Racists and Colonizing Metaphors

Names and symbols that Native Americans struggle with every day

In light of the current and divided political climate which includes a travel ban from Muslim dominated countries and the building of the American Wall between the U.S. and Mexico, we must not forget about the ongoing domestic racism and discrimination towards Native Americans that has existed on this continent since 1492. Unlike other ethnic groups or races, the indigenous people of North America face a unique type and long-standing form of discrimination from other fellow Americans. Our discrimination originates from European colonialism, supremacy and racism which is, sadly, part of American culture and identity.

Although it is well known in Indian country that federal policy for the original inhabitants of North America included genocide, assimilation and oppression; discrimination against Native Americans continues to occur on many fronts. One place you can easily find discrimination towards Native Americans is through the everyday use of American English. For example, a racists and colonizing metaphor came recently from former Republican speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, when he commented on the Russian Meddling issue. Gingrich referred to the FBI’s investigation of Russia’s attack on our American Presidential election system as, “an Indian hunting party…out looking for a couple of scalps.” Although scalping is assumed by many Americans as a practice associated with savage Indians, the vicious practice of scalping and head removal was practiced throughout the world. It should also be noted that Europeans were known to offer bounties for indigenous scalps (red skins) in North America, as well as across Europe and other places where Europeans colonized. However, scalping is a Native American stereotype, that is obviously, perpetuated by even the influential, educated and wealthy elite of the U.S.

To provide another example from an elitist, Hillary Clinton used a colonizing metaphor during the 2016 Presidential race when she said, “I have experience with men ‘off the reservation’ like Donald Trump.” Although this phrase is part of our language, most who use the phrase probably have never even considered its origins or that it is a slur. It originates from an early American assumption that whenever Indians are off the reservation they are behaving “badly.” After all, Indians should never leave the reservation, right?

Derogatory names and symbols against Native Americans are also widely known and used daily by many American citizens and corporations. In fact, a recent Supreme Court opinion recognized the right of private parties to register disparaging names and symbols with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in the Matal v. Tam case. This case involved registration of a rock band’s name The Slants, which the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office deemed offensive to Asians. The case was filed by Simon Tam, the lead singer, who ironically is an anti-racism activist. However, what has resulted from the case is that Supreme Court now recognizes that federal trademarks with disparaging names or symbols are protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In the past, an individual or organization who was harmed by disparaging names and symbols could seek to prevent the trademark from being federally registered under a provision of the Lanham Act. Although federal registration with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has some benefits that include federal enforcement of illegal importation of infringing or counterfeit goods with the registered trademarks and right of the trademark holder to file infringement lawsuits, it does not mean disparaging names and symbols cannot be used.

The Metal v. Tam case will also likely mean trouble for the 2014 decision by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that cancelled the federal registration for the pro football team Washington Redskins. The registration was cancelled due to a preponderance of evidence that the name was disparaging to Native Americans. The Native American petitioners, who originally sought the cancellation of the Redskins trademark, described the racial slur as “pejorative, derogatory, denigrating, offensive, scandalous, contemptuous, disreputable, disparaging and racist designation for a Native American person.” To discuss one history of the term “redskin,” Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz wrote in her book An Indigenous People’s History of the United States that the term “redskin” was used to describe the dead bodies of Indian children, women, and men of North America after their scalps had been taken by bounty hunters. Nonetheless, we all know that the Washington Redskins continued to use the name without the federal registration status and some Native Americans even support its continued use even though the redskins name has a history rooted in genocide and colonization of North America.

Although the Washington Redskins cancellation received National attention in the media, there has been and continues to be long, substantial and widespread use of disparaging names and symbols in advertising or the promotion of support. Most of the institutions and individuals using disparaging and unregistered trademarks maintain that the name or symbol has a secondary and more important meaning that harms no one, or worse they simply do not care how it impacts Native Americans. For example, in my home state of Idaho the town of Salmon has a public high school called the Salmon Savages. Salmon, Idaho is located at the epicenter of the Lemhi Shoshone civilization, and near the Lemhi Shoshone village where Sacagawea guided Lewis and Clark on the Corps of Discovery. Originally, the Savages’ mascot included various depictions of an Indian head as the school logo. However, the Indian head logo was removed after the Salmon District school board decided not to engage in a costly antiracism legal battle with the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and the Media – not because it was disparaging to the local Native American population. Today, the name of the high school stands without the Indian head logo. Apparently, this is a victory for Native Americans.

Sadly, the Republican dominated state of Idaho has many examples of disparaging names and symbols, which includes depictions of an Indian lynching in the former Idaho courthouse and the use of derogatory place names such as “squaw” which are officially recognized by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. In Idaho, there are a total of 51 creeks, buttes, camps, bays, bars, canyons, humps, gulches, flats, springs, and other places that use the term “squaw.” What disparaging names are commonly used towards indigenous people in your state, province, or country?

Another troubling example of negative views towards Native Americans came from the U.S. military and CIA in 2011. During this year we learned that the name Geronimo was applied as the code name to the former al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. Although I am not going to say the name used was insensitive, it does give us some insight into how the U.S. military and CIA continue to view Native American resistance leaders. So, if you are Native American, don’t get any ideas about “starting an Indian uprising”! Also, let us not forget that Geronimo’s skull has not yet been laid to rest and remains, according to suit brought by the descendants of Geronimo the skull was stolen in 1918 and kept in a glass case by the Skull and Bones secret society at Yale University.

These are just a few examples of racists and colonizing metaphors, names and symbols that Native Americans struggle with every day. Incorporation and use of racists and colonizing expressions into our language and world says something about American culture and identity. What does it say to you? At the very least and history has shown, we can expect discrimination to continue to harm the physical and emotional being of Native Americans, as well as negatively affect Native American communities, education and economy. Furthermore, as the radical right has been emboldened by the election of Donald Trump, it is very likely an increase in hate crimes will be committed against Native Americans in the form of oppressive legislation and budget cuts to essential Native American programs, not to mention violence from extremists and those in law enforcement sworn to uphold a colonizing and imperialistic legal system. Also, Native Americans cannot rely exclusively upon the federal court system, as it only recognizes equal justice of the law created and passed by legislators that have no meaningful representation from Indian country.

Cleve Davis is a free-lance writer and enrolled member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. He is an indigenous scientist and farmer who lives on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation in southeastern, Idaho.

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