John Mack - Newtown Supervisor
A Deeper Understanding of the "Redsk*ns" Conversation

A Deeper Understanding of the "Redsk*ns" Conversation

This is a guest blog post contributed by Arla Patch who I met at a recent weeklong series of hearings held by the PA Human Rights Commission at Bucks County Community College in Newtown Township (see here). Ms. Patch was the Community Engagement Coordinator for the Maine Wabanaki State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission when she lived in Maine. She now lives in Quakertown.

Why do some communities hang on with all their might to the term “Redsk*ns,” which is considered a racist slur by many, while other communities hear the Native American voices that ask them to release it? In particular, why do the largely Euro-American members of the Nashaminy school board, teachers and parents say they use the racial slur “R word” to HONOR Native Americans and yet attack, berate and highly disrespect the very Native People who are asking them to stop using it? Even when Native American members of the same community insist that it DOES NOT honor them?

I think loss has something to do with it.

When I lived in Maine I remember a group of Wabanaki tribal members traveled to Sanford, Maine in 2012 to ask the Sanford High School community to please stop using the term “Redsk*ns” for their sports team. The tribal members shared the impact on their lives of being reduced to a mascot and how that made them feel.  From what I understand, nearly everyone “got it” and they voted to change the name.  But the retired football coach spoke in favor of keeping the Redsk*ns name. Apparently he said with fiery passion: “I was born and REDSKIN, I’m going to die a REDSKIN!”

That level of identity struck me as significant. When I read Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe, I realized that especially for Euro-Americans there is a very deep genetic component to embracing Native American identity.  Each one of us non-natives left our ancestral territory at some point for the “New Land.”  We broke our multigenerational connection to the land of our ancestors and took up residence in someone else’s homeland. We all carry the genetic memory of tribal cohesion, where each person’s survival depends on the rest of the tribe working together, supporting each other, and living with an awareness of the group as a whole. This is the powerful cohesion that Junger also contends occurs in the military when a group of people are life-threatened regularly and depend on each other for survival. He contends we are designed for that cohesion.

For me personally, being of very mixed European ancestry, I have also craved a cultural identity. My first marriage had the very attractive aspect of being married to a full blooded Swede and getting a very ethic Swedish last name. I learned to cook Swedish food and celebrate Swedish holidays.

There can be a longing for an identifying culture when yours has been obscured by generations of mixing and diluting.  And when you can attach bravery, strength, and fierceness to an identity such as the projection on the Native American warrior stereotype, it's a powerful mix.  If you have no real education on the context, the history of what Indigenous Peoples have suffered since we first arrived on their land, you can aggressively embrace that mascot identity as your own.  Further you will be blind to the cartooning, mimicking and misuse of imagery, gestures and regalia, so great is your need for that identity.

This powerful appropriation connects IDENTITY WITH PRIDE. This PRIDE is so emotionally based, and the need and identity becomes so strong, that it outweighs what the members of the tribal communities tell you. To take that identity away, for some people, is a loss too great to bear.

Another force the drives the voracity of clinging to Native American identities I believe is an underlying and unspoken guilt. Most of us know on some level, that this land and all its resources that we possess came at the cost of nearly wiping out the Indigenous Peoples who were already here. Horrific things were done. The depth of grief to accept what our forbearers might have done can feel overwhelming.

But to me, part of the healing is to acknowledge. I heard it said: “If we own up to our past we won’t be condemned by it.  We are more than the worst things we’ve done.” It is a history that we’ve inherited. The choice now is what are we going to do with that inheritance moving forward?

Further Reading

Posted on 05 Feb 2019, 01:45 - Category: Discrimination

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