We simply chose an Indian as the emblem. We could have just as easily chosen any uncivilized animal.
--Eighth-grade student writing
about his school's mascot in 1997
Lurking within the collective consciousness of white America lies an awareness that we live on stolen land. Other people lived here before we did.
But did we really "steal" it from them?
As Shannon Sullivan points out in her book Revealing Whiteness, most of the 500 or so pre-Columbian groups didn't think of the land as theirs in the first place:
From an Indian perspective, land is not a piece of property to be bought and sold. Native relationships with it generally are not ones of possession and ownership, but rather ones of identity and continuity of life. As an anonymous Indian Chief asks when the "good White Chief" in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy Indian lands, "How can one buy or sell the air, the warmth of the land? That is difficult for us to imagine. If we don't own the sweet air and the bubbling water, how can you buy it from us?"
Does thinking of the white conquest as a "settlement" of land that no one actually owned let white people off the hook, setting them free from the charge of collective racial theft?
Maybe a strained argument of that sort could be made in terms of land. In other ways, though, the charge of white theft from Indians is harder to dismiss.
So is the white community's training of its own children to become thieves.
What, for instance, are white children learning to steal from Indians when their parents hang "dream catchers" in their bedrooms?
Last summer I was attending a work-related training in Portland, at a fancy mountain resort. In the kitchen of the dinning room was a dream catcher. Two of the Indigenous people who were also attending the training were incensed by the presence of a dream catcher, especially when it was apparent that no Native people were even working at the resort. My two friends complained to the kitchen staff that the dream catcher had to come down, and they used the moment as a teaching opportunity to enlighten the white staff about the cultural appropriation of Native Spirituality. (Theryn Kigvamasud'Vashti, Community Organizer)
What are white children learning to steal from Indians when they go to see the Washington Redskins play, or the Cleveland Indians, or the Hooper Bay School Warriors, or the Grafton Elementary School Blackhawks, or the Tecumseh Middle School Savages, or any of the other thousands of teams that claim to "honor" Native Americans with such romanticized caricatures?
Dan Ninham, a member of the Oneida Nation... formed a multiethnic committee to oppose the Fightin' Reds mascot at Eaton High School--a caricature of a defiant Indian with a misshapen nose, eagle feather and loincloth. Ninham has called it "one of the most blatantly racist mascots in the country," but school officials have refused to meet with the committee to discuss concerns... The basketball team, made up of American Indians, Hispanics and Anglos, took the name Fightin' Whities as a jab at the nearby high school... Mascot protesters estimate that 3,000 high schools, colleges and professional sports teams use Native American nicknames and caricatures--including the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians, with their grinning Chief Wahoo mascot. (The Pluralism Project)
What are white children learning to steal from Indians when they take class trips to museums?
Today, rather than something wild to consciously set out to conquer, Native Americans--especially their religious traditions and rituals--tend to be unconsciously appropriated as exotic objects for Euro-American use, pleasure, and consumption. One flagrant example of this unconscious appropriation involves the "museumification" of Native American sacred objects. These objects include pipes, feathers, drums, and other items for use in religious ceremonies. They also include the skeletal remains of dead Native Americans who were removed from burial grounds for archaeological and scientific study.
Displaying these items in museums made it possible for mass numbers of Euro-Americans to learn more about Native American rituals and peoples, but it also prevented many tribes from practicing their religions due to the removal of irreplaceable sacred objects. Even worse, the placement of religious objects in museums was and is a sacrilege from a native American perspective since their artificial preservation prevented them from decay through use, which is seen as their natural end. . . . Beneath conscious attempts to help Native American cultures and peoples, unconscious habits of white privilege reasserted the white "right" to ownership of all things non-white. (Shannon Sullivan)
Children are not born white--they learn to become white. That means that they also learn how to think and act white. Much of this training process takes the form of learning what one is by learning what one is not.
As a white child learns about Indians, she learns that she is not an Indian. She also learns that since she is white, it's okay, and even a good thing, to steal from Indians.
(hat-tip to double consciousness for the FW logo)