Playing the Indian Card

Thursday, October 10, 2013


Raven and the First Men - Bill Reid.

The longstanding controversy about the Washington Redskins team name is, for some reason, heating up again. President Obama recently weighted in, suggesting the name change might indeed be a good idea. The problem, of course, is that the term “Redskins” is supposedly disparaging to North American Indians.

Odd, since the terms Minnesota Vikings and Notre Dame Fighting Irish are not considered disparaging to the Irish or the Swedes.

Many current dictionaries call “redskin” an offensive term. But there should be some logic behind such claims: what is disparaging about a reference to Indian ancestors painting themselves red when they went to war? Is this somehow worse than calling Swedes “Vikings,” an ancient name, or showing the Fighting Irish mascot with his fists raised in an old-fashioned boxing stance?

But it is not the term “redskin,” in the end. It is any reference to Native North Americans. I was at Syracuse University in the Seventies when they were similarly pressured into abandoning their own longstanding mascot, the Saltine Warrior. “Warrior” is, apparently, also insulting to American Indians. Sad, because there is so much Native American history associated with Syracuse. The original location of the Peace Tree, the capital of the Iroquois Confederacy, is held by the Iroquois themselves to be on Syracuse University's campus. 

The Saltine Warrior

Yet this, apparently, must not be mentioned; the students at Syracuse must have no idea.

When the Saltine Warrior was abandoned, he was replaced by a generic ancient Greek charioteer. Not terribly imaginative; but at least there was no protest raised by the Greek students on campus. At the time, the administration solicited other suggestions, but complained that many of them did not seem serious. An animated orange was one notorious suggestion. “I can guarantee you it won't be an orange,” promised Ulysses J. Connor, director of student activities.

The official mascot of Syracuse University sports teams is now Otto the Orange.

SU's own annoying orange.

As we all also know, along with “redskin,” the term “Indian” is also no longer to be used. Also disparaging, apparently—although to say so seems a bit of an insult, surely, to the billion people who reside in the Indian Subcontinent. So is “Eskimo,” though etymologists have been unable to find any disparaging implication in the term.

So why are at least some Native North Americans upset by something that most other ethnicities would consider a compliment?

I suspect the real problem here is not with what others call the North American native peoples. It is with what they call themselves.

This is usually the same thing. Haida, Mikmaq, Innu, Inuit, Anishinaabe, Beothuk, Abenaki, to cite a few examples all mean “human being.” That is, as opposed to the rest of us, who are not Haida, Mikmaq, Innu, Inuit, Anishinaabe, Beothuk, or Abenaki. We are not human beings. Nor are Innu, of course, if you are Mikmaq. These are, in themselves, rather dramatically worse racial epithets, if reverse racial epithets, than the Nazi German “herrenvolk” or “master race.” Let alone “Indian” or “redskin.” Yet they are the current preferred, politically correct terms, supposed to replace the neutral “Indian,” “Eskimo,” “Algonquin,” and so forth.

To be fair, Native North Americans are not the only groups to indulge in such extreme racism. At least two other examples seem worthy of comparison: the Gypsies refer to themselves as Rom, or Romani, and so, now, must the rest of us. “Rom” or “Romani” too means human. And at least some Chinese commonly refer to foreigners as gwailo or guizi—literally, “evil spirits.”

Now, interestingly, other than this extremely degraded view of outsiders, what do these ethnic groups—gypsies, Han Chinese, and Indians--seem to have in common? An extreme tendency not to integrate with the surrounding society, surely. Native North Americans do not want any references to themselves in the broader society, because they view the broader society, ultimately, with contempt, as subhuman.

O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
- Chinese sculpture of an evil spirit.

Unfortunately, this attitude, besides being frankly immoral, is usually self-destructive. The Chinese are doing okay—perhaps because they have recently come out from under their extreme xenophobia, which held them back for so long—but Native Americans, gypsies, and North Koreans just do not seem to fare too well economically.

And let's be clear: segregation and apartheid and indeed poverty is not being imposed on the Native people. It is the Native people who are imposing it on the rest of us.


David M said...

"Native North Americans do not want any references to themselves in the broader society, because they view the broader society, ultimately, with contempt, as subhuman." - Firstly, I was born in Canada; therefore I am myself a native North American, a native Canadian in particular, albeit first generation, that is, the son of people not born in Canada (nor in North America). And this comment you make is not true, at least not of myself. Secondly, in regard to Amerindians or aboriginal peoples, your comment is far too sweeping. I believe you identify a real and serious problem in aboriginal communities, but I doubt that this kind of exclusionary ideology is really native to most of these communities, I suspect that it is a discourse largely imported from elitist, leftist anti-colonialist ideologues, and that left to their own devices they would tend to adopt more pragmatic relationships with outsiders to their communities. In any case, I think you should certainly avoid painting every Amerindian with the same brush.

David M said...

"These are, in themselves, rather dramatically worse racial epithets, if reverse racial epithets, than the Nazi German “herrenvolk” or “master race.”" - This is really quite silly. You qualify with "in themselves," but language doesn't work that way: it doesn't exists 'in itself,' its meaning is a function of use, and the Nazi use of 'herrenvolk' is not at all comparable to the aboriginal use of Innuit, etc. The main point (initially) of your post was to talk about being careful and aware in our use of language, but I think you ended up getting hoisted by your own petard here.

Steve Roney said...

David, I don't see your objection. The Nazis claimed to be a superior race. These native groups claim to be a superior species. This latter is a more extreme claim.

As to the racism/xenophobia being the construct of modern leftists, this does not work, because these genuinely are the traditional terms these groups use to speak of themselves.

You are right, though, that many and perhaps most people with native blood would not go along with all this. But these would be the natives who have largely assimilated. It would tend not to be those who self-identify as Haida, etc.