Wednesday, May 17, 2023


Playing through Thursday, May 18 at Harkins Shea in Scottsdale:

Imagining the Indian: The Fight Against Native American Mascoting--Only once, in the nearly four years I lived in Washington, D.C., did I go to an NFL game. I was mostly indifferent to sports in general and to football in particular, but my girlfriend at the time was a rabid lifelong fan of the team there. It was the hardest ticket in town to get, so she was thrilled when she landed a pair somehow, during the 1991 season when they went on to win the Super Bowl.

What I remember is that when we walked in to the game on that very cold and cloudy November afternoon, a good-sized group of Native American protestors were drumming and chanting outside RFK Stadium. They were there, of course, in opposition to the team name and mascot.

I wish I could say that I had an epiphany that day, that it occurred to me that, whatever one might think about the use of native imagery by sports teams in general, this particular term was a shocking, bald-faced racial epithet on the level of, for the most obvious example, the N-word, and that its use was outrageous. I wish I could say that this led me to further consider whether the use of any such imagery and terminology, even when less obviously insulting, was appropriate for a sports team.

But I didn't. I accepted a flyer from one of the protestors, read it, and dismissed it (to myself) as an oversensitive reaction to an unimportant issue. I've since heard other people make the same argument: With all the problems facing Native American communities, sports mascots seemed like a trivial focus. This now strikes me as an evasion even if it was true, but this blunt, fed-up documentary makes the case that the matter may not be so trivial after all.

Directed by Aviva Kempner and Ben West, the film summarizes the history of the depiction of indigenous Americans in media. It's a potently painful and embarrassing spectacle of film and television clips and cartoons, including the nadir of the great Bugs Bunny, from 1960's "Horse Hare," when Bugs chillingly sings "One little, two little, three little..." as he shoots at Indians from a fort.

After providing this ugly material for context, Imagining the Indian settles into a discussion of the thousands of American sports teams, from pro to high school, that use stereotypical native names and logos and mascots. We see footage of aggrieved fans wailing at protestors that the intent is to honor, not to insult. We even see footage of the 45th President and his wife doing the tomahawk chop. And we're given a glimpse of the struggle, by native advocates, to persuade these organizations that they ought to change this imagery. There's particular focus on the tireless activism of Suzan Shown Harjo on this issue.

This activism has born fruit: After years of resistance, the Washington team retired its name in 2020, and redubbed itself the Washington Commanders in 2022. Cleveland's MLB team rebranded itself the Cleveland Guardians in 2022. Even some franchises that have not yet relented, like Kansas City's football team, have prohibited the wearing of face paint and feathered headdresses by fans at the games.

As with many documentaries of this sort, Imagining the Indian was preaching to the choir with me. Years ago, albeit too many years after my NFL game in D.C., I finally got it through my skull that it wasn't up to me to decide what other people find hurtful, and that a nostalgic attachment to a logo or a mascot, however genuinely non-racist and affectionate that attachment may be, wasn't worth callously ignoring other people's carefully and consistently and politely expressed offense.

But then, the day after I saw Imagining the Indian, I found myself watching on TV, for roughly the zillionth time, my favorite baseball movie, 1988's Major League, about Cleveland's team, and filled with references to "the Tribe" and the "Happy Hunting Ground" and balls flying "off the reservation" and many appearances by the grinning Sambo mug of Chief Wahoo. I realize that it's my own racial privilege that allows me to watch this stuff without pain, and I fully support the team's name change and the retirement of the Chief. But I'm afraid I can't give up Major League.

At least, right now I don't think I can. Check back with me in thirty years or so.

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