“What’s the big deal?”
That’s the question that comes up most frequently when talking about Native American imagery and its role in greater society. Take the easy target recently dominating the news: the National Football League’s Washington Redskins. I could say the logo and name are racist. You could argue the team is an institution, and its name and logo have become sources of pride for many since the franchise was rebranded in 1933. Nothing’s changed in all that time and only recently has the debate resurfaced. So, what’s the big deal now?
Adding to that dismissive side of the debate is the fact that some Native Americans have come out in support of Washington, or at least shrugged off the entire issue. There are too many other things to fix in “Indian Country,” and the name of a football team should be the least of Native Americans’ worries. Drugs, alcoholism, political corruption, extreme rates of violence against Native American women, suicide, poverty, crime—the list goes on, nearly ad infinitum. That’s where the attention should be focused. And again the question gets asked: What’s the big deal?
The answer is that Native American imagery and those who control it only help to reinforce that long list of problems.
I was 7 years old when I moved from a predominantly Native American neighborhood in south Minneapolis to a town called Bemidji in Minnesota’s north woods. It’s four hours north of the Twin Cities, surrounded by three very large American Indian reservations, state parks, forests, lakes and not much else. In the summer, you can walk through the woods, fish, swim and drink beer. In the winter, there’s cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing, ice fishing and more beer drinking. It’s like if Missoula had a little brother that was raised by Spokane, but way less exciting.
The move north was prompted by the fact that our tiny Minneapolis neighborhood was getting a little rough. Crime was spiking, and my parents needed a new place to raise me and my two sisters. Since my mother had grown up in northern Minnesota, we had family and friends there. Plus, we’d spent time in Bemidji and Red Lake, the reservation from which my family hails, so it wasn’t a tough change. It was more like going home than moving someplace new.