Tribe supports Native American mascots

February, 20, 2013
2/20/13
7:22
AM ET
Chris FowlerDouglas C. Pizac/USA TODAY SportsThe Saginaw Chippewa tribe has an agreement with Central Michigan to use the Chippewa name.
Last week I wrote about the recent symposium about Native American imagery in sports that took place at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington. Everyone quoted in the article was opposed to the use of such imagery, which led many readers to ask why I hadn't given equal time to the other side.

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The answer to that is simple: I was there to cover the symposium, and every single speaker at the event -- about three times as many people as I ended up quoting in my column -- was opposed to the use of Native American mascots, logos and team names. (The Washington Redskins were invited to have a representative at the event, but they declined.)

But it's true that there are some Native Americans who are fine with the use of Native imagery in sports. In central Michigan, for example, the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe recently announced that it had no problem with a local high school whose teams are called the Warriors.

I was curious to learn more, so I contacted the Saginaw Chippewas and spoke with their public relations director, Frank Cloutier. Here's how our conversation went:

Uni Watch: First, for people who aren't familiar with the Saginaw Chippewas, please tell me a bit about your tribe.

Frank Cloutier: Our tribe was formed with the ratification of our constitution in 1936. We have 3,292 members, and we live in the territories called the Isabella Federal Indian Reserve in Mount Pleasant, Mich., just north of Lansing. We have the fifth- or sixth-largest Indian-owned casino in the Midwest, so we're rather successful when it comes to our economic growth and development.

But it's not just about gaming for us -- it's about our culture. We have a very rich, diverse culture, which is showcased in a world-class, award-winning cultural museum on our reservation. So the situation regarding mascots and team names piques our interest.

Many of the people taking part in this debate see it as a black-and-white issue. Either they're completely opposed to all uses of Native American imagery, or they have no problem with any of it. What's your position, or your tribe's position, on that?

It's very, very clear for us, because we've worked with so many institutions in our area. Our position is that if it's not derogatory and it's being used appropriately, with an opportunity to share or cross-share our culture, then it's fine. There's nothing derogatory about "Warriors" or "Braves." There's nothing derogatory about "Indian." But terms like "Redskin" or "Half-Breed," those are derogatory terms to us.

So when the Michigan Department of Civil Rights recently filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, claiming that Native American mascots and nicknames are inherently harmful to Native children, you don't agree with that?

[+] EnlargeFrank Cloutier
Courtesy of Saginaw Chippewa TribeSaginaw Chippewas public relations director Frank Cloutier says some Native American mascots are not derogatory and can be educational.
In the study they used, they said these Native children who go to these schools with these mascots are "marginalized." But if you look at generational trauma and the way Native peoples were treated 300 years ago, it wasn't until 1924 that we were formally recognized as human beings, and we didn't get the chance to vote until after women did. That's what makes these kids feel marginalized -- the way their culture and their people were treated. I don't believe that a menacing-looking brave on the backboard of a basketball hoop is going to marginalize that child as much as that generational trauma.

That said, however, I believe that these schools using these images have an obligation to talk about the truth of Native American history. One of the largest genocides in world history happened right here on American soil, and it happened to Native Americans. So it's important to talk about the true history about the settling of the United States, and to talk about those things that happened to Native Americans that are often not talked about.

If Native children are struggling, hopefully this kind of education and outreach and help identify why, instead of having us blame it on a mascot.

So when you say it's fine to use non-derogatory imagery as long as it's being used appropriately, you're saying that part of that "appropriate use" is educational content about Native Americans?

Yes. For example, in 2003 we entered into an articulation agreement with Central Michigan University, because they were the Chippewas. As part of that agreement, the tribe and the university each has an obligation. Every year I go in and address every freshman athletic student about our culture and what it means to be a Chippewa, and about the proud, competitive nature of our people. We explain that it's not about war paint and fake feathers. It's about honoring the triumph of these resilient, competitive people.

They also have areas on campus that are dedicated to the presence of the Chippewa Nation. So it's a good cross-cultural exchange. And when they go out there and compete, they're Chippewas, they're fighting like a Chippewa, fighting to win. We've made that university our school of choice for Native Americans, because our tribal community is close by, so we can help support those Native students.

What if a high school or university wasn't interested in doing these types of cultural exchanges and educational efforts? What would your feelings be about their use of Native imagery?

It would be completely different. If they're not willing to celebrate and show the culture, they shouldn't have the privilege of depicting it.

What about states that have already banned all Native imagery from their high schools, like Wisconsin and Oregon?

I think that's a missed opportunity for the type of cultural exchange and education that I just described.

How do you feel about the NCAA's regulations restricting the use of Native American imagery but allowing it when permission is granted by a local tribe, as in the case of Florida State University and the Seminole Tribe?

I think that's absolutely fine. That's basically what we do with CMU.

Many teams say that their use of Native American imagery is meant to be an honor, especially when they use team names like "Warriors," which is meant to symbolize American Indians' fighting spirit. But there are others who say this plays into stereotypes of Indians as savages who aren't good at anything except making war. How do you feel about that?

Once again, it goes back to the responsibility of the school. If they're using a menacing-looking Indian and trying to intimidate the other team because they might get scalped, that's inappropriate. But if they're using an image that evokes spirit and competition, and they've celebrated the culture, then they've done their job and they've earned the right to proudly display that logo.

Everything we've discussed so far is about schools, which can offer the type of educational programs you've mentioned. But what about professional teams that use this imagery, like the Cleveland Indians and the Atlanta Braves. They're not in the education business. What's your feeling about them?

If they're not going to educate and they feel no obligation [to do so], then they have no right to use this imagery. They shouldn't have that privilege if they're not going to celebrate where it comes from.

As I'm sure you're aware, there's an increasing movement to have the Washington Redskins football team change its name. Any thoughts on that?

I think that would be most appropriate.

One of the most contentious issues that comes up in these discussions is whether white people's opinions -- or any non-Natives' opinions -- should even matter. Should non-Natives have a voice in this debate? Should we simply have a vote among Native Americans and let them decide?

I have to chuckle when I hear that. We all live in this wonderful globe together. If there's a negative impact on any one group, that impacts all of us as a whole. I think everyone, collectively, can have a voice in this. We have many brothers and sisters in various minority groups who know what it means to be marginalized, so of course we welcome their voices.

And that would also apply to white Americans?

Absolutely. If we're going to have this debate and bring it to a positive conclusion, we'd be doing ourselves a disservice by limiting it.

Last question: Have you had discussions with people in your tribe, or from other tribes, who see this as more of a black-and-white issue?

That's the wonderful thing about having our own free will and personal opinion. There are members of my tribe who are very steadfast and who say, "Enough's enough -- it's time to put a stop to this." And there are those who see, as I do, the opportunities for outreach and healthy dialogue. I celebrate that diversity of opinion, because I think it makes us more well-rounded.

Paul Lukas promises that his next column will not be about Native American imagery. Probably. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his daily Uni Watch web site, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.

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