So a few months ago, they covered an event around the opening of the film 42, which tells the story of how Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to major-league baseball, and the various difficulties they faced during that process. The film's premier was a huge deal here in town because of a local connection: Branch Rickey first coached at Ohio Wesleyan University--my employer! And the character, played by Harrison Ford, even mentions Ohio Wesleyan in a monologue as being a formative experience in his rejection of racism. Woohoo!
But I thought it was ironic and troublesome that, at the roundtable discussion at the premier, there was a representative from a team using a Native American mascot--well, really, a caricature of one. You'll see what I mean in my letter, below.
Well, I got all nervous when I sent it, thinking that after it ran I'd face some people who didn't agree with me or thought I was making too big a deal out of the whole thing. I braced myself, but felt it was important to speak out. (I'm taking a Homeland Security-inspired stance on these things: if you see something, say something.)
And then... nothing. They didn't e-mail or call me, didn't print the letter, nothing. Patrick and I scratched our heads. Our little paper publishes the most wacky, illogical letters you've ever seen; they print stuff that's ridiculous on a regular basis. And yet here was something I thought was calm and well informed, and they ignored it.
Well, I guess I can't leave well enough alone. Or rather, I still think the issue is worth raising. So here is my letter, copied below. I hope you find it thought-provoking. Or at least non-crackpot-ish.
14 April 2013
I read with interest your story on yesterday’s front page, “Robinson and Rickey remembered at roundtable,” and appreciate the fact that the film 42 has brought more attention to the story of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson. However, I could not help but notice that one of the roundtable speakers serves as vice president of the Cleveland Indians. I’m surprised that a panel on sports figures who stood up to racism in the 1940s would remain silent on the glaring ways in which professional sports teams today perpetuate racist ideas of American Indian people.
The defense of American Indian team names and mascots usually goes something like this: it’s just something fun, it does no harm. Recent research suggests otherwise, however. A 2008 article titled “Of Warrior Chiefs and Indian Princesses: The Psychological Consequences of American Indian Mascots” shows that even “positive” stereotyped images of natives, such as Chief Wahoo and Pocahontas, “has a negative impact on American Indian high school and college students’ feelings of personal and community worth, and achievement-related possible selves.” In other words, even positive stereotypes make native children feel less valued, and feel that they have fewer possibilities for a meaningful future. These are not, in fact, harmless images, even when they are not overtly negative.
Another defense of using Indian mascots says that they “honor” native people; but it is not honoring (or respectful) to create a grinning caricature and perpetuate false ideas about native cultures. A more suitable honoring might be to invite the descendants of Ohio tribes to participate in ceremonies in the lands where their ancestors are buried, as the Newark Earthworks Center has done, hosting members of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma; another way of honoring would be to bring more attention and resources to the efforts of Miami University’s Myaamia Center to revitalize the language and culture of the Miami Tribe. We need to recognize the full humanity of native people and admit that it is not appropriate to use and abuse their images for entertainment.
Just a few months ago The Smithsonian held a symposium on the issue of Indian mascots; more information can be found at http://nmai.si.edu/connect/seminars-and-symposia/archive/
Readers can also gain interesting insights from the blog “Native Appropriations,” at nativeappropriations.com
I hope that your readers will remember that most people in 1946 were blind to the racism that Jackie Robinson endured—racism that we now see plainly. And I hope that we will recognize and address our own racism toward native people so that the next generation can look back at 2013 and see that we, too, like Branch Rickey, were courageous, faced our wrongs, and righted them.
Karen M. Poremski