Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Symbols, totems should get some respect

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The most recent "affront to native American culture" took place when a Victoria's Secret model wore a headdress down a runway at a fashion show. After receiving numerous complaints, Victoria's Secret apologized.

"We absolutely had no intention of offending anyone," they said.

Pretty much the same thing happened earlier this year when the band No Doubt used headdresses in a music video.

Meanwhile, fans of the Washington Redskins football team have been wearing headdresses for decades. Not only do they not apologize for this, I've heard they don't even say they're sorry when they spill beer or puke on those headdresses.

The headdress issue rears its, er, head every so often, more so around these parts because our neighbours at the University of North Dakota keep arguing about the use of native symbols associated with their sports teams, the UND Fighting Sioux. Proponents say they are honouring the history and lifestyle of the Sioux and opponents claim that the names and symbols are often ridiculed. They claim no group of people should be used as mascots.

So it depends on who you talk to, but one would think the people with the most to say about the topic would be native Americans. The problem with that is there is plenty of disagreement among First Nations people themselves.

Local comedian Don Burnstick never stopped calling his hockey team the Redskins, even after some native cultural and political leaders pointed out that the term redskin is considered racist by many native Americans. The argument the term originated from the practice of paying a bounty only for scalps that had a piece of red skin attached to them (for authenticity) did not dissuade Don.

We see plenty of first nations folks walking around Winnipeg wearing Washington Redskins jackets. But slowly, the general practice of appropriating native culture is being discontinued, as we have seen many college teams in both Canada and the United States stop using native nicknames (e.g. the St. John's Red Men became the Red Storm). Some were forced to quit because of public pressure and some faced the threat of sanctions.

Will this issue ever go completely away?

In the case of the Washington Redskins, it is doubtful. There is just too much money at stake in the market for uniforms, jackets, T-shirts, toques, hats and yes, headdresses. With folks like Burnstick and grassroots First Nations people lined up on one side and certain academics and cultural leaders on the other, protest is divided.

I've consulted with respected, even revered red folk such as musical icon Buffy Sainte Marie and comedian Charlie Hill and they are very strongly opposed to the use of First Nations symbols not only by sports teams, but in things like advertising as well (e.g. Land O'Lakes dairy products, Wawanesa Insurance, Winnebago motorhomes, Jeep Cherokee SUVs, Pontiac cars -- oops!). Somewhat ironically, their opponents, many of them with likewise red skin, call Buffy and Charlie too "thin-skinned."

Those who are quick to criticize Sainte Marie and Hill may not know that red skin is used by the elders to describe one of the four races of humankind as depicted in the red, yellow, white and black circle of the medicine wheel. Redskin is a derogatory name that developed from a genocidal practice and has been used in a racist manner throughout North American history (or at least that part of history which followed 1492). Research and awareness is a major difference between the two.

There is no doubt that headdresses are a symbol of respect and that we shouldn't belittle or ridicule totems of native spirituality and leadership. But honouring the culture and history of First Nations people just might be a good thing if it is done with respect and in consultation with the native group which is affected.

In his stand-up act, Hill has pointed out that you would never see nicknames like the "Winnipeg White Boys" or the "Jersey Jews" or the "New York (N-words)".

But that's kind of a knee-jerk reaction. Perhaps that's the problem.

I once debated American President Jimmy Carter about the use of the term "brave" by Atlanta's major league baseball team and this former leader of the free world defended the practice with a most superficial argument. President Carter claimed they were honouring natives by calling them "brave," but native leaders claim the term was coined to make First Nations warriors appear disorganized and simple compared to sophisticated U.S. cavalries with privates, corporals, captains and generals.

The question here is too complicated to be answered with the first thing that pops into your mind even if it seems to make common sense.


Don Marks played for a First Nations hockey team called Anishnabi Neebin 30 years ago. The name was too complicated for league organizers and the media so it was changed to Scouts. Marks regrets the error.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 16, 2012 A14

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