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Let's Bust Those Chops

Native Americans have every reason to object to the way they're caricatured by teams

Would you be offended if your dog fetched a morning paper that had this item inside?

NEW YORK—The New York Negroes defeated the Houston Astros 2-1 Friday in front of a stadium full of wild fans waving fried chicken legs and singing gospel songs.

Or this item?

CHICAGO—The Chicago Jews defeated the Houston Astros 2-1 Friday in front of a stadium full of wild fans waving yarmulkes and singing Hava Nagila.

You would be? Then why shouldn't the two million Native Americans in this country be offended when they read something like this?

ATLANTA—The Atlanta Braves defeated the Houston Astros 2-1 Friday in front of a stadium full of wild fans waving foam-rubber tomahawks and chanting war cries.

I know, I know. You've hit your sensitivity ceiling. Your guilt meter is on empty. Your ears will burst if you get scolded one more time about women, blacks, spotted owls, rain forests, landfills, disposable diapers, red meat, whales or your continued failure to try radicchio. Now somebody wants you to start worrying about Indian harassment? Take a number.

Not to worry. This one is really nobody's fault. It's simply a lousy little wrong that's been handed down from one year to the next, like your aunt's ugly silver-plated jelly dish that nobody ever hated quite enough to toss. Early white settlers regarded Indians as savages and animals, not a race of people. Subsequent generations of children have been permitted to reduce Indians to playground characters, the other half of cowboys-and-. But not us. If the popularity of Dances with Wolves suggests anything, it is that the rest of the population may be thinking of Native Americans as victims, not enemies.

So why shouldn't sports fall into line? Why are we still stuck with antiques of that old racism—the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians? Why are we still stuck with the Florida State Seminole riding onto the football field in a headdress and planting a flaming spear into the ground? Why is a poster depicting the Kansas City Chiefs defensive line in war paint and Indian getups selling like hotcakes in that city?

Oh, my, even people who should know better don't get it. Twenty-one years ago, Jane Fonda was on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay with Native Americans who had occupied the island, demanding that it be turned into an Indian cultural-educational center. That same year, Fonda joined 100 Native Americans who had taken over Fort Lawton in Seattle for the same reason. But during the National League Championship Series, there she was—sandwiched between Ted Turner and Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter—chop-chop-chopping away, bellowing pseudo-Indian war cries, having a wonderful time cheering on Ted's Braves. Is this her idea of a cultural-educational center? Well, on second thought, apparently not. After Fonda was reminded by Indians that her actions were demeaning, she promised to cease and desist during the World Series.

No doubt Fonda, Turner and the Carters didn't mean any harm by their actions. Nobody does. But that doesn't mean harm isn't being done.

"It hurts," says Roger Head, a Chippewa who heads the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council. "It's not a true depiction of the Indian people. When we see these folks dressed as Indians and wearing war paint, the stereotypes of Indians come out. They wear headdresses, which are very spiritual in nature, very ceremonial. It would be like if we went to a game with a lot of Catholics and started giving communion in the stands or hearing confession. It wouldn't show respect."

Your sympathy is still at the cleaners? Put yourself in the shoes of a 10-year-old Indian kid. The Indians he knows do not walk around with painted faces. The Indians he knows do not shoot flaming arrows and dance around drums. The Indians he knows are not savages preparing for battle.

"We thought those racial barriers were broken down," says Head. "And here it pops up again. It makes us angry."

If we can have the Washington Redskins, why can't we have the Los Angeles Yellowskins? And if we can have the Cleveland Indians—whose grinning-injun logo is to American Indians what Stepin Fetchit is to African-Americans—why can't we have the San Diego Chicanos?

Dartmouth and Stanford have dropped their racially insulting Indian nicknames, but no professional sports team has felt enough heat—or, perhaps, has enough conscience or respect—to take a similar step. That could change. As the World Series opened last weekend, American Indians from Minnesota, which has a large Native American population, staged protests outside the Metrodome, prompting Braves president Stan Kasten to say that he would look into the Indians' grievances at the conclusion of the Fall Classic.

Hey, Stan, if it's a question of respect, listen to this story: An anthropologist was studying Indians in the mid-1800s when he came across an old, old tribal chief. He asked the chief what America was called before the white man came.

The old Indian looked at him and said, "Ours."