I live in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Recently, efforts have been made to get the local school board to retire the Oshkosh West High School “Indian” logo. As has been the case in many US cities, the efforts have been met with angry resistance. Indians should be “honored” by the logos, say the opponents of change.
Supporters of such demeaning symbols usually have little or no awareness of the actual historical relationship between native populations and Europeans. I have found it helpful to ask them to imagine that history had happened in reverse. Suppose the Arawak Indians, the tribe "discovered" by Columbus in 1492, set sail in that year for a "New World." Suppose that the Arawaks "discovered" Europe in 1492. Suppose that by 1620, the Arawaks were joined by the 5 tribes of the Iroquois confederacy. Suppose that from 1620 to about 1776, the Indians took control of much of Europe through war and treaties.
By 1787, the Indians had created a "United States of Europe" and believed it was its "Manifest Destiny" to expand and settle the entire continent. In 1830, the Indian government put in place a "European Removal" policy to clear out all of Southeastern Europe for Indian settlements. Thousands of Europeans died in the forced move from south to north. By the late 19th century, the Indian government had created a "Bureau of European Affairs" to oversee the Reservations that had been created for native European populations. The native European population, believed to be in the tens of millions in 1492, by the early 20th century had been reduced to about a million.
Now suppose that in the early 20th century the native Europeans were no longer a military threat to the Indians. Instead, the Europeans became romanticized and thought of fondly for the noble acts of courage displayed in battles against the Indians. Statues of great European generals appeared in public parks. In the German region, the Indians created a great city by the water named Bismarck in honor of the great European general. In the city of Bismarck's Bohemian Park, Bismarck’s statue is inscribed with the following: "Bismarck - A general of the German tribe of Europeans, whose greatest achievement in this life was in giving to this city the name which will make it famous while one stone remains upon another." (Oshkosh’s Menomonie Park has a statue of Chief Oshkosh with the same inscription). By the 1980s Indian filmmakers even start using real European actors in movies.
"European" became a common logo and mascot at Indian schools. Some schools even adopted as logos and mascots groups like "the Serbs" and "the Sicilians" in "honor" of those European tribes that proved especially resistant to the removal policies of the 19th century. Indian Universities established proud traditions at football games. At Nuremberg University in the state of Germany, for example, a student portraying legendary General Bismarck before each home football game rode horseback across the field and at midfield fired a revolver into the air. The Indian fans at football games adopted European war chants and acted out the "trigger finger" motion to support their teams.
By the 1990s, native-European activists began to protest the use of Europeans as mascots. They claimed not to be "honored" by the use of native images at sporting and other school events, and they feared that the mascots only reinforced stereotypes that led to false beliefs about native-European peoples. Soon human rights groups and other organizations joined the protest. In response to the call for change, some Indians referred to the protesters as nothing more than a "politically correct" minority who did not realize that the mascots and logos were meant to "honor" the Europeans.
When history is reversed this way, doesn't the Indian population using native-European mascots appear to be in complete denial about or ignorance of their own history and culture? Couldn’t they see the best way to "honor" the Europeans would have been to teach their children to move beyond stereotypes and learn the true history of native cultures? Didn’t they understand how disrespectful it was to native-Europeans to tell them that they "should" be honored by a symbol when huge majorities of natives made it clear that they were not so honored? Common sense should have told the Indians of this reverse history that a better way to honor the native Europeans was to admit the dishonorable actions of the past and pledge to eliminate the lingering effects of those actions.
Perhaps in Oshkosh and other cities a little common sense on the mascot issue is needed. I mean Common Sense by the great American revolutionary Thomas Paine. He wrote: " . . . a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom." Perhaps the reason why the Oshkosh West Indian logo seems "right" to some citizens is because we have a "long habit of not thinking it wrong." Let's get out of denial and try to find more dignified and humane ways of honoring all human beings.
Tony Palmeri is an associate professor of communication at UW Oshkosh. He can be reached at Palmeri@uwosh.edu