For many, there are certain chapters in U.S. history that are much too painful to contemplate. Foremost among them are the enslavement of literally millions of Africans, and campaigns of genocide and territorial theft directed at America’s First Nations. Some who are descended from the perpetrators of these crimes against humanity, or who suspect they may be descendants may have the most discomfort, and their coping strategy is often a descent into a chronic state of denial.
Denial can be facilitated by images, ideas and dramatizations that radically distort and in some cases recreate actual events in history. The hellish southern plantations where the backs of rebellious enslaved Africans were beaten raw; children were sold away from their parents; and young girls were viciously raped by white slave masters nightly in their own cabins can, through the magic of early 20th Century Hollywood, be transformed into tranquil oceans of snow white cotton picked by happy grinning “darkies” under the watchful, benevolent gaze of a white suited, julep-sipping planter.
With respect to the First Nations, the historical reality is that there were numerous massacres of defenseless communities, most notably at Sand Creek in Colorado. On November 29, 1864 Colonel John Chivington led 700 members of the Colorado Territory Militia in a raid on a defenseless village of Cheyenne and Arapaho at Sand Creek. When the raid was over more than 100 mostly women, children and elders had been massacred. One witness to the carnage said: “Fingers and ears were cut off the bodies for the jewelry they carried. The body of White Antelope, lying solitarily in the creek bed, was a prime target. Besides scalping him the soldiers cut off his nose, ears, and testicles – the last for a tobacco pouch.” Chivington and his troops decorated their hats with scalps and genitalia that they carved from corpses. Yet, American cinema has imprinted indelibly in the minds of most the image of the “bloodthirsty Indian savage” who had to be tamed by honorable, noble U.S. cavalrymen.
When educational institutions and professional sports franchises created mascots and logos using Native American likenesses, these concepts were not at all drawn from the historical reality of massacres, destruction of civilizations, mass cross-country relocation, boarding school abuses, and the theft of an entire hemisphere. They were instead drawn from twisted fantasies that produced images of cartoonish, ridiculous, harmless, grinning Indians; or on the other extreme, the “noble savage” who, while solemn, has been permanently defeated, and who poses no continuing threat to those who are “civilized.” These images can be a source of great comfort if one hopes to forget the rivers of blood and tears shed by those who were in this part of the world first and the fact that many of us continue to occupy these stolen territories with no thought of providing the victims with rights to reclamation, reparation and restoration. Thus, it is no small matter when those who are caricatured by these images complain that the mascots and logos which have on the one hand facilitated the denial of historical realities have, for them served only as excruciating, painful reminders of past and continuing oppression.
To its credit, Eastern Michigan University retired its “Huron” mascot and logo in the 1990s. Yet, the logo mysteriously reappeared a few years ago hidden beneath a flap on the school’s band uniforms.
For some time the Native American Student Organization has complained to no avail about the resurrection of this icon, which some believe has also triggered a series of acts of racial hostility on or near the campus. The university’s administrators have refused to date to honor the students’ requests.
This is more than puzzling given the genuine pain displayed by the students and the relative ease of removing the logos. In an effort to learn the reasons for the university’s position, the ACLU of Michigan has submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for information about not only the decision to return the logo, but also about its policies, procedures and practices with respect to racial harassment.
In his song “Running Away,” the late reggae musician Bob Marley said: “Every man thinketh his burden is the heaviest—but who feels it knows it, Lord. Who feels it knows it.”
In this case, the members of the Native American Student Organization and those in the community they represent feel the pain of the Huron logo.
If we want to know the extent of the harm of the image, we must be guided by them—because only they can really know.
By Mark Fancher, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan Racial Justice Project