When I was 8 years old I learned three interesting facts, two of them about my family. The man we called Grandpa Elam was actually the father of the man we called Grandpa Jack. This made him my great-grandfather, a term I’d never heard before. The second thing I learned was that Grandpa Elam was an Indian. It was hard to believe because I never saw him wear feathers or war paint. The only time I ever saw him wear anything but faded overalls and a long-sleeve shirt was at his funeral a few years later. The third thing I learned was that modern-day Indians (now referred to as Native Americans) wear clothes just like everybody else.
There were two hit songs on the radio that summer. Both of them about Cherokees–Cherokee People by Paul Revere & the Raiders and Half Breed by Cher. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that some of my ancestors treated some of my other ancestors pretty badly.
But I tried to put that out of my mind and just enjoy the fact that it wasn’t hard for me to get a good tan.
My junior high mascot was The Indians. This made perfect sense because the only other junior high in town was The Cowboys. What better mascots for cross-town rivals? Now I had a connection to my school mascot. School spirit was a bit more personal for me. At sporting events and pep rallies the school band played the song Cherokee. It also made sense that our school colors were red and white. The only problem with that is whenever I wear something bright red I look like I have sunburn. Or like I’m blushing. Or both. The school colors at the university I graduated from were also red and white.
Sometimes I didn’t like the red that was always under the tan. It wasn’t that I was ashamed of being part Cherokee. Far from it. I just would have preferred some shade of tan or light brown.
But I still enjoyed tanning quickly and easily. You can almost see it get darker if I’m out in the sun for fifteen or twenty minutes. I don’t have to worry about burning within a few minutes like some people do. Thanks, Grandpa.
It’s not that people take one look at me and think, “He’s an Indian.” I ended up with blue eyes and enjoy all the privileges of a white American. There’s Irish, Dutch, and plenty of English flaoting around in my DNA. But none of them have ever been oppressed in this country.
A number of years ago there was a controversy about the Atlanta Braves fans doing “the tomahawk chop” at baseball games. Native American groups were upset about it. I didn’t understand why they had a problem with it. It was just some chopping motion people made.
I don’t remember if they had any problem with the name Braves. Brave is a compliment, right? The controversy quickly faded.
I’ve never heard of any controversy regarding the KansasCity Chiefs mascot. Chief isn’t an insult.
Redskin is a different matter. Some people don’t understand why it’s a big deal. You’ll never hear of a team named the Detroit Blackskins or the Houston Wetbacks. But somehow it’s OK for the Washington Redskins to keep using that name even after many people have voiced their opposition to it. Some sports announcers have wisely stopped using the term.
Redskin is defining a race of people solely by the color of their skin, as if nothing else matters. A chief is a person. A brave is a person. But a red skin in an object. It dehumanizes. It’s an archaic term left over from the days when, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
Probably the main reason why Washington has been able to get away with using this name for so long is because there aren’t enough Native Americans left to riot in the streets the way other ethnic groups have. This is especially true on the East Coast, where the British and then the American military did such a thorough job of killing them or pushing them out of the way. Here in flyover country, it’s common to find other Americans who are some fraction Native American like me.
When I started losing my vision it got harder to tell some shades of color apart. Blue has been the holdout. I can see a wide variety of blues. Greens, browns, and reds masquerade as each other. When my vision decreased again in 2003 the problem grew worse. The world isn’t black and white, but colors are muted. It was mid-summer 2005 and the sun had ripened my skin just as it always has. I was wearing a light grey T-shirt and glanced at my arm. Next to that dull grey was this beautiful, earthy mixture of light brown, burnt orange, and copper. Two things happened at that moment. I got to enjoy a rich shade of color I hadn’t seen in a few years and I truly fell in love with the color of my skin. It’s just too bad it took being deprived of brilliant colors and wearing a grey shirt to make me appreciate what was right there in front of me—on me—all along.
I wonder if a paint store could match a color of paint to me. Now I feel like I could have a paint swatch named after me. I claim it—all of it—the tan, the pink, the white, and the red that went into making this American mutt.
Oh, Washington. When your politicians and dysfunction aren’t pissing us off, your team mascots are. In both cases it’s due to your unwillingness to look beyond the bubble where you hide and ignore the rest of us. I know you’ve already bought all that merchandise with Redskins on it. But you can donate it to poor people in Africa who have no idea what any of it means. Every year, thousands of garments proclaiming a certain team to be the champion of their league are manufactured in advance in anticipation of jubilant fans snatching them up. But there can only be one winner and those unused T-shirts end up being worn by people in countries where football just means soccer. So don’t tell me you can’t do anything with all that stuff.
This could be your opportunity to pick a mascot honoring your city’s history like San Francisco’s 49ers. Or you could give a nod to the heritage of some of your residents like Minnesota’s Vikings. I’ve got it! You could do both with the Washington Blowhards.