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Chief is reflection of American Indian education

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  • Robert Schmidt
    http://qconline.com/archives/qco/sections.cgi?prcss=display&id=306221 Chief is reflection of American Indian education By Darla M. Wiese, dmwiese@qconline.com
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 18, 2006
      http://qconline.com/archives/qco/sections.cgi?prcss=display&id=306221

      Chief is reflection of American Indian education

      By Darla M. Wiese, dmwiese@...

      The controversy over the University of Illinois' mascot, Chief Illiniwek,
      has heated up in recent weeks as the tradition's demise may be imminent. If
      I were to look at the problem from a strictly black-and-white point of
      view, my stance on the issue would be simple: If area tribes approve of the
      use of an Indian mascot, great. If area tribes don't approve, find a new
      mascot.

      Unfortunately, this issue runs a little bit deeper than that. The real
      issue, I believe, has less to do with Indian mascots, and more to do with
      the representations of American Indians in both the public education system
      and the mass media.

      Last summer my husband and I spent a long weekend in Washington D.C. As a
      member of the Okanagan Indian Band of southern British Columbia, visiting
      the new National Museum of the American Indian was on the top of my list of
      sights to see.

      As we walked into an exhibit, a large screen flashed images of American
      Indians. One was a construction worker, another a young professional and
      another a farmer. As the images were displayed a voice overlay said
      something to the effect of "Everyday you may come in contact with an
      American Indian and not even know it. They're workers, teachers. . ." etc.

      My first thought was, "Um, duh?"

      My second thought was a little heavier. I remembered doing research a year
      earlier for a college paper about the Washington Redskins and the sports
      mascot debate. For many people, the portrayals of American Indians in
      movies, television, halftime shows, books and cartoons may be the only
      "contact" they ever have with the American Indian culture. The context of
      the stories told about American Indians is almost always in the past tense,
      in a past time, contributing to a subconscious thought that American
      Indians no longer exist and/or are part of fairy tales.

      That's why the exhibit at the museum felt compelled to explain to its
      visitors that American Indians exist today -- you just might not recognize
      them because they're in hard hats and suits.

      As a young girl trying to establish an identity, I absorbed these mass
      media images about American Indians. I devoured books such as The Indian in
      the Cupboard and though no one in my family watched sports, I sought out
      and learned the "Tomahawk Chop," all for mainstream cultural validation. It
      was no different than looking to the mass media for society's ideals on
      beauty and athleticism, except I couldn't find any American Indians there
      so I had turn to these other representations.

      America needs to reevaluate the mass media messages and images we send
      about American Indians, and we can start in the public school system. Last
      year, the American Psychologist Association stated that the continued use
      of American Indian mascots "establishes an unwelcome and often times
      hostile learning environment for American Indian students that affirms
      negative images/stereotypes that are promoted in mainstream society."

      We also need to look at how we're teaching out teachers. My college
      roommate, an elementary education major, came home one day with an American
      Indian paper doll and told me her assignment was to decorate the doll's
      dress and give her "an Indian name." She brought the assignment home
      because, in all seriousness, she thought it was cute and that I'd enjoy it.

      "I'm going to draw little daisies on the dress and call her 'Likes to Shop
      a lot Girl'," she said to me.

      "How about you teach your students about genocide and forced assimilation,
      instead of shopping" I replied.

      "Relax, it's just a doll."

      As a child, I thought for sure I had come from a long line of blood
      thirsty, vengeful people who didn't know enough to recognize the U.S.
      government had only their best interests in mind and as a result the
      government had no choice but to use force, deadly force. Today I know that
      these feelings, this subconscious learning, are wrong, but I also know that
      millions of other students and adults, native and non-native alike, don't
      know that, and may never know that.

      I know you've got a lot of sentimental attachment to your Chief Illiniwek.
      I know that that attachment has nothing to do with racism. But Chief
      Illiniwek is a thing from the past, a part of a fairy tale, and it's time
      to let him go. To too many people, of all races, he doesn't honor or
      represent American Indians, he defines them.

      I'm not going to relax.
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