Let's Spread The "Fun" Around

From Ward Churchill's "Indians Are Us?", 1994, Common Courage Press

During the past couple of seasons, there has been an increasing wave of controversy regarding the names of professional sports teams like the Atlanta "Braves", Cleveland "Indians", Washington "Redskins", and Kansas City "Chiefs". The issue extends to the names of college teams like Florida State University "Seminoles", University of Illinois "Fighting Illini", and so on, right on down to high school outfits like the Lamar (Colorado) "Savages". Also involved have been team adoption of "mascots" replete with feathers, buckskins, beads, spears, and "warpaint" (some fans have opted to adorn themselves in the same fashion), and nifty little "pep" gestures like the "Indian Chant" and "Tomahawk Chop".

A substantial number of American Indians have protested that use of native names, images, and symbols as sports team mascots and the like, is by definition, a virulently racist practice. Given the historical relationship between Indians and non-Indians during what has been called the "Conquest of America", American Indian Movement leader (and American Indian Anti-Defamation Council founder) Russell Means has compared the practice to contemporary Germans naming their soccer teams the "Jews", "Hebrews", and "Yids", while adorning their uniforms with grotesque caricatures of Jewish faces taken from the nazi's antisemitic propaganda of the 1930s. Numerous demonstrations have occurred in conjunction with games-- most notably during the November 15, 1992, match-up between the Chiefs and Redskins in Kansas City-- by angry Indians and their supporters.

In response, a number of players-- especially African-Americans and other minority athletes-- have been trotted out by professional team owners like Ted Turner, as well as university and public school officials, to announce that they mean not to insult, but to "honor", native people. They have been joined by the television networks and most major newspapers, all of which have editorialized that Indian discomfort with the situation is "no big deal", insisting that the whole thing is just fun, they've argued, and "a few disgruntled Native Americans" have no right to undermine the nation's enjoyment of its leisure time by complaining. This is especially the case, some have contended, "in hard times like these". It has even been contended that rather than the degradation itself-- creates "a serious barrier to the sort of intergroup communication so necessary in a multicultural society such as ours."

Okay, let's communicate. We may be frankly dubious that those advancing such positions really believe in their own rhetoric, but, just for the sake of argument, let's accept the premise that they are sincere. If what they are saying is true in any way at all, then isn't it time we spread such "inoffensiveness" and "good cheer" around among all groups so that everybody can participate equally in fostering the round of national laughs they call for? Sure it is-- the country can't have too much fun or "intergroup involvement"-- so the more, the merrier. Simple consistency demands that anyone who thinks the Tomahawk Chop is a swell pastime must be just as hearty in their endorsement of the following ideas, which-- by the "logic" used to defend the defamation of American Indians-- should help us all really start yukking it up.

First, as a counterpart to the Redskins, we need an NFL team called "Niggers" to "honor" Afroamerica. Halftime festivities for fans might include a simulated stewing of the opposing coach in a large pot while players and cheerleaders dance around it, garbed in leopard skins and wearing fake bones in their noses. This concept obviously goes along with the kind of gaiety attending the Chop, but also along with the actions of the Kansas City Chiefs, whose team members-- prominently including black team members-- lately appeared on a poster looking "fierce" and "savage" by way of wearing Indian regalia. Just a bit of harmless "morale boosting", says the Chiefs' front office. You bet.

So that the newly-formed "Niggers" sports club won't end up too out of sync while expressing the "Spirit" and "identity" of Afroamericans in the above fashion, a baseball franchise-- let's call this one the "Sambos"-- should be formed. How about a basketball team called the "Spearchuckers"? A hockey team called the "Jungle Bunnies"? Maybe the "essence" of these teams could be depicted by images of tiny black faces adorned with huge pairs of lips. The players could appear on TV every week or so gnawing on chicken legs and spitting watermelon seeds at one another. Catchy, eh? Well, there's "nothing to be upset about", according to those who love wearing "War bonnets" to the Super Bowl or having "Chief Illiniwik" dance around the sports arenas of Urbana, Illinois.

And why stop there? There are plenty of other groups to include. "Hispanics"? They could be "represented" by the Galveston "Greasers" and San Diego "Spics", at least until the Wisconsin "Wetbacks" and "Baltimore Beaners" get off the ground. Asian Americans? How about the "Slopes", "Dinks", "Gooks", and "Zipperheads"? Owners of the latter teams might get their logo ideas from editorial page cartoons printed in the nation's newspapers during World War II: slant-eyes, buck teeth, big glasses, but nothing racially insulting or derogatory, according to the editors and artists involved at the time. Indeed, this Second World War-vintage stuff can be seen as just another barrel of laughs, at least by what current editors say are their "local standards" concerning American Indians.

Let's see. Who's been left out? Teams like the Kansas City "Kikes", Hanover "Honkies", San Leandro "Shylocks", Daytona "Dagos", and Pittsburgh "Polacks" will fill a certain social void among white folk. Have a religious belief? Let's all go for the gusto and gear up for the Milwaukee "Mackerel Snappers" and Hollywood "Holy Rollers". The Fighting Irish of Notre Dame can be rechristened the "Drunken Irish" or "Papist Pigs". Issues of gender and sexual preference can be addressed through creation of teams like the St. Louis "Sluts", Boston "Bimbos", Detroit "Dykes", and the Fresno "Faggots". How about the Gainesville "Gimps" and Richmond "Retards", so the physically and mentally impaired won't be excluded from our fun and games?

Now, don't go getting "overly sensitive" out there. None of this is demeaning or insulting, at least not when it's being done to Indians. Just ask the folks who are doing it, or their apologists like Andy Rooney in the national media. They'll tell you-- as in fact they have been telling you-- that there's been no harm done, regardless of what their victims think, feel, or say. The situation is exactly the same as when those with precisely the same mentality used to insist that Step'n'Fetchit was okay, or Rochester on the Jack Benny Show, or Amos and Andy, Charlie Chan, the Frito Bandit, or any of the other cutesy symbols making up the lexicon of American racism. Have we communicated yet?

Let's get just a little bit real here. The notion of "fun" embodied in rituals like the Tomahawk Chop must be understood for what it is. There's not a single non-Indian example deployed above which can be considered socially acceptable in even the most marginal sense. The reasons are obvious enough. So why is it different where American Indians are concerned? One can only conclude that, in contrast to the other groups at issue, Indians are (falsely) perceived as being too few, and therefore too weak, to defend themselves effectively against racist and otherwise offensive behavior. The sensibilities of those who take pleasure in things like the Chop are thus akin to those of schoolyard bullies and those twisted individuals who like to torture rats. At another level, their perspectives have much in common with those manifested more literally-- and therefore more honestly-- by groups like the nazis, aryan nations, and ku klux klan. Those who suggest this is "okay" should be treated accordingly by anyone who opposes nazism and comparable belief systems.

Fortunately, there are a few glimmers of hope that this may become the case. A few teams and their fans have gotten the message and have responded appropriately. One illustration is Stanford University, which opted to drop the name "Indians" with regard to its sports teams (and, contrary to the myth perpetuated by those who enjoy insulting Native Americas, Stanford has experienced no resulting drop-off in attendance at its games). Meanwhile, the local newspaper in Portland, Oregon, recently decided its long-standing editorial policy prohibiting use of racial epithets should include derogatory sports team names. The Redskins, for instance, are now simply referred to as being "the Washington team", and will continued to be described in this way until the franchise adopts an inoffensive moniker (newspaper sales in Portland have suffered no decline as a result).

Such examples are to be applauded and encouraged. They stand as figurative beacons in the night, proving beyond all doubt that it is quite possible to indulge in the pleasure of athletics without accepting blatant racism into the bargain. The extent to which they do not represent the norm of American attitudes and behavior is exactly the extent to which America remains afflicted with an ugly reality which is far different from the noble and enlightened "moral leadership" it professes to show the world. Clearly, the United States has a very long way to go before it measures up to such an image of itself.