4 February 2006
To Oberlin School Board members:
Thank you for taking the time to discuss whether it is appropriate to use representations of Indian people as mascots. As there are undoubtedly many opinions on the subject, I would like to add an Indian voice to the dialogue. In doing so I hope that we may remained focused on what is tantamount to the issue at hand and that is the legacy that we leave to our children and the future generations.
There are many reasons why the use of Indian-associated representations are shocking and offensive to those of us who are actually Indian. For the sake of brevity I will relate only three.
First, the use of Indians as mascots is at odds with the stated goal of Oberlin Schools. As I understand those stated goals and intentions, the Oberlin School System wishes both to retain students and to maintain a high-quality and comfortable educational environment for each and every one of them. Yet I cannot imagine any circumstance where I would feel comfortable as the official token of any organization or institution. How then, as a parent, could I in good conscience believe that such an atmosphere could provide the best educational environment possible, let alone build self-esteem, for my child or any Indian child in the community?
Second, the use of Indian mascots and Indian-head regalia in particular is extremely disturbing for us who understand the historical symbology of such displays. All of my family members are shocked to learn that Oberlin maintains an image that many, many others — Indian and non-Indian alike — have concluded to be a racist symbol and a symbol of oppression. And let me be perfectly clear, the fact that an Indian head is no longer the official mascot means little as Indian-head regalia is always present to show ‘spirit.’ To an Indian the display of an Indian head means that the displayer values Indian life very little; as the use of Indian heads on early U.S. coins shrewdly suggests, the value of an Indian life in the U.S has historically been the value amount of that minted coin. It means little that the displayer wishes to ‘honor’ us with the display whether it be on a t-shirt, a flag, or a postage stamp in light of the history of such displays. Equally disturbing is the behavior displayed by fans dressed in Indian-head regalia; often this wild behavior is obscene and beyond the norms of decency for Indian peoples. Yet such behavior is tolerated and even encouraged as part of the ‘spirit’ of what it means to be an ‘Indian.’ As long as this type of behavior is encouraged it will be an impediment to sensitivities necessary to resolve real Indian-related issues.
Which brings me to the third reason why Indian mascots are offensive: mascots do little to assist real-life Indians as we struggle with the problems brought by colonization. The real fact is these portrayals are harmful and present significant barriers to Indian self-determination as they relegate us to the realm of mythological character and extinct species. Because these representations of us are juxtaposed with that of the outlaw, mystical beast, and wild animal, it is then hard for some people to believe that Indians ‘exist’ because they cannot equally imagine swashbucklers and pirates and giants existing. How then can these same people be sensitive to our cultural needs or fulfill their legal obligations toward us? For the Shawnee, whose land extended from Lake Erie to southern Ohio how does the use of Oberlin’s mascot inform the public of their existence and their legal land claims, or the difficulties of maintaining language and culture under occupation?