found that the self-efficacy of Native youth was depressed by these images, while the self-efficacy of non-Native youth was enhanced. The impact on non-Natives can be seen as proof that such mascots --- meant to inspire --- are doing what they're supposed to do, and they help us understand why Snyder and fans rise to defend the mascots, too.

Would Snyder and fans hold to that attachment if they knew what Fryberg found? Would you?

Regular readers of AICL would say no, and a good many of those readers are attentive to the kinds of books they buy, too. Children's books and children's play have a role in the attachment President Obama referenced. The problem, quite simply, is larger than just mascots.

We have a lot of work to do.

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