Indian mascots and place names perpetuate stereotypes

Thanksgiving seems to me a good time to recall that Native Americans were here before we were, and that they deserve our respect. National sports teams, even maps, keep insulting stereotypes about Native American people alive and well.

A new law in Minnesota mandates dropping the word "squaw" from all state names. Many local people see this as absurd. They feel that names like Squaw Creek and Squaw Bay are traditional and historic. This attitude was illustrated by the insensitive reacti on of County Commissioner Sharon Hahn of Lake County, Minn. To comply with the law, she offered "Politically Correct Creek" as a substitute name.

Hahn is defending the indefensible. The word "squaw" was coined by whites to belittle Native American women. In the Algonquian and Iroquois languages, the word means female genitals. Maintaining traditional names is no defense for perpetuating a racial in sult.

Arizona Indians would like to see Phoenix's Squaw Peak and Squaw Lanes Bowling Alley renamed, but traditions are hard to fight because familiar names and repeated ceremonies are permanent landmarks in a changing world. The word or action itself eventually becomes sacred.

Sports lovers are angered at the suggestion that a name like The Washington Redskins constitutes a racial slur. I spoke to Bernadette Adley-Santamaria, a member of the Apache tribe and a UA graduate student in Native American Studies. She refers to the ki lling of Indian people by whites, who took a portion of skin to obtain U.S. government bounty payments.

"'Redskins' is the most derogatory term you can call Indian people," she says.

Inescapably, I feel responsible for the insult offered to her people, because I am not Indian, and because terms like "redskins" and "squaw" still pervade our culture.

"Chief Illiniwek," the team mascot for the University of Illinois' Fighting Illini dances and yells out war-whoops at games during half time. Atlanta Braves' fans do a tomahawk chop to mean "kill" the opposing team. Fans paint their faces with "war paint, " thereby insulting and trivializing the spiritual significance of the application of paint, Adley-Santamaria says.

Glenn W. Johnson is director of the UA American Indian Graduate Center, and a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. He says he feels that the use of Indian mascots maintains stereotypes. Together with the use of names like Squaw Creek, he sees them a s symptomatic of "the deep lack of understanding of Indians as human beings."

Johnson says that Native Americans have a problem of being "lumped together" with other minorities. Indians, he emphasizes, are citizens of their own tribal nations. "We didn't come here from anywhere," Johnson says. "Non-Indians don't understand that."

He's right. White settlers came here, uninvited. If Native Americans hadn't shared their knowledge and resources, showing the settlers how to plant indigenous crops, our ancestors might never have survived to insult their hosts in almost every conceivable way.

Some things have improved. In Tucson last year, Pueblo High school voted to remove its "Wally the Warrior" mascot, after the school's Native American student group protested that the image was disrespectful to Indian people.

"It was difficult for some students to see a need to break with tradition," says Principal Lorraine Richardson. "They thought it was a proud symbol." Asked about other team mascots, she says, "I think the teams should look at what they're representing, an d how it affects other sections of the community."

The bottom line is that nobody should continue "traditional" behavior that deeply offends others.

At this moment, school children all over the country are re-enacting the first Thanksgiving shared by white settlers and their Native American hosts. Native Americans honor the tradition too.

"Thanksgiving is family and sharing," Johnson says, "the two most honored values of Indian people. That's the Indian way ... to share."

I was humbled that in spite of subsequent white betrayals of his people, he could still say this to me in all sincerity.

If Native Americans still see the role of host as a sacred one, shouldn't we be more mindful of the obligations of a guest, however uninvited? Guests do not belittle their hosts, and call names like "squaw" and "redskin." It makes a mockery of the origin of Thanksgiving, our oldest and most worthwhile tradition.

Kaye Patchett is a creative writing senior. Her column, 'On Reflection,' appears every other Wednesday.