The NCAA and Native Mascots: A Question of Empathy
We took their land. We slaughtered the wildlife that gave them food and spiritual inspiration. We herded them into reservations where none of us cared to live. Many died on route from disease, stress, and broken hearts. We tried to extinguish their languages. We forced their children into our schools, where they were brainwashed, beaten and sometimes sodomized.
We changed their world forever. Gone are the herds of bison that stretched as far as the eye could see. Gone are the gentle skies that Nature made, polluted with nitric oxide, sulfur dioxide, acid rain and soot. Gone are many of the trees, although new and strange ones are growing back in some places. Gone is the freedom to roam and live off the land as and when Nature beckoned. With all our wealth and power, we could devote all our resources for a century and never restore the land as they knew it when first we came from Europe to American shores.
If you want to know why some Indians don’t like white men prancing around in Native American dress, doing acrobatics in time to white man’s music at games Indians never played, think about history. Then try to empathize.
Are you a Christian? How would you feel about a half-time stunt involving Jesus Christ? Supposed a jaunty athlete dressed up as the Savior, complete with a fake Cross made of balsa wood and a painted, bloody Crown of Thorns. Suppose he pranced around the field in a parody of the Agony while the band played fight songs and folks swilled beer, laughed, and cursed the opposing team. Would you like that? Would you feel any better if the team that did it said, “We’ve done it for decades!”
Are you a Catholic? What if half-time ceremonies involved a caricature of the Pope, running around the field waving an oversized crucifix, blessing the crowd in time to a marching band? Would you be pleased?
Are you a Jew? Would you like to see a half-time rabbi, with a bright pink yarmulke, waving a wooden Torah in time to the old school song? Are you a Muslim? Would you like to see a fifty-yard-line Mohammed, waving a bloody kris in time to the music, in the spirit of “fighting jihad”?
Why is it so hard to imagine others’ pain? Maybe it’s guilt. If we really thought about what our forebears did to the Indians, we would hang our heads in shame. Maybe it’s simple ignorance. Maybe we’ve all seen too many movies of cartoonish Indians to remember history. Maybe some of us really don’t know that buckskin, beads and head feathers were not costumes for games or amusement, but serious dress for serious business---worn at solemn times by Indians’ most revered religious, political and military leaders. Maybe we don’t want to think of some of those same leaders, through sheer brains, boldness and bravery, besting our forebears in battle despite overwhelming disadvantages in numbers, technology and weaponry, and then in turn being slaughtered (along with their women and children) in orgies of racist vengeance.
Yet the caricature of the warlike savage remains. We forget that Indians taught the Pilgrims how to survive their first winters. Ever wonder why members of the House of Commons shout each other down, while members of Congress speak in turn? The Iroquois taught us that. Our Colonial leaders were so impressed by their tribal councils’ polite habit of hearing each speaker to the bitter end that they adopted the same approach in our government. It seemed a civilized thing to do. Even today, we continue to learn from ancient native cultures that value land as something divine and eternal, not a burger container to be used once and discarded.
If our Republic lasts a thousand years, we can never atone for all the wrongs done to native peoples and their land. Nor, perhaps, should we try. We all may be beneficiaries of those wrongs to some degree, but few, if any, living today took part in them. Some today are trying to right those wrongs, especially wrongs done to the land. Our guilt today is mostly derivative, and therefore we ought to rise above it and empathize.
Fortunately, no one is asking us to atone fully. Some native peoples seek to enforce our own laws and treaties, or to account for money or land promised them and stolen or squandered over decades or centuries. Our courts will handle those claims and mete out justice to the best of their ability.
From the rest of us, native people ask so little. All they want is the right to control the symbols of their culture and protect those symbols from ridicule and misuse. Is that too much to ask? Is it too much to ask that they, who invented those symbols, developed them for centuries and still revere them, decide what constitutes ridicule or misuse? Some college teams claim “traditions” going back a century. But some Indian tribes developed their tribal, religious and governmental symbols over millennia. Who has the greater right?
The essence of empathy and good manners lies in respecting and correcting an offense taken, even if none was meant. To paraphrase an old English proverb, a lady or gentleman never gives offense unintentionally. The NCAA should observe that principle, stick to its new rule against native mascots, and brook no appeals. College sports will survive, and we will have done the right thing for much-abused and long-suffering people.