January 10, 2009

Wyandotte Indians aren't Marching Chiefs

In the Marching Chiefs controversy, Wyandotte Chief Bearskin weighed in with a message to mascot foes: Back off. My response to Chief Bearskin is: Back off yourself.

Here's the key passage:Bearskin said that only he and the chief of the Wyandotte tribe in Quebec can speak for the tribe. Bearskin wrote, "I speak to you personally--Mind your own business."Comment:  I speak to you personally, Chief Bearskin. This isn't your decision. It belongs to everyone, not to you.

The team name in this case is the Wyandotte Roosevelt High School Marching Chiefs. It's not the Wyandotte Chiefs and it's definitely not the Wyandottes.

The only time a tribe gets a say in the use of its name is when a school actually uses its name. You know, the University of North Dakota's Fighting Sioux. The University of Illinois's Fighting Illini. Florida State University's Seminoles. The University of Utah's Utes. Et al.

No one has given you veto power over the use of the word "Chiefs." Even when it's associated with a school named "Wyandotte." Again, Chiefs are the mascot in this case, not Wyandottes.

Moreover, you left the Wyandotte area almost 200 years ago. I don't know for sure, but I'm betting one or more tribes have claimed this area as home in the intervening years. If so, they have as much right to judge the appropriateness of the Chief logo as you do.

Let's suppose

But suppose the marching band was named the Wyandottes. What then?

First, as you noted, there's a Wyandotte tribe in Quebec. Right off the bat, that cuts your moral authority in half.

Second, the proper way to decide the issue is to put it to a vote of the whole tribe. Or at least the tribal council. The day when chiefs were autocrats who got to tell their people what to think and do is over, if it ever existed.

Every Indian has a stake in being depicted as a stereotypical scowling chief. You can claim the name "Wyandotte," perhaps, but you don't get to claim a generic chief logo.

When the marching band uses an actual Wyandotte chief as their logo, you can claim that too. Until then, no.

The gaming factor

Let's note one factor that no one's mentioned. The Wyandotte Nation has a controversial casino in Kansas City, Kansas. Here's the scoop on it:The Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma quietly celebrated the one-year anniversary of its casino in Kansas.

The tribe opened the 7th Street Casino in downtown Kansas City after years of battles with the state and federal government. The first version of the facility was raided by state authorities and the federal government didn't support gaming at the site.

But the federal courts rebuffed the state and the federal government in a slew of decisions. Following a $20 million renovation, the new facility opened to the public a year ago and has been doing well.
So what is Wyandotte Chief Bearskin going to say about a mascot controversy? "I don't care what people in Washington DC think. I want that mascot gone. If the bureaucrats get angry and try to shut down our casino again, so be it."

No, of course not. Circumstances practically force Bearskin to take a politically palatable position. Which is why it's important to know what the tribal council and membership thinks.

Who loves the Chiefs?

I'm not surprised that the school reversed its decision. We know non-Indians love their pet poodles Indians. They consider Indians mascots their golden calf lucky charm.

I didn't read the online comments, but I can imagine them. No doubt there was a lot of vituperation against Indians. "We're trying to honor you. Don't you have anything better to do? Quit being so sensitive. The only Indians who oppose mascots are a few publicity-seeking activists."

I'd love to learn more about the "some native Americans" who support the Marching Chiefs. The only Indian quoted is Leaford Bearskin. Is he the sum total of "some," or are there others?

In any case, we know some Natives accept positive stereotypes. And many don't because they understand that positive stereotypes are still one-dimensional caricatures. Even if the ratio of supporters to detractors is 50-50, that doesn't make the stereotypes acceptable.


traci said...

Who are you to decide when to use the word chief or the logo. Should we drop the word chief from chief surgeon? This school has used this logo for over 50 years and now that their marching in the Inaugural parade , theres a problem? WHY?

Rob said...

Why shouldn't I have an opinion, Traci? It's everyone's responsibility to take a stand against ethnic stereotyping. That's why non-Native organizations such as the NAACP have spoken out against mascots.

I've been studying this issue for almost two decades. How about you? What are your credentials to question my credentials?

FYI, I didn't "decide" anything. I presented a rational case against the Marching Chiefs. I guess you couldn't rebut this case because you didn't even try.

Does the phrase "chief surgeon" refer to a stereotypical Indian chief and use a stereotypical Indian chief logo? If so, then yes...we should drop the stereotypical word and logo. If not, your question is irrelevant.

A lot of bad things have been around a lot longer than 50 years. For instance, war, slavery, and racism. Does their longevity give them some sort of validity?

Few of us have time to research Indian mascots in obscure Michigan schools. Once the Marching Chiefs were brought to the public's attention, people protested them. Nothing strange about that.

Native stereotyping has been going on for 500-plus years. Native people have challenged these mistakes and misperceptions for much of that time. If you think this problem is something activists just invented, you're sadly mistaken.

Michael Mills said...

My daughter goes to this school, and she is in the band. I’m Ojibwe and I am a member of the First Nations Reservation. The schools mascot is not an Indian, they are called the “Bears“. The band is named the “Chiefs” due to the history of this area, the cities namesake, and a past band directors fascination and respect for the tribe. The current band director is a very nice fellow and sets high expectations for the kids. None of these people have any “agenda” or a “statement” to make beyond doing their best to represent their school and community. The kids are excited about going to Washington, they have been preparing for this trip for the past six months. I thought you should have some idea of the people you are writing about, as it’s obvious you couldn’t have gathered this from the three small paragraphs from which you apparently divined their latent discriminatory streak.
I have no issue with the band name, nor does my family. At first I was simply going to just state who these people were, but I feel the need to go a bit further. I do not wish to have every reference to Native Americans removed from pop culture, as to do so would remove us from the living culture and regulate us to antiquity and reservation life, as a tourist attraction and history lessons. Life experience has taught me that in order to build something real and special requires effort and dedication, there is no easy way. All tribes on this continent had to survive by being strong and working hard. They did not require someone to go about threatening kids with a lawsuit to survive. Furthermore you cannot obtain equity for past sins or advance a people by eliminating every reference to that people, not even by a small measure. Academics like yourself teach us the burden for overcoming stereotypes rests with the state and its various mechanisms of law and when that doesn’t work, civil disobedience against the state. But practical life and history teaches me that the burden will rest only on the shoulders of those who call themselves Native American. That which you seek can only be obtained by hard work, and representing our people the best we can everyday, and then trying harder the next day. You go about your foolish cause of cleansing Native Americans from the current culture, and I’ll do as I have been doing, drink only in moderation, work hard, advance myself academically, and teaching my children to be strong and proud of their heritage. I will not be asked to speak at a lecture or be published, but in the end I will have left something more substantial to native history than you. If enough people join me the meaning of the mascots will change, without a ceremony or press conference as is always the case with real change. My credentials are growing up native in the US and Canada.

Anonymous said...

I run the website "End Racial Bigotry Now" at http://www.ishgooda.org and am a resident of Riverview, Michigan. I face the Sioux Indian style logo of the city "remembrance" of an Indian nation that never even live in this area. We, Three Fires and Wendat, whose villages dotted SE Michigan did not wear plains headdresses,so this token is not even close to accurate.

The real culture exists and is in no need to this addlepated attempt to keep it alive. If you who read this are not aware..there are over 560 First Nations with sovereign status that exist within the borders of the US. We are surviving whether the Euro descendants "honor us" or not.

I speak for myself and all those others who have expressed the same pain and the same sorrow that so many of the people do not recognize this as a usurpation of the culture, not preservation of it. It is not yours, Roosevelt High School, to preserve.

Your heritage is all the hard work that has led to the honor of representing your school and your and at this most exciting inaugural. It is just totally ironic you do so in a manner that Martin Luther would have recognized as a decided lack of honor.

I am ashamed of the people of Wyandotte that this humiliation is not even recognized as such.

dmarks said...

I haven't seen yet in the source material that there's a "lawsuit" over the Marching Chiefs name. Did I miss something?

(I disagree over lawsuits in these matters. There are other ways to object to offensive stereotypes without clogging the courts with even more frivolous lawsuits).

Rob said...

Thanks for backing me up, Ishgooda.

I'm criticizing the band's Marching Chiefs mascot, Michael, not the school's mascot. If that wasn't clear before, I hope it's clear now.

Again, how hard the band has worked is irrelevant to the matter at hand. Asian sweatshops work hard to produce cheap consumer goods, but that doesn't make their use of child labor okay.

For the rest of my response to Michael and DMarks, see Marching Chiefs Today, All Indians Tomorrow?

Anonymous said...

My son also is a member of the Wyandotte Marching Chiefs and why now is their such an issue,is their an issue with cleveland indians baseball they arent really indians

Anonymous said...

The Wyandotte Marching Chiefs are Marching Chiefs and they are marching in the Inaugural Parade and I'm proud to say my son is one of them .....Traci
Go Chiefs

Rob said...

Yes, there's a huge problem with the Cleveland Indians' Chief Wahoo. He's arguably America's most stereotypical and racist mascot.

Anonymous said...

As a Wyamdotte from oklahoma, I respect Beasrskin ut he is wrong and terribly miss informed. No racial mascot is appropriate and neitehr is a school that needs to play indian for a marching band or a school or whatever. Much respect to Chief Bearskin he has done much to hepl our people but this is not it