The Washington Redskins; the Kansas City Chiefs; the Cleveland Indians.
Everybody who is triggered by those names take one step further to the left so we can see what’s what. OK, I can see snowflakes, well-meaning but inexplicably guilty white Americans, and race-baiting grifters running their usual games. Conspicuously lacking are American Indian peoples, the majority of whom correctly believe these professional sports team names honor their Indian heritage.
I have spent all my life on the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana. I was born in St. Joseph’s Hospital when Tribal Headquarters was still in Dixon. My middle-school principal was an Indian of great respect then and still — and the only public official who ever spanked me. The Indian peoples I write about here are my lifelong friends and neighbors, people whose friendship, candor and trust I value and respect who will one day read these words.
It is unfair to Indian peoples that I try to summarize why sports teams with American Indian themes honor them in a couple thousand words. Much of importance will necessarily be glossed over or omitted and generalities are unavoidable. The critics whose opinions I will value most are my Indian family — I am not Indian, but I have Indian family all the same. When we came east to the Virginia Tidewater two years ago it was my Indian family who made the first effort come see me. Loyalty and family are bedrock values in the Indians I know. I will do my best.
Let’s start at the beginning. Modern Americans see four kinds of American Indians: Disney characters, Noble Savages, Hokey Spiritualists, and/or (often at the same time), Victims. None of these are true, but that’s what most folks think about Indians. Off the reservations, very few Americans know anything true about Indian peoples.
Yes. Indian peoples. Not native Americans: Indian is what they call themselves. Indians only refer to themselves as “Native Americans” when it’ll work as a dog-whistle. A little-understood but important point is that “Indian” is a political status. That’s all. Indian is not a race; it is shorthand for “citizen of sovereign federally-recognized tribe.” Indian does not mean “red man.”
Indian peoples are not all one, large, homogenous culture and never were. The basis of their social organization, when Europeans first showed up and today, is the family and tribe. Some say “Native Americans” because they thinks it is respectful; whereas it blurs the very individual tribes into one big kumbaya hug, which the Indians themselves don’t believe. Thus, really, it is the opposite. The phrase is particularly galling in the mouths of the race grifters claiming to speak for “Native Americans” as a group; you know it’s a con, because if they were actually Indians or weren’t engaged in a con, the most they would say is “my tribe.”
I bet you’ve already learned a couple of things about Indian peoples, and maybe about the con artists, too.
Easily the viewpoint I’ve seen most often is that of the tourist-to-Indian-country on my reservation. To the vast majority of tourists the Indian thing is a view to catch in passing, something like dolphins on salt water, or Cinderella at Disneyland. That’s about how much most care, and about for how long.
At pow-wows, the Indians often wear traditional fancy garb to dance, and the one time every year a family stays in a tepee is at the pow-wow, so the tourists see a lot of tepees at an Indian-garbed dance and think they’ve seen Indian culture as it stands, or was, or something. Tourists think they are at the birthplace of that fake — boy, was he fake — Indian-weeping-over-litter in that old commercial. Then they buy traditional beaded Indian items made by Chinese slave labor on a machine in the Far East and figure they’re immersed in Native American culture wholesale.
Not so for those who see “Noble Savages.” They smile indulgently at the tourists because they know oh-so-much better. Toting preconceived notions like luggage, they ain’t hunting for a Cinderella experience: They are Great Whitey Hunters after bigger game, the last peace pipe dreams of “True Indian Culture.” I’ve read a bunch of their books and “scholarly” works, and they uniformly miss the point.
What Indian culture exists is the present culture. The Indians routinely tell the ignorant what they want and/or expect to hear, all very solemn and about “my people,” and then laugh at them behind their hands. To them, dandling the willingly gullible is an inside joke. It’s humor and does no harm and may actually help. The past culture the anthro-weirdos are trying to find or glorify is, for most tribes, but dim shadows and largely unknown — but how odd is that, anyway? How many Americans of other backgrounds really know anything genuinely, indisputably true about their own family’s cultural practices back in the day, or even three generations back? In my own white family the only distinctive cultural practice rooted in the grand sweep of my grandmother’s Scandinavian history and heritage from Sweden two generations ago is lefse: potato pancakes. Few among us, Indian or white, have much more depth than that.
Some themes are probably persistent in Indian cultures through time — showing respect to elders and knowledgeable or wise people; honoring fit occasions with drums; the underlying warrior ethos; the primacy of family and tribe; the centrality of the matriarchal figure; stoic patience; the great good humor. Whatever other longstanding cultural practices might pertain in individual Indian families is otherwise basically “potato pancakes.” Yet the ethno-weirdos uniformly open their bags and draw forth all sorts of disconnected oddments and claim they’ve found the Indian Holy Grail.
Notwithstanding their strident claims otherwise, the Hokey Spiritualist True Believers aren’t trying to tell us anything about Indian peoples; they’re really telling us about themselves. They buy all the genuine Pueblo kachina dolls and dream catchers the Hong Kong machines can turn out, wear a lot of silver and turquoise and beadwork and go on dream journeys and change their names to something unbearably romantic like “Rising Eagle.” Indian peoples, they are sure, are intensely and spiritually tuned to earth’s natural rhythms, which it seems is how the Hokey Spiritualists wish they were themselves, rather than whatever dumpster fire life they actually live. Steve Martin’s line pops to mind: “First I was all messed up on drugs; now I’m all messed up on feathered headdresses.”
I have yet to meet an Indian who wasn’t Christian, and many very devout. Blame the black robes; nevertheless, it’s true. All that Hollywood spirituality with the medicine bags and hanging by skin in hot tents and magic dancing and being one with the Great Spirit? It’s all crap, or more accurately, Hollywood’s projection of white folks’ 18th-century vision of the unenlightened “Noble Savage” with a few tenuously historical facts. In other words derivative, commercial and patronizing. On the Reservation there are no sweat lodges, but there are very large Jehovah’s Witness and Catholic populations, so you tell me.
Well of course not, you scoff. Indians aren’t Cinderella or Noble Last Mohicans or Shaman. You probably know that, in your heart of hearts; those are unrealistic cardboard cutouts, and everyone knows Hollywood is full of crap, and anyway real people are never two-dimensional. But the thing you’re dead sure about is that Indian peoples are Whitey’s victim.
In a way that’s true, but not in the way a whole lot of race-baiters spend a whole lot of ink opining that Indians would have been much better off had Whitey not done their typical thing. Of course flushing toilets and gas engines are mighty handy, but that rarely comes up when the race con artists loudly ponder the injustice of it all and shake the donation box. They leave out little things Indians are probably not disappointed they have — little things like cars, textiles, potato chips, soft drinks, writing, smartphones, concrete, washing machines and air conditioning.
You sputter, Whitey stole their land! And murdered innocent women and children to do so! And forced them onto reservations! Surely I’m right about that! There’s no justice!
What Whitey did was no different than what the Indian peoples were busy doing to each other long before other people showed up and would have continued, forever. It may have been worse: Warring Indians routinely butchered male survivors, and enslaved enemy women and children. They wanted firearms, initially, not to battle their colonizers but to attack or defend against their own neighboring tribes more effectively. It is a warrior culture for a reason: For many Indian peoples war was a way of life. Europeans brought thundersticks and germs to the occasion, but had the Indians had them first there would still have been war and its ugly and brutal handmaidens; only the outcomes would have changed.
In the wars that did happen, the Indian peoples lost. They lost the war; but unlike other conquered peoples in history, they didn’t lose everything. Think on it a minute: Europeans did not wipe out all the tribes, or enslave them, or simply co-opt them, which was the destiny of every conquered human culture from then to now. Any idea why? Because they couldn’t.
After 300 years of war, Indian peoples forced colonizers to the bargaining table and entered into treaties — treaties, mind you: international law — which recognized tribal sovereignty regarding specific lands and peoples within the territory owned by the very people who conquered them. In the New World something utterly new came into existence as a result of the wars.
That “something new” — the treaties — represent something important: Indians figured out Whitey a lot better than opposite-wise. They understood their opponents’ veneration for written paper and cockeyed conception of justice. They entered into the treaties that they could not even read, because while the colonizer’s motive was expedience, the Indian people’s motive was the future. They know the wheel turns, and they are patient. It is not the behavior of children.
The Indian peoples were remarkable warriors and still are. Knowing this, American airborne troops jumping into France on D-Day cut their hair Mohawk fashion, to show the enemy their fierce, American, battle ethos. The Lafayette Escadrille, the American squadron of the War to End All Wars, painted Indian heads on their aircraft for the same reason. Only the crazy Americans had tough-as-nails Indian warriors in their ranks. Those men had no intention of emulating victims — very much and in every way to the contrary, just as the Mohawk warriors they honored. The high and tight haircut widely worn in the American military today is exactly the modern version, Mohawk 2.0, and for precisely the same reasons. We still respect them as warriors and show it.
Anybody but the race grifters still standing to the left?
There are a lot of things that ought be better on many reservations; that’s true. But many probably do not realize that Indian Agents have been gone more than a century and most tribes operate under their own constitutions and organize their own citizens on their own patch of land. That makes them no less American citizens, I might add, and no less loyal to either heritage.
Sadly, governmental incompetence, malfeasance and corruption and nepotism are not solely features of white government. A limited pool of available talent vastly exacerbates those kinds of issues. Tribes are all Indian-preference employers — but with no tradition of higher education, which might enable better decision-making. Recognizing these limitations, many reservations are expending a lot of effort down this avenue, another example of far thinking.
Things improve, but slowly. Most Americans are unfamiliar with the patience of most Indian peoples.
One thing is for sure: The reservations are filled with sports teams that are largely Indian kids called the “Chiefs” and “Warriors” and “Maidens” and they’d fight rather than change their names. Those team names honor their fierce warrior ethic and are sources of pride. Again, the only people one ever hears on the reservations screaming for team name changes are snowflakes and race con artists who seek to infantilize Indian peoples and deny their agency.
The Indian peoples themselves seem perfectly satisfied to be associated with lasting symbols and reminders of their tough, gritty heritage. They should be proud. Their peoples are not children who need the protection of snowflakes, nor are they victims, and it is unjust to cast them in those roles — and they resent the soft bigotry of being dragged into those roles, especially by people who know virtually nothing about them.
Buster Raymond is a graduate of the Naval Academy, a former Marine Officer and an attorney. A native of Montana, he recently departed his beloved Big Sky country and relocated with his family to the Tidewater region of Virginia. The exact location remains unknown.
Image courtesy Library of Congress.