A Minute With...

Fred Hoxie, recipient of the American Indian History Lifetime Achievement Award

10/23/2013  8:00 am

Early in September the Oneida Indian Nation began its “Change the Mascot” radio ad campaign, urging the NFL team in the nation’s capital to drop the name “Redskins.” Commentators, broadcasters, fans and politicians have since weighed in. The team owner has so far refused to consider a change. Frederick Hoxie is a Swanlund professor of history, law and American Indian studies at the University of Illinois. He wrote about two centuries of native activism in his 2012 book “This Indian Country: American Indian Activists and the Place They Made.” Last year he also received the American Indian History Lifetime Achievement Award and on Oct. 12 was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain about names, symbols and unheralded Indian achievements.

It seems fair to say that even many who have fought for keeping Indian-related names and symbols for sports teams might see “redskins” as in a different category. Do most American Indians see it that way? Or do we risk missing the larger point of Indian activists’ objections by trying to rate which names or symbols are more offensive than others?

image of professor fred hoxieWhile the details of each mascot’s history are naturally interesting to their supporters, the underlying issue is power: Who gets to use whom as a mascot or a symbol. Obviously “redskin” is more offensive than “warrior,” but that really is beside the point. What “Change the Mascot” folks are saying, I think, is that “we don’t want white people reducing us to two-dimensional figures which, no matter how heroic, are by definition stereotypes.”

Added to this general concern is, of course, a history of dispossession and exclusion. The American majority has denigrated and dismissed native people from 1776 onward, so claims of “honoring” and “celebrating” ring a bit thin for Indian people. There are some Indian people who say the mascots are not a big deal, but the views of educational, cultural and political leaders are quite clear: “We are people, fellow citizens, not mascots.”

The Indians most Americans know are defeated warrior chiefs of the distant past, “brave, exotic and dead,” as you phrase it. How does that fit into explaining current-day protests – or, maybe in some cases, lack of protest – over the use of certain names and symbols? 

Someone once said that the Indians are the Greeks of North America. That is they symbolize a past civilization the modern USA conquered and improved upon, just as the Romans conquered and “improved” upon the ancient Greeks. The celebration of warriors bears that out: They were brave and noble. “We” conquered them. So we are even more brave and noble. This celebration is also quite recent. It really started after Indians were no longer a military threat. The Puritans who sold defeated warriors into slavery and the settlers who called for Indian extermination didn’t say much about noble warriors.

The risk for American Indians in these protests is often to reinforce a story only of past victimization and defeat. But what’s the untold story you found in writing your book?

Let’s look at the Redskin controversy. Who are the Indian actors? Ray Halbritter, the Harvard-educated chair of the prosperous Oneida tribe in New York. Kevin Gover, a Princeton-educated lawyer and a Pawnee, who as director of the National Museum of the American Indian kicked off this most recent round of Redskin discussion with a forum at his institution. And Suzan Harjo, a Creek/Cheyenne and a community activist and lobbyist who has logged tens of thousands of miles speaking out against mascots for the past 30 years. These are not victims; these are people who have faith in the goodness of the American public and in the power of ideas and persuasion.

And why do you say the United States is now “Indian country?”

Because people like Halbritter, Gover and Harjo are at work in every corner of this country, advocating a more inclusive and humane vision of what American society can be. In that sense, we are becoming more and more an “Indian country.”

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