For centuries, the concept of race has forged our beliefs about one another regarding identity, culture, and even humanity. Though widely used as a classification tool for various genetic purposes, the social construct is not supported scientifically as an accurate marker of human genetic diversity; yet, the popular belief that such diversity exists continues to have a profound and, in many cases, devastating effect on our lives.
In Redskins? Sports Mascots, Indian Nations, and White Racism, James V. Fenelon (Lakota / Dakota), sociology professor and director of the Center for Indigenous Peoples Studies at California State University, San Bernardino, adds a critical viewpoint to race research through an assessment of the Washington team’s mascot.
Building from the historical framework of white supremacy, the book astutely argues how the conquests of the Americas was racialized and how framing people of color as inferior others “is critical to the maintenance of racial domination.” The overall scope of Redskins? will not be shocking to those forced to deal daily with systemic racism and the fallout of settler colonialism, but the finer historical details and the accompanying images of Native caricatures, Neo-Nazis protesting to “Keep the Redskins” football team “White,” as well as crazed football and baseball fans in headdresses and redface all do well to crystalize that the criticism of Native mascots goes well beyond being defensive.
We tend to think of murderers as wicked individuals or small groups of degenerates, but what of the organizations and governments that perpetrate genocidal acts in some delusional belief they have the knowledge and the right to do so?
As evidenced in the “Indian wars” and genocidal slaughters such as Wounded Knee, there has been an overt attempt by the United States government to exterminate Native Americans. Fenelon illustrates in Chapter 3, “Redskin,” how the media propagates abhorrence of Indigenous peoples through defamatory language and racist imagery. A clip from an 1853 Yreka Herald piece reads, “We hope that the government will render such aid as will enable the citizens of the north to carry on a war of extermination until the last redskin of these tribes has been killed.” Headlines from the Bismarck Tribune in 1890 read: “Old Sitting Bull Stirring Up the Excited Redskins,” “BAD, BAD INDIANS,” and “Some Bad Redskins.”
In the chapter “Surveying the Landscape of Racist America,” Fenelon explores how mascots and negative stereotypes hurt Indigenous Nations and people, specifically children. He references one such incident from Erik Stegman’s and Victoria Phillips’ 2014 report on “hostile environments” in schools, described by a Miwok student at a California high school, that involved a cheerleader shackled against her will while dressed in a Halloween “Pocahottie” costume as other cheerleaders danced around her, feigning the beating of a slave.
Fenelon also mentions late Native activist leader Fern Mathias (Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota) and her fight against various mascot issues such as California’s Arcadia High School “Apache” mascot. During a July 12, 1999 Public Hearing on “Official Insignia of Native American Tribes” held at the San Francisco Public Library, Mathias remarked:
“I didn’t bring my evidence, like the Cherokees, the jeeps, or Dakota Trucks. Too big to bring. My name is Fern Mathias. I’m director of the American Indian Movement in Southern California…I came from a school called the ‘Redmen.’ I did not feel comfortable going to that school.”
“Indians are always told that sports mascots honor Indians. Where is the honor in a name like Redskins? Where is the honor in a grinning stereotype like the Cleveland Indians’ mascot? How do you think it makes Indian children feel? How does it make non-Indian children feel? It teaches them racism. No wonder the people of America are racist. Racism is taught in the schools of America.”
Redskins? reads like a scholarly work written plainly and passionately. In under 140 pages, Fenelon manages to successfully delve into the what, how, why, and what now? of White America’s conscious and “blind” fervor for historical and continued racism towards Indigenous people.