By Paul Lukas
I was curious to learn more, so I contacted the Saginaw Chippewas and spoke with their public relations director, Frank Cloutier. Here's how our conversation went:
Uni Watch: First, for people who aren't familiar with the Saginaw Chippewas, please tell me a bit about your tribe.
Frank Cloutier: Our tribe was formed with the ratification of our constitution in 1936. We have 3,292 members, and we live in the territories called the Isabella Federal Indian Reserve in Mount Pleasant, Mich., just north of Lansing. We have the fifth- or sixth-largest Indian-owned casino in the Midwest, so we're rather successful when it comes to our economic growth and development.
But it's not just about gaming for us--it's about our culture. We have a very rich, diverse culture, which is showcased in a world-class, award-winning cultural museum on our reservation. So the situation regarding mascots and team names piques our interest.
Many of the people taking part in this debate see it as a black-and-white issue. Either they're completely opposed to all uses of Native American imagery, or they have no problem with any of it. What's your position, or your tribe's position, on that?
It's very, very clear for us, because we've worked with so many institutions in our area. Our position is that if it's not derogatory and it's being used appropriately, with an opportunity to share or cross-share our culture, then it's fine. There's nothing derogatory about "Warriors" or "Braves." There's nothing derogatory about "Indian." But terms like "Redskin" or "Half-Breed," those are derogatory terms to us.
So when the Michigan Department of Civil Rights recently filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, claiming that Native American mascots and nicknames are inherently harmful to Native children, you don't agree with that?
In the study they used, they said these Native children who go to these schools with these mascots are "marginalized." But if you look at generational trauma and the way Native peoples were treated 300 years ago, it wasn't until 1924 that we were formally recognized as human beings, and we didn't get the chance to vote until after women did. That's what makes these kids feel marginalized -- the way their culture and their people were treated. I don't believe that a menacing-looking brave on the backboard of a basketball hoop is going to marginalize that child as much as that generational trauma.
That said, however, I believe that these schools using these images have an obligation to talk about the truth of Native American history. One of the largest genocides in world history happened right here on American soil, and it happened to Native Americans. So it's important to talk about the true history about the settling of the United States, and to talk about those things that happened to Native Americans that are often not talked about.
If Native children are struggling, hopefully this kind of education and outreach and help identify why, instead of having us blame it on a mascot.
So when you say it's fine to use non-derogatory imagery as long as it's being used appropriately, you're saying that part of that "appropriate use" is educational content about Native Americans?
Yes. For example, in 2003 we entered into an articulation agreement with Central Michigan University, because they were the Chippewas. As part of that agreement, the tribe and the university each has an obligation. Every year I go in and address every freshman athletic student about our culture and what it means to be a Chippewa, and about the proud, competitive nature of our people. We explain that it's not about war paint and fake feathers. It's about honoring the triumph of these resilient, competitive people.
They also have areas on campus that are dedicated to the presence of the Chippewa Nation. So it's a good cross-cultural exchange. And when they go out there and compete, they're Chippewas, they're fighting like a Chippewa, fighting to win. We've made that university our school of choice for Native Americans, because our tribal community is close by, so we can help support those Native students.
What if a high school or university wasn't interested in doing these types of cultural exchanges and educational efforts? What would your feelings be about their use of Native imagery?
It would be completely different. If they're not willing to celebrate and show the culture, they shouldn't have the privilege of depicting it.
All this sounds good, but when this link was posted on Facebook, people (including me) had more to say:
Fortunately, this Uncle Tomahawk speaks only for the corporate entity that employs him. 1) This bunch, which is essentially a casino, a huge budget and a little land, cross-markets off of CMU (2) Fortunately, no people with any pride call themselves "Chippewa" (3) Their leadership is largely composed of a bunch of pathetic Republicans.
I also think it points to a much deeper issue if the only opportunity Native people have to educate about our cultures and communities is in the context of sports mascots.
Yeah, what this clown means by "cultural exchange" is having to explain why some white kid in a Halloween costume can't ride in on a horse and fire flaming arrows from the 50 yard line at a cowboy cut-out ... in upper Michigan.
Mr. Cloutier has the right to say whatever he wants, but it’s pretty clear here that he views his tribe’s culture primarily as a commodity to be sold.
Article has some interesting ideas, and I think it does try to highlight an opportunity for cooperation. Unfortunately, the title is a bit misleading as it almost attempts to claim the Chippewa support any mascot, regardless of how its used.
I feel like this, like S.L. Price's very misleading article for SI, will be something for mascot supporters to turn to and generalize the views of ALL Native Americans.
Unfortunately this is going to be the arguing point of many appropriators in the future. "Well, that tribe is OK with mascots, so what's YOUR problem?" *sigh*
"I also think it points to a much deeper issue if the only opportunity Native people have to educate about our cultures and communities is in the context of sports mascots."
Good point. Why aren't schools teaching Native history and culture anyway? If a school was teaching these things already, would the Chippewas still feel a mascot was desirable?
Sounds like the Chippewas are saying mascots are good only as a bargaining chip. Which isn't much of an argument for mascots.
What about other Ojibwe?
I think it is sick that one band gets to decide that the Chippewa name (though a false one) is appropriate to be used as a mascot while the rest of the "Chippewa" bands are against it. Who are they to decide that "Chippewa," which hundreds of thousands of people identify as, is to be used this way? To be quite honest, as an Ojibwe, it pisses me off.
I replied on Twitter that not all "Chippewas" approve of the name/logo use, just one rich tribe. It just goes to show what a complex issue racist sports logos are. Love that one tribe (Saginaw Chippewa) can sign away rights to something that other Ojibwe/Anishinabwe don't have to approve, know about or even agree to, yet we still get to be bombarded with the images.
Last time I checked these collaborator sell outs do not speak for the other Bands of Anishinabe people in Canada, Michigan, Wisconsin, the Dakotas and Minnesota and they are neglecting their payoffs, you know the scholarships for tribal members, the cut of the trademark and copy rights and merchandising.
Nevertheless, if there's a right way to do an Indian mascot, CMU seems to be doing it:
Imagine my surprise when my tribe shows up on one of my favorite pages!
Alright, I'm going to say this. Frank Cloutier is the head of PR for our tribe. This interview is the official tribal opinion, approved by tribal council, this may or may not reflect Frank's personal position. And it certainly DOES NOT reflect the opinion of all members of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe! Believe me, give us a generation and the younger ones will have these nicknames gone, if they aren't already.
CMU gave up their Native mascot in 1989. Their current mascot is a "flying C," yes the letter C. Their nickname is the Chippewas. While I vehemently oppose the nickname, I will give props to the several tribal council members over the last two decades or so. They have built up a relationship with CMU--they have tribal exhibits in their basketball facility, they have a 30-foot blown up photo of a fancy shawl dancers, next to other athletes in their athletic facility. A few years ago, they repatriated remains to us and we WALKED the remains to the rez, and university officials (president, provost, etc) attended. They have an annual powwow and the University helps and supports it (at other MI universities, Native student orgs are pretty much on their own for powwow). These may seem like small efforts, but they are HUGE in Mt. Pleasant--where there's been a historical disconnect between the university and the rez. I wonder how much of that has been from tribal leaders using the nickname as leverage. Certainly, CMU can do more but things are getting better.
I remember 10 years or so ago, a CMU freshman dressed as a "Chippewa" to a football game. He had fake warpaint, a macaroni breastplate, and was doing war whoops. He was publicly rebuked by fellow students. He may have been required to attend a Native class or something. Maybe a decade or so before that, a bunch of students did something similar and apparently they got sent to the rez to have dinner with one of my cousins, who gave them a Anishinaabekwe lecture on respect, according to my mother. We take care of stereotypical b.s.
Anyway, as this posting shows, even when a tribe approves the mascot, the issue isn't cut-and-dried. We've also seen that with the FSU Seminole case.
For more on Indian mascots, see Semipro Team Uses Chief Wahoo and NMAI Symposium on Racist Mascots.