January 23, 2017

S.E. RUCKMAN: Confessions of a Washington Redskin

I inwardly cringe when I see a stereotypical reference to anything Native. It is usually the visual that cuts the deepest, whether it’s the nondescript maiden hawking butter or the grinning mascot of a baseball team.  Both are like looking at exaggerated misrepresentations of ourselves in a funhouse mirror.

This is no fun for me, this recent talk of stereotypes.  American Indians have battled with them for as long as there were Anglos in this country who must have looked around for someone to intimidate since the moment they landed.

The very definition of stereotype is to hold an idea as a standard or an oversimplified standard, concept or image. We have been re-trained by diversity mindedness to trust what we see. If one does not feel good about a stereotyped image (regardless of race/creed/gender), then he should be free to trust himself and denounce it.

But. I must make a confession. This talk of stereotypes is wringing from me a moral dilemma like the one mentioned in Edgar Allen Poe’s, The Telltale Heart.  The one where the guilty can no longer take the torment of trying to keep their own misdeed hidden and must proclaim it in order to be free.

When I was growing up, we lived in the provinces around Washington, D.C. We were a part of desegregation (although we had no idea what the word meant at the time). Nonetheless, we took the bus everyday to an inner city school and rode the same distance back to my house on 116 Greenbriar Ave. The city and state is of no consequence at this point.

Because we still hailed from Oklahoma, we inherited a fondness for football. It’s a passion that is bred into us, an innate leaning toward a sport that cannot be simply explained. Football in this context always meant: Leave your differences at the gate, come in and cheer your team on.

I say that to say this. Our local team was the Washington Redskins. It was iconic to us that of all the NFL motifs, one respectable representation of ourselves didn’t seem to pass judgment or deride our sense of self.  At least that’s how it felt. With its war shield, feathers and likeness, the acknowledgement of our origin with this nation’s capitol survived.  The name ricocheted off of us without a second thought.

Now all the talk is about getting rid of the name Redskins. I assume this means along with all race-related mascots like the Anglo monikers; Titans (Greek), Vikings, Pioneers, Highlanders, Cowboys, etc. I would hate to think that heralding Anglo stereotypes passes muster because of what those names imply, which makes a hurtful implication of its own.

Let me say I am against insulting representations both in and out of the sports world. Competition is no biased altar where we freely sacrifice to prejudice.

Then, as I watch a new quarterback almost singlehandedly revive the hopes of a stumbling football team, I falter.  I become awash in childhood memories because the Washington Redskin mascot was an anchor to our identity when we lived in a sea of people who were not Native. The ache of saying goodbye to that mascot sears me surely.

I know that I am not alone. Doing away with the Washington Redskin motif is a logical argument. I am not unmoved. I have been an American Indian my entire life and this is not a revelation that came from Ancestry.com., more like Ancestry. Mom.

I wrangle with it now, even as I inwardly mourn my mascot.  I marvel that I can take one reference to an Indian stereotype and feel an emotional rush of loyalty, similar somehow to patriotism.  Then I consider how, at one time the commonly accepted words “injun” and “savage” fell out of favor.  I bid them a hasty good bye.  So too, all racial epithets.

S.E. Ruckman is a citizen of the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes in Anadarko, Okla. She graduated from the University of Oklahoma’s School of Journalism and has written for the Tulsa World and is currently a special contributor to the Native American Times. She is a freelance writer who is based in Oklahoma.