What’s in a name

Perhaps you’ve followed the controversy around the name of the NFL team Washington “Redskins.”  They have faced a lot of pressure, and rightly so, to ditch the offensive name. Sadly, the team owner Dan Snyder has vowed never to change the name, and NFL officials have only recently agreed to talks with Native communities. (Here’s background from Huffington Post if you haven’t been following the controversy.)

NoMascotsIn Wisconsin, there’s a similar fight underway. Mukwonago is a small town about 30 miles southwest of Milwaukee. The Mukwonago school district’s Indian mascot is offensive and damaging to the Native communities in Wisconsin, so they joined with progressive activists and concerned parents and students to urge the school board to part with the mascot and enter into a community-based process to find a new one. They nearly succeeded in forcing the school board’s hand until the state legislature intervened with a bill that makes it nearly impossible to protest racist team names and mascots.  Just yesterday, the bill passed in the Assembly, and the Senate will take it up next month.

One of the activists who has dedicated an enormous amount of time and effort in pressuring Mukwonago school officials is retired teacher Sandy Shedivy, a long-time friend, supporter and volunteer with Rethinking Schools.  Sandy is a scholar in her own right on this issue.  Her PhD dissertation was on stereotypes.

In her comments to the Mukwonago school board, Sandy expressed

“Our school has appropriated a cultural symbol without knowing the background and history of Indian regalia… these conceptual understandings of  ‘Indians’ rarely come from authentic interaction with members of the Native communities, based in a spirit of honoring and respecting diverse cultures. These logos and mascots must be challenged in order to dismantle the prejudices that emerge from our country’s colonial past.”

Would that NFL team owners and officials heed Sandy’s message.

Fortunately, calls to change the Washington D.C.’s team name have been growing, and sports newscasters and personalities like Peter King, Bill Simmons and most recently Bob Costas have expressed in very public ways that it’s time for a name change.  (Read Dave Zirin’s excellent column on Costas’ remarks.)

As educators committed to social justice, these names and mascots are a violation of our progressive principles, and we need to speak out.  But events like these are also an opportunity for learning and dialogue.

unlearningindianstereotypesSo as we discussed the Mukwonago mascot controversy with Sandy, we came up with the idea to send copies of our DVD Unlearning “Indian” Stereotypes to members of the Mukwonago School Board, the Wisconsin legislators who sponsored the bill to hamstring activists as they fight to remove offensive and racist mascots and logos from our public institutions, to the owners of the Washington D.C. football team, and to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, whose response has been disappointing.

Originally produced as a filmstrip by the Council on Interracial Books for Children in 1977 as part of a series of filmstrips combating racial stereotypes, Unlearning Indian Stereotypes was enhanced and transferred to DVD by Rethinking Schools in 2008. In spite of the fact that it was produced more than 35 years ago, it remains a useful resource for understanding and confronting racial stereotypes.

Narrated by Native American children, the DVD asks viewers to examine racial stereotypes through the eyes of children, while also providing a brief introduction to Native American history.

We hope that the officials who receive the DVD view it with an open mind and consider how their actions and statements contribute to the negative stereotyping of Native Americans.

Showing the DVD in your classroom would be a great way to connect current events in sports to our history.

2 thoughts on “What’s in a name

  1. If you tell them they are being bullies and demonstrating acts of bullying, legislature would be all over it! What a shame and shame on THEM. Aunt Jemima, the leprechaun, and the silly rabbit are all gone and were perhaps the least of our worries!

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