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California Indian Day


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Time to Stop Playing Indian

By Arlene Hirschfelder

It is predictable. At Halloween, thousands of children (and adults) trick-or-treat in Indian costumes. At Thanksgiving, thousands of children parade in school pageants wearing plastic headdresses and pseudo-buckskin clothing. Shops stock holiday greeting cards with images of cartoon animals wearing feathered headbands and load shelves with Indian figurines. Thousands of teachers and librarians trim bulletin boards with Anglo-featured, feathered Indian boys and girls.

Fall and winter are also the seasons when hundreds of millions of sports fans root for professional, college and public school teams with names that summon up American Indians—Braves, Redskins, Chiefs. War-whooping team mascots are imprinted on team clothing, pennants, notebooks, tote bags, towels and car floor mats.

All of this seems innocuous; why make a fuss about it? Because sports trappings and holiday symbols offend tens of thousands of Native American people. Because these invented images prevent millions of us from understanding the authentic Indian America, both long ago and today. Because this image-making prevents Indians from being a relevant part of the nation’s social fabric.

Halloween costumes mask the reality of high mortality rates, high diabetes rates, high unemployment rates. They hide low average life spans, low per-capita incomes and low educational levels. Plastic war bonnets and ersatz buckskin deprive people from knowing the complexity of Native American heritage—that Indians belong to hundreds of nations that have intricate social organizations, governments, languages, religions and sacred rituals, ancient stories, unique arts and music forms.

Dozens of children’s picture books about Thanksgiving depict generic Indians harmoniously dining with Pilgrims. These books, Thanksgiving school units and plays mask history. They do not tell how Europeans mistreated Wampanoags and other Native peoples during the 17th century. Social studies units don’t mention that, to many Indians, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning, the beginning of broken promises, land theft and near extinction of their religions and languages at the hands of invading Europeans.

Toy companies mask Native identity and trivialize sacred beliefs by manufacturing Indian costumes, headdresses, pipes and trick arrow-through-the-head props (all available online) that equate Indians with playtime. Indian figures equipped with bows and arrows, guns, knives and tomahawks give youngsters the harmful message that Indians favor mayhem. Many Native people can tell about children screaming in fear after being introduced to them.

It is time to consider how these images impede the efforts of Native parents and communities to raise their children with positive information about their heritage. It is time to get rid of stereotypes that, whether deliberately or inadvertently, denigrate Indian cultures and people. In 2001, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights condemned the use of Native American images and nicknames as sports symbols. It said the images are “particularly inappropriate and insensitive in light of the long history of forced assimilation that American Indian people have endured in this country.” In 2005, the American Psychological Association called for the immediate retirement of all American Indian mascots, symbols, images and personalities by schools, colleges, universities, athletic teams and organizations. Over the past decade, more than 100 organizations have gone on record to oppose the use of Native sports imagery.

It is time to bury the Halloween costumes, trick arrows, bulletin-board pin-ups and mascots. It has been done before. In the 1970s, after student protests, Marquette University dropped Willie Wampum, Stanford University retired Prince Lightfoot, and the University of Oklahoma eliminated its Little Red mascot. In the late 1990s, the Dallas Public Schools eliminated American Indian mascot names and imagery from school property, including athletic and cheerleading uniforms, a model for other districts in the country to follow. A couple of minor league teams have made changes. In 1997 the Toronto Blue Jays Triple-A farm team in Syracuse, New York became the SkyChiefs. The Peoria Chiefs, a minor league affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, changed its logo from an American Indian to a Dalmatian fire chief. And in February 2007, the University of Illinois banned its mascot, Chief Illiniwek, who appeared for the last time at a University of Illinois men’s home basketball game. (Months later, in the name of free speech, the school’s chancellor lifted a prohibition on the use of the mascot’s logo on homecoming parade floats and students’ clothing, which the university considered personal expressions.)

It is time to stop playing Indian. It is time to abolish Indian images that sell merchandise. It is time to stop offending Native people whose lives are all too often filled with economic deprivation, powerlessness, discrimination and gross injustice. This time next year, let’s find more appropriate symbols for the holiday and sports seasons.

Arlene Hirschfelder has authored or edited more than 20 nonfiction books and curricula dealing with Native histories, cultures, and contemporary issues. Much of her writing deals with Indian stereotypes in the world of children. She was a staff member of the Association on American Indian Affairs for more than 20 years.

Geronimo Lives: 

9/11 Memorial and Terrorists

By Roy Cook

As this country marks the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. We hear that this was the worst terrorist attack to happen in this country since Pearl Harbor.

While my heart goes out to the dead, their families and those who are forever scared by these events, there have been millions of people murdered in this country by terrorists.

It would be impossible for me to list all of the acts of terror our People have faced, but just to mention a few of them because our People are also worthy of remembrance.

You won’t find many monuments to these, the unquiet dead. But their bones and blood make up the soil where your shopping centers and homes, schools, highways and churches now stand. Where is their memorial? It is in the hearts of those who remember.

Today we need to remember: The thousands of Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Seminole and Chickasaw People who suffered untold agony during the forced removal from their homelands in the 1830′s. Innocent little children, men and women perished in concentration camps or froze and starved to death on the Trail Where They Cried.

Today we need to remember: The 90 women and children who died in the Bear River Massacre in southeastern Idaho.

The 200 Cheyenne men, women and children who were slain at Sand Creek in eastern Colorado by the US Cavalry led by Col John Chivington, a Methodist minister who ordered his men to “Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice.”

Today we need to remember: The 200 murdered Blackfeet women and children who died at Maries River in northern Montana and the other 140 People who were left to freeze to death in the January cold.

The 103 Cheyenne women and children who were butchered on the Washita River in western Oklahoma.

Today we need to remember: The 200 to 300 Sioux who were slaughtered under a flag of truce at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

The 500 Sauk and Fox Indians led by Black Hawk who were massacred by militia forces while trying to negotiate surrender.

Today we need to remember: The Yuki’s and other tribes of Indians in California whose populations declined from 300,000 to less than 20,000 because white men wanted the land to search for gold. Organized Indian hunts were held on Sundays and our People were killed for sport.

Today we need to remember: The little children who were kidnapped from their homes and forced to attend BIA schools. Many of them died alone and lie in unmarked graves.

From the small pox, measles, typhoid, cholera, diphtheria, TB, and VD epidemics brought to us by the white invaders.

Today we need to remember: The continued genocide still being waged against us.

Native Americans know about terrorism.


Native Americans Endure 500 years of Terrorism

By Tim Giago

After the death of Osama bin Laden a column I wrote on September 11, 2006 seems to be an appropriate column for this time and place. Living in a world of violence and terrorism, reflections on the 500 year assault upon the Indian people of the Americas is something all Americans should read about. Most Americans have short memories, but the Native Americans of 2011 will always remember the terror that stalked them for centuries.

The Indian people never knew what act of violence or terror would befall them from the invaders. But death did come. It came in the form of biological warfare when small pox tainted blankets were distributed to the unsuspecting victims.

It came to them from the muzzles of guns that did not distinguish between warriors, women, elders or children. It came to them in the ruthless name of Manifest Destiny, the American edict that proclaimed God as the purveyor of expansion Westward.

Indian people were often slaughtered like animals often while waving the American flag in pitiful efforts to convince their killers that they were not bad people.

At Wounded Knee in 1890, a slaughter took place that the white man often called the last great battle between Indians and the United States Army. It was not a battle. It was one the last heinous acts of terror against innocent men, women and children. The attack by Islamic terrorists on 9/11 was another.

The Indian people died not knowing why as did the people in the World Trade Center. The Lakota died in fear. They died in the frozen snow of that bitterly cold December day at Wounded Knee while fleeing to find safe harbor amongst the Oglala Lakota. These Lakota experienced terrorism by a government that did not consider them to be human beings. Americans died in the Twin Towers at the hands of a radical people seeking revenge for reasons the victims did not understand.

When human beings can be labeled as less than human their deaths become meaningless. This is the apparent belief of the terrorists and the early settlers. By portraying all Indians as murdering savages, rapists, kidnappers and worse, the national media of the day laid the groundwork for Wounded Knee. In article after article urging the government to remove the Indian people by any means from their homelands, the media stood guilty of fomenting acts of terrorism.

Similar articles in the media and speeches in the mosques in the Nations of Islam expressed similar views of Americans. This laid the groundwork for 9/11. A lie repeated often enough becomes a fact in the minds of impressionable people. Indians are savages, Americans are infidels and Arabs are heathens. Do you see how this logic works?

Just as the Crusaders believed it was their Christian duty to conquer and kill those Arabs they considered as sub-humans and heathens, so too did America duplicate their misguided logic against the First Americans. The people of the Islamic Nations never forgave nor forgot. The Indian people have largely forgiven, but they have not forgotten. The Christians of the Crusade de-humanized the Arabs, the early Americans de-humanized the Indians and the People of Islam now de-humanize Westerners. It is a vicious cycle that is centuries old.

Just as news stories and movies about Arabs portrayed them as less than human, so did the media portray the indigenous people of America. Their lives then became expendable and meaningless and therefore easily sacrificed for what is believed to be a greater cause. Westerners are now fitted into this same category by the Islamic terrorists.

I think America missed a mighty lesson and opportunity when it did not learn how to treat the rest of the world after its mistreatment of its indigenous people. America has still never settled its debt, either morally or financially, with its indigenous people.

America, as a nation, wept when nearly three thousand of its citizens died at the World Trade Center on 9/11. The Indian people still weep for the thousands killed in the more than five centuries of terrorism foisted upon them by a Nation that did not care. They also weep for those lives lost on 9/11 and for the lives of the many soldiers lost in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A philosopher once said, “Great Nations are judged by how they treat their indigenous people,” and I am sad to say that America has failed to pass the test of time.

When the Indian people pray in song, they sing for the lives of all who have come before, for all who are here now, and for all that are to come. To the Lakota life is “hocoka,” a circle. They know that what goes around comes around.

It is a lesson that America should learn and live by. “Great nations are judged by how they treat their indigenous people.” If America had treated its indigenous people fairly and justly and had taken this lesson to heart in the way it treats the indigenous people of other worlds, would 9/11 have happened? It is something to ponder.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the former editor and publisher of Indian Country Today. He is the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association.