side of sports
Please take a look at the two representations of American Indians that appear with this column.
Which one is more shocking?
You know it. I know it. Absolutely, it is the one of surgeon Lori Arviso Alvord.
The wildly grinning, fire-engine-red-faced, befeathered, moronic-looking, bobble-headed Chief Wahoo, the mascot for the Cleveland Indians, is so much a part of our culture that he is almost comforting.
That's the little fella on the front of every Cleveland Indian's hat.
Minority players on the Indians--whether African American, Hispanic or foreign-born--wear him with nary so much as a twinge of guilt, confusion or anger. Right now the Indians are hot, having won eight in a row and threatening to take over the lead in the American League Central Division.
So the storied Chief Wahoo rules.
But who is that dignified, modern, almost regally calm yet alert woman in the doctor's scrub suit? An Indian? Please! Where is the papoose, the tomahawk, the beads, the buckskin shoes?
But as an answer to its own caption, "Have You Ever Seen A Real Indian?" the photo gives us an honest-to-God Indian.
Lori Arviso Alvord just happens to be a Navajo who was educated at Stanford, has her medical degree, is a published author and is an active surgeon and associate dean of student affairs at Dartmouth Medical School.
You remember Dartmouth, don't you? The elite Ivy League university that changed its teams' nickname from Indians to Big Green awhile ago?
The photo of Arviso Alvord has been running in various publications recently (this one is from the May issue of The Atlantic Monthly) as part of the American Indian College Fund's new campaign to raise money for Indian schools and to counter stereotypes of Indians.
"As a higher education organization, people look to us for direction," says Suzette Brewer, a Cherokee Indian who is the associate director of media and advertising for the AICF, which is located in Denver. "The nicknames and images of Indians are really outdated and, in fact, harmful."
Brewer says the new campaign was undertaken specifically to show all Americans that Indians are not just movie characters in war paint, dealers in casinos or drunks hanging out in seedy bars.
"Those images everywhere are so painful," Brewer says. "The Cleveland Indian mascot is so insulting, so humiliating. I wonder how black Americans would feel if some team used Sambo as its mascot? Those sports mascots and names like Redskins are precisely why we did this ad campaign."
There are other upstanding, creative and exceedingly successful American Indians in this ad blitz. And, combined, they all send the message that being objectified as a people for someone else's pleasure is a daily, demeaning experience.
"It's hard to visualize what it is like," Brewer continues. "Our population is only 2.4 million, so we don't have much clout. But when people say about mascots, `It's just an Indian,' I wonder what they would think if somebody said, `It's just a Jew,' or `It's just a black person.' "
The thing that Brewer and Arviso Alvord and other Indians discussed before beginning this ad campaign is that the old wounds heal very, very slowly.
"Hey, if anyone can laugh at themselves, it's Indians," Brewer says. "But we still feel the pain from the past. Are you kidding? When you are conquered, you never forget. Oh, my God, no."
One of the effects of showing Indians as modern, professional people is that their own people are overwhelmed with hope and joy. "I'm telling you, our people cry when they first see these posters," Brewer says.
One thing that is all too clear for American Indians is that they have been uprooted and decimated as a people, and nothing can change that.
Then, too, there is the descending hierarchy of offensive references from sports organizations, images and names that make Indians into two-dimensional creatures rather than full fledged humans.
The worst would be Chief Wahoo and the Indians, then the many Redskins (the term coming from bloodied Indian scalps brought in for bounty, not skin color) and the Florida State Seminoles ("The Seminoles didn't throw spears," Brewer says. "And they didn't wear headdresses.")
Not far off would be the University of Illinois' Chief Illiniwek and the Kansas City Chiefs, followed by all the other Braves and Warriors, etc.
There are many offensive racial and ethnic slurs from the past that have moved into modern times because they are stamped in books, movies and institutions. Songs such as "Swanee River," old cartoons and movies such as "Birth of a Nation" preserve images that are offensive but must be understood within the context of their time.
Just the other night, I read the classic Agatha Christie thriller, And Then There Were None with my 10-year-old son. Twice I was brought up short and embarrassed when I read aloud that a hidden danger was "a n---er in the woodpile."
But we don't change literature to correct for sentiment or new understanding. We can, however, easily change nicknames.
They did it at Dartmouth, where Lori Arviso Alvord now teaches.
And it can be done elsewhere. Even in Cleveland.
We should remember also that even a refined, educated and respected person such as Dr. Alvord is not immune to the pain of constant demeaning nuances and imagery. When told that small Indian children, adults, teenagers and even old-timers were rushing to get copies of the poster on which she is featured because it made them feel proud, rich and full of hope, Dr. Alvord, the real Indian, did a very human thing.
She burst into tears.
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