Editor's Note: The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) is the owner of Indian Country Today and manages its business operations. The National Congress of American Indians has reaffirmed its "strong opposition to the use of the demeaning R-word" by a certified resolution. To strike a balance between the author's expressed opinion and the National Congress of American Indians reaffirmation, Indian Country Today has made an adjustment to the R-word in the seven instances it occurs in the submitted text. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently as a digital journalism enterprise. Since our relaunch in 2018, it is our house style to not spell out the R-word.
Recently I tried to spark a conversation on my Instagram page about the use of Indian mascots by posting pictures (I screenshot from the internet) that depicted White men as sports mascots. Among the fictional team names and logos I posted were the “Whites” which was a hillbilly looking character with a missing front tooth; the “Honkeys” a nerdy looking dude with glasses, nicely parted hair and a somber smile; the “Colonizers” depicted as an almost exact replica of the Cleveland Indian face with big buckteeth, whitened skin and a pilgrim hat; and the “White Thin Skins,” which was that of a grimacing white man with blonde hair and golf clubs behind his head akin to the Washington R--skins logo and a caption underneath that read “Hey, I’m the real victim here!”
The caption on that image, as I interpret it, reflects the tendency of white people, who support Indian mascots, to assume the role of victim when they claim their “free speech rights” and yearning to be offensive toward Native communities are being trampled beneath the onslaught of “political correctness” and “PC culture.” Read the comment section of any online news article that discusses Indian mascots being banned at high schools or colleges and it is rife with commentary from white folks claiming their Indian logo is a “tradition” that needs to be protected from actual Natives who oppose the mascot.
This ridiculous viewpoint demonstrates how detached people are from Native communities, where the image and idea of an imposter “Indian” is more revered and respected than that of an actual living, breathing, Native person or an entire group for that matter.
My post received over a thousand likes and was widely shared, which I thought was a moderate success, although I’m not sure what is considered successful as I only recently began being more active on “the ‘gram” within the past 6 months. It prompted some heated discussion in the comments section between Natives and non-Natives, as well as Natives who felt there were more “pressing problems” to pursue.
It was apparent that many people (even other Natives) have never learned anything about our social disparities and were making blanket statements about Native communities based on scant information force fed to them through whatever informational mediums they consumed on a regular basis. Which sadly, was probably that one discussion they had about “Indians” way back in high school during Thanksgiving or viewing a snippet of some John Wayne movie from the 1950’s where he kills 20 mounted advancing savages with one shot.
So, there were a lot of likes, people were talking, the issue had been brought to light. Mission accomplished! Now, let's get a taco!
Not so fast.
After about a week, I received a notice from Instagram stating they had “deleted” my post because it “violated” the Community Guidelines that restrict “hate speech.” What?! It seemed like a joke. Was this a prank pulled by a bored Instagram technician with nothing else better to do? Were white folks no longer in the vast majority of the American populace and were now considered a vulnerable population in need of being kept safe from the online rantings of a Native Instagram user? Not sure, as there was no way to reply to this message, so it was pretty cut and dry with no options other than to sit there and take it pondering my life before social media.
So, after a minute of processing the absurdity of it all, I felt the need to retort in some fashion, so I did the only thing I felt I could do to exact some kind of vengeance- I took my angst out on the Washington R--skins Instagram page and reported it for “hate speech and offensive imagery.” Yeah, how you like them apples?
And for good measure, I reported the Chicago Blackhawks too, who also use an Indian head logo. They’re just lucky I didn’t report them all; the Florida State Seminoles, Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Chiefs and any other high school or college who likes to pimp out our visage.
Surely, if my post of White male mascots were found to be in “violation” then some kind of justice would be served and Instagram would immediately see it my way, admit the error in their ways and take action against a team that uses a dictionary defined slur that has been challenged and condemned by Natives and non-Native allies for years. Of course, that is not what happened, because you know, ‘Murica.
I opened the message from Instagram and it read “…we reviewed the page [Washington R--skins] you reported for hate speech or symbols and found it does not violate our Community Guidelines…” Excuse me?
So, the pictures I posted of fictitious teams with White male logos was somehow in violation of their community standards, but the Instagram page of an actual team that uses verifiable racist language is NOT in violation? The caucasity! The message further stated that if I violated this guideline again, I would have my account “disabled or deactivated.”
This asinine response on the part of Instagram may seem trivial, but it is actually another in a long line of glaring issues that we face as Native people, that if you add up would equal a tidal wave of dismissive paternalism when attempting to voice our displeasure with the way in which “Indian mascots” inaccurately depict us. While my post was taken down to coddle the feelings of white folks (who I assume reported my post because that is the only way it would’ve been removed), Instagram was basically cosigning the racism of the Washington R--skins and stating it is completely fine and normal. So, they’re cool with disparaging people, just not when it targets white guys?
Part of the reason this is an issue to begin with, is that Native people are not looked upon as human beings. Like the land that was invaded during colonization and commodified through resource extraction, our very identities are also used as commodities to fatten the pockets of sports organizations led by wealthy white men who have no attachment (and don’t care to have any) to the very Native communities they are profiting from.
Or if they do recognize Native people in some fashion, it is a feigned interest to garner support from token Indians who yearn for a pat on the head from the white establishment and will happily assist with the PR agenda of sports teams with Indian logos so they can point and say, “See, Indians like us and they don’t have a problem with it!”
This was abundantly clear when the Kansas City Chiefs hosted a group of Native sellouts from Oklahoma a couple of years ago (and none from the region, because most Natives in the area don’t agree with the Kansas City Chiefs) at Arrowhead Stadium who were willing to be used as drum pounding puppets to cultivate a false narrative that all Native people are completely fine with the Chiefs and their capitalistic bigotry.
Which is rather odd, considering Kansas City Chiefs supporters have argued the logo and team name has nothing to do with Native people, to which we might ask, “If the ‘Chiefs’ have nothing to do with Natives then why did they go to great lengths of parading around Natives before thousands of fans and the media to generate validity among the Native population?”
As an Osage, this is doubly insulting considering our people were forced out of Missouri at gunpoint and racist legislation during the mid-1800's, only to be replaced years later by a sports team that exploits the imagery of the first inhabitants ethnically cleansed from the lands their stadium and offices now sit upon. But I digress.
Back to the Instagram post in question, interestingly enough, there were comments from white people who were simply amused by the mascots in their likeness and claimed those images didn’t bother them which isn’t really surprising (although some were bothered enough to report my post which ironically proves the point of the “White Thin Skins” logo) because there are enough positive images of white people presented to the world to counter balance anything perceived as “negative.”
Let me provide my analysis for these reactions. Let’s say a large part of the white population is depicted through popular media as “backwoods hillbillies” every now and then. However, there are plenty of white people regularly portrayed as respectable doctors, lawyers, professors, congressman, judges and superheroes to nullify any depiction of them as “rednecks” or “hillbillies” that might be deemed “offensive.”
Meanwhile, for the 1 percent of Natives in the country, all we have to look forward to with our 0.5 percent film representation is that of visual wallpaper for films typically set in the 1800’s to supplement the performance of the white lead. Either that, or our people represented as goofy, bucktooth, headdress wearing inaccurate logos that are routinely mocked by the team fan base and even more degraded by the fans of opposing teams who threaten to kill, scalp or torch Indian effigies.
This ideology that perpetuates the concept that our identities are property to be sold is at the core of Eurocentric thought toward Indigenous communities all over the globe and has been for hundreds of years. It is easy to dehumanize a group of people when they are looked upon as lifeless resources waiting to be exploited and turned into a product. Even more so with the Native population, which is practically invisible among the global socio-political scene, so any feelings of empathy are non-existent for the non-existent.
Out of a population of 380 million, within the colonial borders of the United States, only 2 million people identify as being strictly “American Indian/Alaska Native” with another 3 million identifying as “American Indian/Alaska Native” and another race, while White Americans are around 75 percent of the overall population or about 197.2 million (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). This problem of Natives being practically invisible is reflected in popular media such as movies and film.
According to the Hollywood Diversity Report of 2016, Native people consisted of 0.5 percent of on-screen film representation in 2016. Yes, 0.5 percent. Not even 1 percent of Native people are represented on screen in major films and media compared to White Americans, whose on-screen film representation tops out at 76 percent.
That’s not to say, we don’t have any kind of representation because we do, but when we are depicted in movies for example, it’s as relics of the past living in the 1700 or 1800’s wearing buckskins (think Dances with Wolves) or enduring the dysfunctional fallout from enduring various traumatic events spurned on by alcohol and domestic abuse (think Smoke Signals and Skins).
Although we can be appreciative of these films for bringing these issues many people don’t know about to the forefront, they are now outdated (over 20 years old now) and had a narrow focus. In similar fashion, most documentaries about Native people living in Canada or reservations in the United States tend to also focus on alcohol and drug abuse resulting in a one-sided perception of our communities. Look up “Native Americans” on YouTube and you will get a plethora of documentaries focusing on nothing more than our plight.
Although some movies and documentaries are well-intentioned, there is a desperate need to balance out these depictions with more positive mainstream representation that show us as actual modern-day people who live in cities, have regular jobs, pay taxes and don’t live in teepees 24/7.
Which brings us back to why I became rather incensed over my post being deleted without any recourse. Social media, with its pros and cons, has become an important way for Native people to actually have our authentic voices heard in order to bring these issues to light.
So, when Instagram deletes posts and information created by Native people that are meant to amplify our already silenced voices so they can cater to those who already have an overwhelmingly positive media presence, by calling it “hate speech” and yet tolerates the racism found in the name the Washington R--skins stating they do not “violate” community guidelines, it only demonstrates the normalization of racism in this country that routinely gets codified into policies that have impacted us as Native people for hundreds of years.
Unfortunately, this continues to be a problem because, let’s face it, many individuals within the White community who support the use of Indian mascots would rather see us as voiceless, spiritless, one dimensional misrepresentations that comfort them and their own identity issues than see us as actual human beings.
Jimmy Lee Beason II (M.S.W.) is a member of the Osage Nation and is a faculty member of the Indigenous and American Indian Studies department at Haskell Indian Nations University. His writings and research focuses on Decolonization, Native empowerment and social justice advocacy for Native communities.