It's not fun to make fun

Wlley A. Hall 3rd

October 24, 1991|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

Forgive me for mincing words, but we live in a rude, arrogant, disrespectful and generally obnoxious society.

For decades now, American Indians have tried to tell us that they don't enjoy being used as mascots for sports teams.

Sometimes they have been polite about it. Sometimes they have been strident.

Several colleges and high schools have responded to their complaints, and why not? It seems a simple thing to adopt a new mascot, and if it avoids offending an entire race of people, it's worthwhile.

But the Cleveland Indians, perhaps the most miserable team in baseball, still cling to their Chief Wahoo, the cruel caricature they use as the team logo. The Washington Redskins, one of the last professional football teams to integrate its squad, continue to insist that their repugnant nickname is meant as a compliment to Indians, not an insult.

And all over the country, high school and college students whose schools use Indians as their team symbol don headdresses and war paint and dance around in little circles whooping "ay-yi-yi-yi" -- the way the ill-fated Indians in those old Westerns used to do it -- and all in the name of good, clean fun.

But American Indians keep trying.

The Atlanta Braves are playing in the World Series this week. The Redskins are undefeated after seven games and are considered a serious contender for the Super Bowl. The Florida State Seminoles are the No. 1 team in college football.

American Indians are trying to take advantage of all of the hoopla and attention surrounding these teams to make a simple point: We are neither flattered nor amused by the portrayal of our people as team mascots.

An Indian group picketed the opening game of the World Series Saturday. Another group plans to picket upcoming Redskin games.

"It's dehumanizing, derogatory and very unethical," said a regional director of the American Indian Movement in Atlanta. He was describing the "tomahawk chop" adopted by Braves' fans as a way of inspiring their team. "It extends a portrayal of Native American people as being warlike, aggressive and savage."

Added the leader of a group of concerned parents who have pushed for an end to Indian mascots of high school and college teams in Minnesota, "People in Atlanta don't realize they're talking about an entire race of people. It hurts. You have to draw the line on good clean fun when it infringes on ethnic groups."

In a polite society, these words would be enough. But ours is not a polite society.

Ours is a rude, arrogant, disrespectful and generally obnoxious society.

Sports fans have trotted out all of the usual alibis. Obnoxious people can always find excuses for their actions.

Indians have been told that this is all in good fun; that the mascots are a form of complement; that the mascots have become an indispensable part of a team's identity and that the world would end if the names were changed.

Finally, Indians have been told that they are squandering their energies worrying about trivial issues with so many other important concerns in the world.

"You don't see other groups whining about their image," they are told. "What about the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, the Minnesota Vikings, or the Dallas Cowboys? What about all of those lions, tigers, dolphins and bears? You never hear them complain."

I suppose Indians might be more inclined to whoop it up with the rest of us if our society were otherwise disposed to treat them fairly. But Indians are among the leaders in illiteracy, unemployment, infant mortality, alcoholism and drug abuse and they have had little success in getting the political machinery to address their needs.

They have filed dozens of lawsuits in federal courts in an attempt to force our government to live up to its treaty obligations.

They battle constantly to remove insulting and fictitious stereotypes from our history books and from our culture.

But even without all that, nothing justifies the continued use of Indians as team mascots.

A group of people, our neighbors and fellow citizens, have said they are insulted by our behavior.

Only a very, very crude and loathsome society would refuse their request.

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