Uncompassionate Views of History: The Ongoing Debate Surrounding Radnor’s Mascot

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Uncompassionate Views of History: The Ongoing Debate Surrounding Radnor’s Mascot

Kansas City Chiefs fans celebrate with the tomahawk chop during the fourth quarter of an NFL football game against the St. Louis Rams in St. Louis (December 19, 2010)

Kansas City Chiefs fans celebrate with the tomahawk chop during the fourth quarter of an NFL football game against the St. Louis Rams in St. Louis (December 19, 2010)

Kansas City Chiefs fans celebrate with the tomahawk chop during the fourth quarter of an NFL football game against the St. Louis Rams in St. Louis (December 19, 2010)

Kansas City Chiefs fans celebrate with the tomahawk chop during the fourth quarter of an NFL football game against the St. Louis Rams in St. Louis (December 19, 2010)

Sarah Tachau

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“We stopped letting it be about the students and doing what’s right. And people can be mad about the process and people can be mad about losing whatever it is they think they’re losing. But the people who are directly impacted have spoken and we chose not to listen to them.” These blatant words were spoken by Killingly Board of Education member Hoween Flexer in this Connecticut School Board’s decision to reinstate their Redmen mascot, despite changing it to the Redhawks just a year prior. Numerous students and teachers acted to get Killingly High School’s mascot changed to a less offensive term; however, once the name change occurred many community members and alumni were aggravated, feeling as if the “Redmen” carried a sense of tradition and nostalgia. This issue is not uncommon: in the past year schools all over the nation have been altering their mascots’ names to no longer represent Native Americans through an oblivious lense. The reinstatement of the previous title, reversing a morally good action, is rare. One would like to believe that in the future, America will become more racially sensitive. Issues such as Killingly’s reversed mascot change say otherwise. 

One of the most shameful moments of my high school career will forever be hearing an African-American player on the opposing volleyball team call us racist, referring to the “Radnor Red Raiders” printed in bold lettering on the score table and chairs alongside a stereotypical image of a Native American head. Her words left me with a sickening feeling. Sickening because I knew she was telling the truth, and in that moment I knew that I could not persuade her, or any of her teammates, otherwise. I could not say that we were honoring the Native Americans, as our team was all white. I could not say that using “red” to describe Native Americans’ skin color is not racist, because we would not use similar descriptors to describe a mascot of a different race. I could not even tell her that I was against it, because truthfully I knew that response would only come off as another excuse. The words and imagery itself was still there, in bold. We may have made progress by making our mascot less offensive, if even possible, yet it is imprinted in the image of what others perceive Radnor High School to be. I still hear other teams call us the “Red Raiders.” I still see the giant Native American head displayed on the outside of our school. I still experience the tomahawk chop being performed around me at football games, and feel a certain disappointment that I am one of the few band members not participating. 

 

The Tomahawk Chop

Performed by our school band at football games, the tomahawk chop involves moving one’s arm up and down at a ninety degree angle, to symbolize using a tomahawk, while simultaneously yelling the word “chop.” The chant is not uncommon, as it belongs to several professional sports teams, such as the Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Chiefs and Florida State University teams. As it may not seem offensive on the surface, many fans will participate in the act with little regard to the lengthy history that lies underneath. The tomahawk ax was created in the early 1700s and served both practical and religious purposes to various Native American tribes. One war ritual in particular concerned placing a red tomahawk on the ground in front of the chief. After much deliberation, if the chief lifted the tomahawk war would be declared, and if he buried it peace would remain. Native Americans used the ax-like tool in several ceremonies, such as signing a peace treaty or starting war, as it symbolized both calm and conflict in one item. Despite serving the purpose of a weapon, tomahawks were, and still are, considered to be a religious symbol to Native Americans. 

In other words, our predominantly white student body is imitating a religious ritual belonging to a group of people that makes up very little, if any, of our school’s population. Think of it this way, say there was an American basketball team called “The Atlanta N*ggers,” named to pay homage to the fierce African Americans who made it out of slavery. People would protest en masse and act to get the name removed, as it is a racial slur; using that name is doing everything but paying homage to the enslaved. That being the case, why are so many people ok with the Washington Redskins? The word “redskin” is a racial slur referring to Native Americans, described by the Oxford Dictionary as, “dated, offensive.” Thus, it is fair to say that the terms “redskin” and “n*gger” could be considered equally offensive, both meant to be a direct racial slur. If the two names are derogatory, why is one considered ok for white people to say, while the other is forbidden? Why are people in our community ok with the title “Red Raiders” that remains printed on the score table and chairs in the gym? Both Native Americans and African Americans were kicked out of their home land, both were enslaved, both were discriminated against and both suffered mass genocide.  The soil us Americans walk on every day is made from the blood and bones of these people. White Americans took Africans from their home and took the home from Native Americans. Both Africans and Native Americans were forced to work endless hours in the blistering hot sun, wounding their skin and scarring their soul. As students, we are taught vast information regarding African American history, and for a good purpose: no individual would want such brutality to occur again. However, when it comes to Native Americans, schools shy away from teaching the full story. Sure, there is a lesson on the Trail of Tears every once and awhile; yet growing up, especially in elementary school, we learn Native American history through colorful picture books of the first Thanksgiving and drawing smiling turkeys. Compare this form of teaching to thorough lessons on the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr., emphasizing his acts of good for society through the iconic I Have a Dream speech. I cannot recall learning of the war that followed Thanksgiving, only the pleasant feast that occured days before.  There is no doubt that the full African American story should continue to be taught thoroughly; however, schools have to teach Native American history to the same extent. We cannot forget the footprints Native Americans had on this country. Their history is already at risk with so few Natives alive today compared to two-hundred years ago. This lack of education comes with the consequence of future generations comprised of racially insensitive individuals. The reason why people would protest an American basketball team called “The Atlanta N*ggers” is because they are educated and fully aware of how horribly this culture was treated. As there is so little taught on Native American history, Americans are led to believe that acts such as performing the tomahawk chop and naming a team the Redskins are not racially insensitive.

Statesman Edmund Burke once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Every student at Radnor has the potential to stand up for what is right, to use education to the best of his or her advantage. In this case, it’s contributing a voice to the act of removing the tomahawk chop in our school and doing something about the massive Native American head on the side of the building. However, the first step to any change is education. When the student body is fully educated on Native American history, each individual can decide if they want to pursue being the “good man” in the equation and do something. Whereas if we choose to stay in this current position, we are letting evil resume its triumph, spreading the message that this generation does not care to heal the wounds struck by American history. 

 

Impact of Native American Mascots

When one pictures Native American mascots, a very stereotypical image likely comes to mind: a Native figure with a tough, rugged face and a feather headband. This is the image that has been portrayed through American culture, from picture books about Columbus Day and Thanksgiving to the logo for Land O’ Lakes butter. In terms of the professional sports world, the portrayal of Native Americans is illustrated to fit this stereotype: the strong Native American chief. Doing so has created numerous debates and protests, one in particular being the McGill Redmen. At the end of the 2018-2019 school year, the Canadian university chose to change their mascot from the “Redmen” to a less offensive title, currently in the process of being decided. After deciding to change their mascot, McGill principal and vice chancellor, Suzanne Fortier, sent out a letter in which she directly refers to the negative connotations “Redmen” has acquired over time. Fortier makes a key point, one that heavily relates to Radnor’s issue, by stating, “Intention, however benign, does not negate prejudicial effect.” Too often have I heard peers or other community members try to make the point that Radnor does not intend for the tomahawk chop to be racist, therefore it is not offensive. As a student I find it clear that Radnor is not trying to directly offend Native Americans. Yet we are still performing a racially insensitive act, without paying proper attention to it. I ask our student body to take a clearer look at the big picture: Radnor is 89% white, the remaining 11% is divided into Hispanic, African-American, Asian, mixed and other, a category which makes up just 0.2%. Several sources do not even include a separate category for Native American citizens, but the few that do list them as just 0.08% of Radnor, or an estimated thirty people. Thus, there truly are very few individuals who can offer a first-hand perspective on Radnor’s mascot issue and how it impacts them. 

In order to get a Native American voice in this topic, I interviewed co director and educator of Redhawk Native American Arts Council, Cliff Matias. The Redhawk Arts Council is a non-profit organization located in Brooklyn, New York, as well as San Francisco and Honolulu. Led and maintained by Native Americans, the Redhawk Arts Council is committed to sharing and educating the public on their culture through forms of artistic practices. 

I asked Matias if he felt that using positive intention, say to honor the Natives or continue tradition, is a valid excuse for keeping the tomahawk chop and Native American mascot, to which he responded, “No, absolutely not.” Matias made the point that we, as a society, are constantly developing; women and Native Americans have only been allowed to vote for a century and the argument over Native American mascots only became present several years ago. He states, “We as an evolving and growing country have to become more sensitive to the other races that are here.” It is critical to understand who Radnor is representing, and how their people feel about such representation. The Native American people did not come up with these names and mascots, but society is spreading the message that it is ok to promote stereotypical imagery and traditions of another culture without their permission. When the debate over the Washington Redskins was at its peak, the statistic that was commonly relayed by those in support of the mascot was the 2004 Annenberg Public Policy Center poll, stating that nine out of ten Native Americans were ok with this team name. In 2016, The Washington Post sent out the same survey to over five-hundred Native Americans, coming back with the same results. However, Matias stated that this statistic was not accurate, if it truly was ok to use human beings as mascots, teams would have a more valid reason to use them. Considering the fact that the tomahawk chop belongs to a group of people who suffered the highest genocide rate in the world at 90%, it is disrespectful for primarily white establishments to be portraying the Native culture in an offensive form. In Matias’ words, “The simple fact that these indigenous people is still alive is an amazing thing and to dishonor them by using tomahawks and mascots…” There is a serious issue in American education that pertains to race, that is how schools choose to teach the brutal truth of races such as Native Americans. 

Few truly think about the fact that these mascots are representing a group of people who are still alive today; Native Americans are psychologically impacted by the vast imagery in society that represents their culture. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) published a 2005 report regarding the negative impacts of Native American mascots, in which their authors stated, “These images in sport have been hegemonically woven into the fabric of society, often disallowing a discussion about the possibility that this practice could be offensive, racist, or harmful to American Indians.” In other words, American society has gotten so used to seeing professional sports teams using people as mascots, that we feel as if it is not offensive. When I brought this quote up to Matias, he agreed, making the point that as a country we are slowly becoming more culturally sensitive. He additionally explained the negative impact these mascots are having on Native American youth, by giving them the feeling that they do not matter or restricting the ways in which they see themselves. At the end of his interview Matias stated, “On the record, it makes native and indigenous minded people shed a tear that people don’t recognize how truly offensive it is.” While through another perspective, Mrs. Kevgas believes that “in order to truly make a change one must be educated about both sides of the subject”. The role of education is particularly critical in an issue that carries such strong nostalgia for many alumni and other community members, blinding them to the racial insensitivity of Radnor’s mascot. 

In Matias’ words, we are, “creating a country with uncompassionate views of history” instead of a country with compassion and understanding. The words “uncompassionate views of history” stood out, and Mrs. Kevgas shared a similar understanding as the Redhawk Arts Council, stating, “If a country has done things intentionally to a culture that is insensitive… and continue to not address it” in such a way, they are spreading uncompassionate views of history. Both explanations amount to an end result that is future generations made of culturally insensitive people. If anything, one would hope the uncompassionate views of history would fade out over each generation, allowing for the prevention of issues similar to an offensive mascot. 

This mascot influences the way in which Radnor’s entire student body is looked at. Do we really want to be known as a racially insensitive group of predominantly white, affluent individuals? Or do we want to change the way in which others perceive Radnor students, perhaps in a more respectful manner? I recall a specific day at band camp, a week before my freshman year began, when an upperclassman told me, along with a number of my peers and students in the grades above me, that the tomahawk chop was not racist, no matter what anyone told us. His careless words stuck with me, leaving a sickening feeling. Sickening because I know that there are many students who believed this message without really thinking about it. I, for one, am tired of having to see so many intelligent students misunderstand the insensitivity of Radnor’s mascot and the tomahawk chop because they were taught by society, or even by their peers, to believe it is ok. To repeat Edmund Burke’s wise words, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” It is evident that every Radnor student has the potential to be the good man: to truly make an impact on society no matter how big or small. Yes, issues that involve diversity in an area like Radnor take some time. However, that time can be sped up immensely when more students share education on such topics. I have wanted to speak up on Radnor’s mascot issue for over a year now, and chose to take this opportunity to do so. It would truly break my heart if, less than four years from now, Radnor is in the exact same position with its mascot as it is now. No one is stopping each student from being the good man except themselves, and society is reliant on this generation to make these types of differences in the world. So what are we waiting for?