Rejecting Racism: The Native Factor

July 28, 2003
Category: Uncategorized

I’m not Native American. By birth, I am an American National, a Pacific Islander, according to my U.S. passport.

I do have friends who are American Indians representing many tribes -– Anishinabe, Seneca, Cherokee, Cayuga, Diné, Menominee, Ojibwe, Apache, Onondaga, Pima, Pequot. I have visited some of their reservations, shared their food, accepted their prayers, and listened intently to stories told by their Elders.

I’m not a journalist. I work at a journalism school and frequently interact with journalists from around the world. As a consumer, I regularly read, watch, listen to, and analyze the news.

When I see Native American people, or any people, misrepresented in the news, discounted or ignored in many stories, treated with disrespect, depicted by racial stereotypes, it matters to me. Why? Because as a human being, I care passionately when people are not treated with the utmost respect.

Recognizing the Problem

A story
on the Anchorage Daily News website carries the headline, “Royals scalp Indians, stay perfect.” Excuse me? Am I reading this in 2003? Are some members of the media still that insensitive? Still racist? Still ignorant?

You would have thought that times have changed by now, but they definitely haven’t. There are many more examples like the one above. I wonder how many journalists I know have written similar copy without thinking of the consequences of their words. 

It’s not just Indian nicknames in sports, either.

Am I reading this in 2003? Are there members of the media who are still that insensitive?The news media bans many terms considered offensive to many groups in America, yet rarely extends this same courtesy to Native Americans. I find it hard to believe that any knowledgeable individual in the 21st century would deny that the term “redskins” or “squaw” is racist in nature or that the image of Chief Wahoo is demeaning. Their continuous use perpetuates mimicry of a people’s way of life, in the name of token honor and false respect.

John Shurr, Associated Press South Carolina Bureau Chief, wrote to me last month: “I think I’m in the Native American mainstream when it comes to use of the word ‘redskin’ in any form … I find it disparaging and at least as bad as African Americans find the ‘n-word.'” Years ago, Shurr helped draft a change in the AP Stylebook under the heading “Indians,” so that journalists were made aware of the offensive nature of words and images readily used in media reports.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

While American views matured, the media’s practices barely changed. This lack of sensitivity is why the Native American Journalists Association has again called on the media “to recognize racism in sports team nicknames and mascots.”

It was a call that UNITY adopted in 1994, but only a few news organizations have acted on. 

In 1992, Editor William Hilliard of The (Portland) Oregonian wrote, “The Oregonian will immediately discontinue using sports teams’ names and nicknames that many Americans feel are offensive to members of racial, religious or ethnic groups … The Oregonian is sensitive to the feelings of those in our society who are rightly offended today by names and nicknames that came into being when a majority in this country was insensitive to minority concerns.”

This fight is just one hurdle in the long campaign to portray and treat Native Americans with respect.Two years later, the Minneapolis Star Tribune banned the use of American Indian team nicknames. Earlier this year, the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star joined the ranks of the few newspapers/media organizations that have made a change. Editor Kathleen Rutledge explained, “We’ve made this decision out of respect for Native People.”

This is a sign of sensitivity that the majority of media still lacks, and apparently, the Star Tribune no longer considers a priority. In June, editor Anders Gyllenhaal reversed the paper’s policy in the name of “accuracy” and in response to “the changing society covered in these pages.”

During a panel discussion at the recent NAJA convention, Managing Editor Scott Gillespie said the decision followed the same guidelines the Star Tribune uses when dealing with profane and vulgar words.

As I sat in the audience, I was shocked to hear such a comparison, since the words in question, to me, are racist in nature and promote hate.

Tim McGuire, former Star Tribune editor, feels the paper made a mistake. “I remain proud of the decision in 1994 to discontinue the use of those nicknames,” he says. “(Anders’) argument for accuracy and realism just doesn’t fly for me because a newspaper has several policies which don’t toe that line, such as not using certain vulgarities and names of rape victims.

“The Indian nicknaming issue is similar. It is an attempt to show sensitivity to people who don’t get a lot of sensitivity. As for other editors, this issue is as simple as the Golden Rule. Would you be comfortable if derogatory names for ethnic backgrounds or health issues or body types were used as sports nicknames? The Boston Micks, The St. Louis Fatties, The Minnesota Shorties, The L.A. Diabetics, etc. I think not.”

Peter Bhatia, Executive Editor of The Oregonian and President of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, sent me the following comments by e-mail, after I asked him what editors should know or consider when discussing this issue:

Like most newsrooms, we’re talking a lot right now about accuracy, attribution, and issues raised by the Jayson Blair case. These are important issues and vital to the credibility we have with readers. As I wrote in the ASNE magazine this month, the Blair case offers us the opportunity as newsroom leaders to reflect individually and with our colleagues about the rigor with which we pursue accuracy. ASNE is trying to facilitate those discussions through our ongoing work, our magazine and helped establish an important baseline through its credibility handbook, which offers some important how-to on these topics. As to the Indian mascot policy here, it remains in place.

Kathleen Rutledge says the Lincoln Journal Star doesn’t plan to change its policy.

The Bigger Picture

This fight is just one hurdle in the long campaign to portray and treat Native Americans with respect, free from disparaging comments, racist names, terms, and images that trivialize their culture.

Chad Smith, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, which is the second largest Indian tribe in America behind the Navajo Nation, offered these comments to me:

Portraying Native American people as mascots relegates us to second-class citizenship. Mascots are for entertainment. They are fun. They are objects of ridicule for the opposition. And they are told to leave the field of play when the main event, the game, begins. No one would tolerate such treatment of African-Americans or Hispanics. Those ethnic groups are not subjected to the “honor” of being mascots. Even here in Oklahoma, where Native Americans make up the largest minority group in the state, we have mascots that sport war paint and are called the Redskins.

The American Heritage Dictionary definition of “redskin” is the same as the definition for “the n-word,” which newspapers avoid printing and broadcasters avoid saying. Yet those same broadcasters and writers will use the term “redskin” without a second thought. The slap in the face is just as real, but verbally assaulting Indians, as opposed to other ethnic groups, is apparently not taboo in the media. Indian mascots instill into mainstream society stereotypical, offensive, and factually incorrect notions of what Native Americans were and are.

I recently spoke with Blaise Labbe, News Director at KWTV in Oklahoma City. He said the issue had come up at the station earlier this year, but was left unresolved. After our conversation, Labbe was planning to do his own research into the issue, talk to people at his station, and “hopefully come up with some sort of policy for (his) newsroom.”

George Benge, a news executive for Gannett and member of the Cherokee Nation, wants this discussion put in proper context, knowing firsthand what it feels like to be called “redskin” in a derogatory manner. “I feel the mascot issue is an important one,” he says, “deserving of a serious discussion.”

But he stresses it’s one issue out of many greater concerns facing Native Americans, and the dialogue should extend to those issues ignored or perpetuated by the media as well.

What would I like to see more media organizations do?

I want them to recognize the racism of newsroom policies that reinforce stereotypes, and I want them to acknowledge that the lack of a systematic policy allows stereotyping as well.

I want the media to do what’s right: ban all things racist, including the use of Indian nicknames and mascots in news reports. The media should not repeat racist language and reproduce racist symbols that others selected and continue to use due to ignorance or financial considerations.

Isn’t it time that all news organizations -– print, broadcast, online -– and the entertainment industry, follow the examples set by those who have chosen to eliminate these hurtful stereotypes? I certainly hope so.

And finally, I’d like journalists to show that they value Native American culture. I want them to tell me stories about the reality of Native Americans -– their true heritage, their daily struggles, their humanness. These stories are the best way to counteract this cycle of ignorance.

Comments from other journalists:

  • Brian Mann, Reporter, North Country Public Radio, New York:
    “We cover this as an issue in our area (which has a large Mohawk community). Some schools have changed mascot names in recent years, reflecting the shift in sensibilities/awareness. However, we don’t have a specific policy regarding use/non-use of these names.”

  • Anne Glover, Asst. Managing Editor, St. Petersburg Times (The Times is owned by The Poynter Institute):
    “We pretty much use whatever the team calls itself and run their logos in our capsules or previews.”

  • Paul DeMain, Managing Editor, News from Indian Country:
    “No written policy on nicknames or logos. Use is discretionary in nature — we look for respect, good taste, proper presentation, support from particular tribes if they are near tribes or represent that tribe, etc. Otherwise we just schuck the story. We have no need to cover most of the sports stories that would carry that type of information since they are not related to news about Indigenous people … I believe that most mascots and nicknames need to be changed. There are far too many entities that are using them without any historical background, sensitivity, etc.”

  • Tom Lindner, News Director, KARE-TV Minneapolis:
    “No written policy for or against use of such names. Our practice is to use the names designated by the teams on the air.”

  • Cathy Duchamp, Reporter, KUOW 94.9 FM NPR Seattle:
    “We don’t have a policy on reporting sports names that may be considered racist or insensitive. That’s probably for a couple reasons:
    1. We rarely if ever report on high school sports — in fact we’re more likely to report on high school jazz band or debate competition.
    2. None of our college/pro teams have names/mascots that could be considered racist or insensitive, so on that point it’s a moot issue. That said, we DO report on the controversy quite often. A couple notable high schools in our region recently changed their mascot names in response to years of criticism. In fact, one just did today!”

  • Mark Trahant, Editorial Page Editor, Seattle Post-Intelligencer:
    “I see this as an inevitable change — only a question of when.”
Fanua Borodzicz is program assistant for Broadcast/Online, The Poynter Institute, and a member of the Native American Journalists Association.

Facebook Comments