Following is the full text of a guest editorial that appeared in the Sept. 29, 2016 issue of the Montague Reporter. Melody Brook, the author, is an educator at Champlain College in Burlington, VT and a member of the Elnu Abenaki.
As a citizen of the Elnu Abenaki Tribe, I was asked my opinion about an issue within our traditional territory. This morning, as I tried to formulate my response to a sports team that continues to hold on to a caricature of an indigenous person as their mascot, I stepped back in order to understand the whole picture.
I looked up statistics surrounding missing and murdered indigenous women. I looked up suicide rates. I looked up statistics of heart disease and diabetes. I looked up incarceration rates.
My Facebook feed this morning was full of images of the Dakota Pipeline Water Protectors, and protests in Mi’kmaq territory surrounding natural gas storage sites, both of which are absent on mainstream media sources. There was even a photo of football players in their Redskins uniforms raising their fists in support of Black Lives Matter and wearing a jersey that proves how others, even other marginalized groups, see indigenous people. They don’t.
What does this have to do with a mascot in Turners Falls?
These seemingly unrelated issues are connected to a theme of invisibility and a lack of empathy for indigenous people, one of the most marginalized populations on Turtle Island. I have seen my friends on Facebook argue about Halloween costumes, and the right of the Redskins to maintain their traditions. The issues that plague Indian country are symptoms of a much broader problem that perpetuate them.
A mascot that debases more than 500 Nations into a single – and incorrect – stereotype represents more than 400 years of colonialism, and is the symbol for a world that has never cared about their suffering.
They do not see the faces of the indigenous children shipped to boarding schools. They do not see the smallpox scars. They do not see the societies confined to reservations outside of the public eye, struggling with substance abuse and health issues. They do not see the constant attack to indigenous values, or the bodies of all of those killed creating a country that people are proud to call home.
They see a caricature of an Indian with a headdress, the stereotypical Plains warrior of legend, doomed to fall. The warriors of the past long gone. To them, it may be beautiful or they may even think it is honoring them, but to at least some indigenous people, this is a further affront to countless individuals and groups shredding every last ounce of their souls to reclaim their past, secure a better future, and one filled with pride and the possibility that every other American thinks they have – the pursuit of happiness.
Most importantly, people are struggling just to be seen as human beings.
Change takes place every time someone makes a conscious choice to be better. The Turners Falls mascot is a generic “Indian” with the Plains style headdress in the Northeast. What does that message convey? It has nothing to do with the history of the area.
As a citizen of a local tribe, this mascot does not represent me. It certainly does not honor me. I am hard-pressed to come up with an example in the Northeast of a headdress style similar to the Plains region. It does not fit.
The generic “Indian” mascot in essence wipes the identity of more than 500 Nations, because placing that image in a locale that has nothing to do with the Plains smacks of the message that it does not matter whether they depict local groups or Plains groups. They are all the same.
The regional piece is lost, and all Indians once again are painted in the typical vein of ambiguity, and the fake image of the noble savage or the mystical warrior. When we as a society marginalize and shape human beings into caricatures, we are complicit in the violence against them, metaphorically and literally.
What happens when people are reduced from personhood and they are no longer seen as human beings? What happens when real human beings are left out of the media or ignored by most people in dominant society? Society can continue to treat them as they always have, while symptoms of what was broken remain in their communities.
Mascots could be a visible reminder of people often forgotten – and yet they do not see their real faces. The mask of what they want Indians to be shields them from the realities of indigenous life.
Misrepresentation is a dishonor, but it is also more than that. It is a travesty. And it is no wonder that in this world indigenous women are stolen and attacked at higher rates than other populations. It is no wonder that indigenous people have little to no media coverage just to be able to have clean drinking water or to safeguard their sacred sites from those looking to turn a profit.
Apathy begins when people are young, and is perpetuated by those who do not place value on all walks of life. All Indians are just generic warriors, or a dying race of people without identity. They are not people to mainstream society.
With so many real issues that need to be addressed in indigenous society, we can do better. Change the mascot and teach students how to be responsible citizens in a world desperately in need of them.
In conclusion, as a person with a vested interest in this mascot debate, this mascot does not represent me. It does not honor me. It is an affront to our people.
This is not just a mascot. It is about what the mascot represents. I read an article in Indian Country Today last year chronicling the experience of indigenous students attending high schools with an Indian mascot. They become targets, and it also becomes their role to have to explain what indigenous people really stand for, and what they actually look like. With every new jersey, you send a message to them that their existence is a stereotype and in some cases students have received negative attention.
For a community already struggling with many issues – including, as I can attest personally, self-identity – any school with such a mascot will potentially harm not only the student, but our community as a whole.
It is a school’s job to prepare students for the world, and by doing so, create citizens that will make it a better place. If a mascot can potentially harm any student’s self-identity, why would you continue to keep it? If even one student is sent back with a broken spirit, the community at large failed, because we can all seek to change injustice.
We need role models in our societies, and we need students that feel empowered to take on a world that often does not support them. Turners Falls, I challenge you to do better. Redskins, I challenge you to do better.
Everyone that promotes and that actively perpetuates a broken system, I challenge you to do better.
Melody Walker Brook, a citizen of the Elnu Abenaki Tribe, is an educator, activist, and artisan. Melody has served on several state-level committees, including a term as the vice chair of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs as well as a member of the Waolwozi NH Minority Board of Health Steering Committee. She holds a master’s degree in history from the University of Vermont, and currently teaches and works at Champlain College.
Thank you Melody!