My letter to the editor was published in The Christian Science Monitor today.
First, the column I was replying to:
Indian mascots and common courtesy
By Matthew J. Miller
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) announced this month it won’t allow teams with Indian mascots to use those mascots in NCAA tournaments.
The NCAA also penalized Florida State for the use of its Seminole mascot. This action aroused passionate criticism. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said the NCAA’s action against Florida State was insulting. Others have joined him in this criticism.
Mascots are a source of pride, they argue – a tradition. This same argument, however, can be used to support any number of social injustices.
For example, it was tradition for blacks to sit in the back of buses. It was tradition to bar women from working outside the home. And mentally ill people were traditionally sent to live out their lives in institutions. Each of these “traditions” has been changed and society is better for it.
Breaking university traditions and causing some sentimental heartache for alumni is a small price to pay for showing respect to the Indian peoples.
But another, more substantive, argument against removing Indian mascots is that they are not really offensive.
“Norwegians don’t complain about teams called the Vikings,” is a common retort to arguments against Indian mascots.
Norwegians are not offended; therefore, proponents of this view reason, neither should Indians be offended.
This, however, presupposes Indians and Norwegians come from a common perspective and, therefore, are similarly offended. This presupposition is not true.
Norwegian people were not forcefully removed from their own lands time and again, nor were they slaughtered in large numbers by an army of superior power. Neither have they struggled to find a place in society.
They do not daily face alcoholism, poverty, and racism as Indians do. Because Indians and Norwegians come from different perspectives, we cannot assume that they should have similar attitudes about mascots.
The wounds of Indian defeats are still fresh. After all, the battle at Wounded Knee was fought only 110 years ago, and its memories remain in public consciousness.
Perhaps Indian warrior mascots are reminiscent of the horrific defeats suffered at the hands of white soldiers.
Perhaps the use of Indian mascots by predominantly white schools symbolizes a lack of control over their own cultural identity.
I am not certain I entirely understand why Indian mascots are offensive. Some names, like “Redskins,” seem obviously offensive. Others, like Braves or Warriors, hardly seem offensive and even carry a tone of admiration.
I cannot fully understand what is offensive because I am not Indian.
I have, however, worked on Indian reservations. There I learned it is not my place to tell an Indian person whether he or she should be offended.
I, as a white male, am not privileged to decide what is or is not offensive for people of another race. The issue goes beyond race. It is one of common courtesy.
The bottom line is if a substantial group of Indian people is offended by a mascot, it should be changed.
Matthew J. Miller is a federal law-enforcement officer in Sioux Falls, S.D.
Now, my letter:
Matthew J. Miller’s Aug. 16 Opinion piece, “Indian mascots and common courtesy,” on the right of native Americans to decide whether or not the use of native American mascots by college sports teams is offensive is a beacon of fairness, reason and, as he says, common courtesy in a nation largely devoid of such values in its public discourse.
Mr. Miller displays an uncommon willingness to step back, recognize his own limitations and advocate for the best possible (and most reasonable) answer to an issue that has long been a flash point for racial tensions.
The United States could use more Matthew J. Millers.
William O. Pate II