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If it's Honor, Prove It

By Michaela Saunders

Imagine… you are an outsider, you are a minority. To make it  worse, some bureaucrat decided to capitalize on your misfortune, or shall I say oppression, and names a sports franchise after you. People paint their faces and dance around trying to honor you, but immersed in ignorance, they are mocking a culture.

As a Native American subjected to constant images like "Chief  Wahoo" (Cleveland Indians), it is not hard for me to understand why some  individuals are grossly offended by team names directed to a group or culture. To many of those individuals, it seems to be only the Native American culture that is subjected to this. Face it, it would be unheard of to name a team the "Niggers" (I am strongly opposed to the use of this word, but for some Native peoples this word is mirrored by Redskins or Indians, even Sioux) or even the "Norskys." What purpose is served by placing a culture on the same level as animals or inanimate objects?

The geometric design of the University of North Dakota mascot (you all know what it is, I don't have to tell you) bothers some. In the words of UND student Chase Iron Eyes, "How would you make a geometric Black or a geometric Jew?" Why is a geometric Native so widely accepted?  It is not the name that bothers me personally; it is the unnecessary actions and slurs that can turn a ballpark into a playground for verbal and emotional abuse.

Take the "tomahawk chop" (Atlanta Braves, etc.) for example. How does that honor Native People? (FYI: "scalping" originated with French Fur Trappers.) I don't know of any of my Native friends that walk around practicing their "club swing." Maybe a free throw shot, but come on!

Most of you "Knights" know the story behind the name of Grand Forks Central (North Dakota). But do you know the whole story? GFC opened its doors under the name "Maroons." In 1928 the football team was known as the "Redskins" while other sports teams remained the "Maroons."  The "Redskins" name did not totally replace the "Maroons" until 1949. In 1993 GFC received its final identity, the "Knights."

Many things have changed to help make GFC more culturally sensitive. The mascot was changed from "Willy Warrior and Sally Squaw"  to the Silver Knight. The dance team changed from "The Danceskins" to "The Censations" and their costumes improved as well.

According to a story I once heard, the word "squaw" is an Algonquin word meaning Male Genitals. Fur trappers, upon entering a village and being "without company" for some time would gesture and a woman was occasionally given. Therefore, trappers came to associate the word "squaw?" with the woman.

The most predominant argument against any name change is, "We are honoring the Indians!"  That common comment makes me laugh because a European male, who thought he landed his fleet of ships in INDIA, named the inhabitants of the land and the name stuck. Because a man didn't ask for directions, he got lost and the world was given "Chief Wahoo."

As I said, it is the unnecessary actions that go along with derogatory team names that make them offensive. If the intent of the spectator is to honor a culture it is the responsibility of the spectator to do just that, not mock the culture while sitting in a cloud of ignorance enjoying a hot dog and soda.

This article is republished here with the kind permission of Native Directions magazine.  The author, Michaela Saunders, is a high school senior who will be attending the University of Iowa in the fall of 1999.  Ms. Saunders was eligible for a large
scholarship at the UND but turned it down because of the school's sports team nickname.