Indians ask: Turn tomahawks to crucifixes . . .


October 20, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

MINNEAPOLIS -- They played a drum -- not a tom-tom. It was a bass drum, the kind every marching band features, and a half-dozen American Indian children were playing traditional songs of their people. Nobody danced. Nobody went hi-yi-yi, hi-yi-yi, like they do in the movies. Just a steady drumbeat and unfamiliar words given from an unfamiliar tongue.

The drum was only one beat among many in a weird and fantastic clash of cultures outside the Metrodome yesterday.

American Indians had come to protest. Everyone else had come for the first game of the World Series.

While the kids beat the drum, a local radio station, which had appropriated the corner, played loud rock music to facilitate the pre-game party. Wasn't it about partying after all?

Not for everyone, apparently.

For perhaps a thousand American Indians, this was a moment to defend their culture and to stop the chop. The chop, of course, is the rage that has swept through Atlanta, home of the Braves. For a lot of people, it's a fad, like disco. For a lot of American Indians, dressing up in headfeathers, painting your face and chopping a foam-rubber tomahawk is pure and simple racism.

Lighten up, you say? It's all in fun, isn't it?

That's what I thought, too, and then I went to the rally, which looked more like a pep rally than the protest kind, and saw, amid the protest signs, other placards asking for tickets. But these signs hit home:

"Cleveland Negroes"

"Miami Jews"

"Washington Blackskins"

"Seattle Orientals"

Try one on. Here's the message, and it's fairly simple: Substitute any ethnic name for Indians or Braves or Redskins or Chiefs, and you've got a firestorm. Suddenly, it doesn't seem like mindless fun.

"Why don't they call them the Atlanta Bishops?" said Clyde Bellecourt, a Chippewa who is the president of the American Indian Movement. "They don't issue crucifixes when people XTC come in the gate. They don't wave crucifixes when someone hits a homer.

"Why don't they call them the Atlanta Klansmen and they'd all wear sheets? During the seventh-inning stretch, they could hang Jews and blacks. Well, that's how we feel when we see our sacred feathers used like that."

Sure, Bellecourt was angry. He was yelling above the drum, above the rock music, above the hawkers of T-shirts and newspapers and other items of commerce. He wants to stop the chop. He wants the teams to change their names. He wants to talk to commissioner Fay Vincent, who would say: "I don't think protest is the way to deal with us. We'd be perfectly willing to talk about these issues after the World Series." Mostly, Bellecourt wants the spotlight to focus on American Indian issues.

There are 23,000 American Indians in Minneapolis and 50,000 in Minnesota. This is an issue with some resonance here. This is one town where American Indian voices can be heard. The 1,000 walked yesterday from the Peacemaker Center, which celebrates American Indian culture, the 2 1/2 miles to the Metrodome.

Many of the protesters carried signs indicting Jane Fonda, a longtime friend of the American Indian who had been arrested, in her radical youth, defending Indian rights. She was recently seen tomahawk-chopping away on TV alongside Ted Turner, Braves owner and Fonda's significant other. Jane Armstrong Custer Fonda, they were calling her, after which she issued a statement saying she would chop no more.

Another sign said this: "The Final Score: 'Discovers' 200,000,000, Pequot Nation 0."

There was anger. There was sadness. The history of American Indians leaves room for both.

These people were saying that changing the name of a team can't alter history, but it would suggest a new awareness, just as the disappearance of Little Black Sambo from our culture was a statement about understanding the injury done to a people.

"By allowing mascots to trivialize the image of the American Indian, they are allowed to trivialize the issues of American Indian people -- land agreements, hunting and fishing rights, poverty, unemployment," said Fred Vielleux, a Chippewa active in these issues. "These are not trivial issues."

Can the names be changed? Sure they can. Stanford and Dartmouth used to be called Indians. Many high schools have changed their nicknames. When Turner bought the Braves, he considered changing the name of the team to Eagles, in honor of his boat, not because he'd be embarrassed by Chief Noc-a-homa. He said at the time, and I'm paraphrasing, that eagles are cheaper to feed than Indians, and, besides, if they're no good, we can rename them turkeys.

Some people are calling Turner a turkey now, and not just for colorizing movies. There are more protests promised when the Series moves to Georgia, home to 13,000 American Indians. It was in Georgia that they began the forced removal of the Cherokee nations to Oklahoma, a march now known in history as the trail of tears. It becomes easier to understand the anger when you put it in historical context.

And there may be more anger here at the Super Bowl if the Redskins make it. When George Preston Marshall owned the team, he was the ultimate racist -- keeping blacks off his team and calling them Redskins. Once upon a time, he wore the headdress and paraded like an Indian himself.

Those were different times, of course. In these times, no one means any disrespect by invoking Cleveland Indians or Kansas City Chiefs. No disrespect meant. But here's what we have to remember: There is disrespect taken. That's all the protesters were trying to say yesterday.

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