The term ‘Redskins’ is harmful in a different way than ‘The Fighting Irish’ or ‘Vikings.’ The reason for this, is of course the pervasive systematic oppression of First Nations in Canada and of Native Americans in the United States. Ask yourself this: has the white race as a whole been systematically oppressed in North America, where these offensively named sports teams exist? NO.
Also, ask yourself, have First Nations and Native Americans been systematically oppressed in North America where these offensively named sports teams exist? YES. Furthermore, does the systematic oppression of First Nations and Native Americans persist even today? YES. Let’s examine the systemic oppression of First Nations in Canada today to further illustrate my point.
First Nations people have title to more than 40% of Canada’s land mass and yet the oppressive Indian Act not only disallows us from profiting from the resources on our land but gives rights to the federal and provincial governments and corporations to extract resources from those lands that have not been ceded to the Crown. This is both economic oppression and theft based on racist ideologies that continue today.
How did we go from mascots to this? Part of the problem is that it boils down to the fact that Canadians believe that First Nations are just minority Canadians and that we have been assimilated into Canada. This is not so. We are still nations even though the Canadian nation-state is trying to legislate us out of existence (under the Indian Act, by means of the Canadian government determining who is and isn’t a First Nation person, in a few generations, there will be no more First Nations people and our rights will be fully extinguished, we will lose all of our land and rights to be self-determining – despite the fact that our populations are growing at a rate exponentially higher than the birthrate of Canadians).
The definition of a nation is ‘a group of people who share a common identity and who believe they should be self-governing within their homeland.’ We have been here for countless of thousands of years, this is our homeland and while we wish to peacefully coexist with Canadians, the relationship between us has been fraught with broken treaties, stolen land, violent colonialism, racism and attempted erasure of our histories, languages, customs and cultures.
There are 62 First Nations in existence in Canada and 630 First Nation bands in Canada. How many of either do you think the typical Canadian can name? What about the Indigenous languages of those nations – how many do you think the typical Canadian can name? Not many and especially among new Canadians, none can be named at all. And so maybe you can see how a mascot name like “Redskins” – which is a slur directed at First Nations people as a race also contributes to the pervasive idea that all the First Nations are just one people. In order for Canadians to understand First Nations people – they first need to understand that the languages, cultures and beliefs of First Nations people are incredibly diverse and so harmful mascots that facilitate our cultural erasure need to go.
Mascots also erase Indigenous people in another way, one that many might not think about. When a Canadian thinks about Indigenous people, they think about stereotypes when they think about what it means to be an Indigenous person. They think about feathers (without thinking about the cultural significance of those feathers), beads, drums and buckskins…. also about homelessness and alcoholism. So Indigenous people who don’t fit the Canadian perception of either traditional or tragic ‘Indians’ are invisible. There are Indigenous lawyers, doctors and professors who don’t stop being Indigenous just because of their education or profession. There are also mixed race Indigenous people like myself who don’t fit what a stereotypical Indigenous person looks like in Canada. I am not defined by Canada’s ideas of who is or isn’t Indigenous. I am Anishinaabe because my ancestors have been here for thousands of years, I know my history, I practice my culture and speak my language.
While many First Nations people are offended that Aboriginal nations have been excluded from most of the official history of Canada (Canada is still viewed as a country of ‘Two founding peoples’ – the French and the British). I see it as very telling of our ongoing oppression. Aboriginal people are not included within the federation of Canada, so how can we actually be a founding people? We weren’t even given voting rights in Canada until 1960. 1960!!!! My Chippewa ancestors fought in the war of 1812 and my Chippewa family fought in WWI and WWII – and still were not given voting rights until 1960. The voting rights we received in 1960 were not as self-governing entities within the federal system though. Think of all of the institutions we were excluded from up until then, think of how the land had been sliced up and divided among people deemed more deserving of land and opportunity than the original peoples who have lived here for thousands of years. Think about the forced relocations to unproductive reserve lands where Aboriginal people often starved while land was given for free to settlers.
The Indian Residential School system, the purpose for which was to culturally erase Aboriginal peoples and to clear the land for European settlement was in place from the early 17th century until 1996. Yes, 1996 – the abuses of the system are still experienced within living memory. There are 3 living generations of residential school survivors today. If you are unfamiliar with the residential school of Canada and the United States – I invite you to look through my blog posts, you will find several links with reliable information.
So, tell me again why ‘Redskins’ is equally offensive to ‘Fighting Irish’ and ‘Vikings’ in North America. Also, maybe you can explain to me, as someone who is subject to and oppressed by the Indian Act, why I should just “give up and move on” when it comes to harmful stereotypes. Please do tell me because perhaps my lived experiences and university education is missing something here.
In closing, like I said – if people of Irish or Nordic descent feel the ‘Fighting Irish’ and the ‘Vikings’ are harmful misrepresentations and that that those misrepresentations negatively impact their daily lives, then they are totally free to lobby to have them renamed. Furthermore, I am not against their freedom to do that if it is something they wish to do. I cannot and will not however, speak for them out of respect for their right for their own voices to be heard on the matter. I will also not be told to drop it and move on because I know how harmful stereotypes are.