In the past two weeks, sports columnist Jay Butynski took a look at some of the anecdotal and historical evidence behind the usage of Native iconography for the “Indians” athletic programs at Turners Falls High School. I appreciate that he would like to defuse tensions and find neutral ground; I agree that partisanship and divisiveness are seldom a productive means of resolution. But the straightforward answer to the headline “Is this nickname dust-up really necessary?” is an unambiguous “Yes.” When there is a discussion to be had around understanding and respect, especially in a learning environment, the opportunity should be welcomed and embraced. I’d like to make a few observations, which might help to inform the larger conversation through an understanding of the underlying dynamics. For background, links to the original columns are listed below:
Jay hit upon a critical observation when he cited a reader’s comment in reply: “Perhaps the best response to shoot down my assertion was that unlike the Indian nickname in Turners Falls, many of those other nicknames were given to teams by people who bear a likeness to the nickname. Irish people were responsible for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish nickname, etc. This person might be right.” I would say to Jay “You just nailed it, my friend!” – perhaps without realizing just how succinctly.
This single observation goes straight to the heart of the matter. Let’s pull back and look at it through a basic lens of mutual respect or “getting along with each other.” Most people can agree that this ideal is something to which we aspire, and would like to encourage as much as possible; these are “teaching moments” for the next generations, and indeed the future of us all. Here’s the deal: when one individual, or a group of individuals, helps themselves to something which belongs to another, it is called appropriation, defined as “the action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission.” When these actions occur with no conscious intent (but often with impact), it is due to a phenomenon known as implicit bias, defined as “the bias in judgment and/or behavior that results from subtle cognitive processes (e.g., implicit attitudes and implicit stereotypes) that often operate at a level below conscious awareness and without intentional control.”
The use of the word “netop” in the current context can be shown to exemplify these concepts, through broad deployment of stereotypes, conditioned attitudes, and a lack of awareness. Again, I wish to use this as a simple demonstration of the underlying dynamics, which are often hidden; this is not intended as a fault-finding, but as an understanding. The responsibility lies within society at large: though the individual may be subject to these covert assumptions, it remains for each one to recognize the insidiousness and decide for themselves to act differently. And in order to find appropriate answers, the right questions must be asked. Here we go…
Netop is commonly explained as a Narragansett term meaning friend. True. But there is much more to the story. First of all, the written word is an Anglicization of a single iteration of a widely used logotype amongst indigenous Algonquian-speakers, which includes nearly all of the tribal entities within what is now called New England. In the spoken mother tongue(s) it would be vocalized somewhat differently, more like nee-tomp… in Western Abenaki it would be vocalized nee-dom-ba (nid8ba); my point is that this a generalized (stereotyped) term, borrowed (loosely appropriated) by English colonists. It is not entirely correct to state that it “was used by early colonists as a salutation when greeting Native Americans.” Rather, it was first used by the indigenous people amongst themselves and their neighbors, and (in a manner similar to the quoted apocryphal William Brewster story), first used as an address by a Native person to the new European visitors – not vice versa.
Let’s be clear that this was a gesture of friendship toward complete strangers, a situation which rapidly devolved into mayhem and misunderstanding. Several more points: Brewster and his band of refugees were met by Wampanoag, not Narragansett; a ceremonial exchange of a smoking pipe as a gesture of peace between equals would not have happened in 1620 – in fact, the calumet ceremony came to the Northeast in the next century – and further, the English were never fond of it, as they did not consider the local populations as equals. Lastly, and back home to Turners Falls, this immediate region was not Narragansett homelands, but rather Abenaki, Nipmuc, Pocumtuck, Nonotuck, perhaps some Mahican and Pennacook (note these spellings and designations are all Euro-derived, variable, and subject to interpretation). Although the languages and phrases were often similar, citing a Narragansett language origin as justification for appropriation manifests conflation as stereotyping, once again. Particularly telling, the use of a facial profile with Plains culture regalia as a logo for the Indians identity is (quite literally) a graphic example of the depth of unawareness of geo-cultural reality and the lumping of all Native diversities into the “Other.”
So, yes, it is all connected – and matters – now, what’s to be done? Starting with an identification of the root situations, we can postulate solutions.
It has been said that one cannot care about that about which one is unaware or ignorant. There must be an understanding to have a connection… not separation, but connection. The key here is learning, by intent and through mindfulness. This will help to dispel assumptions, stereotypes, and implicit bias due to cognitive disconnect, all of it at once. Without this foundational work, the gesture of change becomes an empty exercise in political correctness. It is worthy to aspire toward positivity, and the right side of history, but as human beings with the capacity for empathy and reason, we are well-served to do the foundational work, to connect in a meaningful manner, to show up and be present in our own lives. As a wise person once said, I am also a you.