Many of you have probably seen the “Powerful SuperBowl Ad that Redskins’ Owner Dan Synder Needs to See.” If not, simply go to Facebook or YouTube and type in the search box, “redskins commercial.” The commercial lists the names of many Native American tribes and lists many descriptions of who Native Americans are. It ends with by saying, “Native Americans call themselves many things. The one thing they don’t is…” and you are left with the visual of a Washington Redskins helmet with a football in the background.
While the focus for many of us in terms of white privilege has been on Black people recently, there are just as many ways in which it is constantly being exerted over Native peoples. After watching the commercial, I remembered my experience of attending a YMCA day camp as a young child. We would have Coup Councils once a week. All of us would gather in a special area carrying our “coup sticks.” The heads of all the different activity areas wore full feather headdresses of certain colors that were identified with their area: Pool was blue; Field was green, etc. Those of us who had excelled at an area during the week were given colored feathers representing the area to put in our coup sticks. My father made mine out of an old shovel handle, drilling holes in that could hold the feathers. I was inordinately proud of my coup stick.
I had no idea that this ritual was a complete cultural misappropriation of a Native American tradition. A site about the Plains Indians explained the true meaning of “counting coup and coup sticks:”
Counting coup was a relatively harmless act of bravery and war honor of the highest grade. Any blow struck against the enemy counted as a coup, but the most prestigious acts included touching an enemy warrior, with the hand or with a coup stick. The expression can be seen as referring to ‘counting strikes’”. Coups were recorded by notches in the coup stick, or by feathers in the headdress of a warrior who was rewarded with them for an act of bravery.”
The mascot of the college I attended was the “Redmen, “with a silhouette of an Indian face with a headdress. I thought nothing of it. As someone who had grown up in a suburb outside of New York City, I had had no exposure to Native Americans other than what was presented in films or TV shows like “The Lone Ranger.” College would be the first time I interacted with Native Americans and got a faint glimmer of the challenges so many of them faced in the dominant culture. To its credit, the college changed the name of the mascot to the “Redhawks” in response to requests by Native Americans. Which is more than the owners of many ball teams can say. Greed breeds privilege and trumps knowledge about the importance of cultural respect or disparagement. Why is it still acceptable to name ball teams by misusing names that are so important to Native Americans or by using names that perpetuate harmful stereotypes about them?
As Lindsay Rogers and I were discussing this, she stated what I believe is absolutely true when it comes to determining what is or is not offensive to a marginalized people: if they say it is offensive, it is. It is not up to me as an upper middle class white woman to defend my use of a term, try to talk someone out of their position, or to question why they find a term offensive. My job is to listen for understanding. And then to educate myself further and other white people about why the use or abuse of a word or term is offensive.
May our learning about white privilege and identity expand and continue.
Peace, Shalom, Salaam,