Issues

There are a number of issues regarding the place of Native Americans in American society today. This page looks at a number of significant issues including; stereotyping and representation in sport, removal, westward expansion, repatriation, gaming and the ethnic cleansing debate.

Stereotypes and misrepresentation in American sports

Sports appropriations project a false image of contemporary Native America, depicting society as ‘vanished’ in need of ‘honouring’ and the people as ‘wild warriors’ and ‘noble savages’. Appropriation is in the form of names, mascots and logo imagery and is an ongoing and sensitive issue to this present day. Native Americans feel imagery misrepresents their culture, ultimately affecting their place in contemporary American society. Charlene Teters of the Spokane tribe believes that native children’s self esteem is affected when they are exposed to derogatory imagery. A high proportion of non-native people disagree, many believe imagery honours Native American culture rather than discriminates against it.

Since the Red Power movement heightened racial awareness within American society during the 1960s, Native groups have fought for the eradication of racist names, mascots and imagery by protesting and challenging the United States law. This has resulted in a number of successes seen most significantly in schools and universities. Miami University in Ohio were previously known as Redskins believing the name evoked a sense of ferocity over the likes of wildcats and bearcats. The name changed to RedHawks in 1997 and this was significant because universities, acting as a model of society, showed respect towards the Native American community. Changes have also been significantly backed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association in their goal to achieve “diversity and inclusion” within sport. This has forced the removal of offensive mascots including the University of Illinois’s Chief Illiniwek and North Dakota’s Fighting Sioux. Despite defence that imagery and mascots are authentic to tribes, most are stereotypical and fancy dress appropriations which merge styles from various tribes to create a Native American.

Harder to defeat are powerful professional sports co-corporations who are able to silence native protests and defend controversial logos which still exist today. The continuation of imagery in professional sports questions the way in which Native Americans are viewed in American society. This is evident through the continuation of imagery used by the Washington Redskins and Chicago Blackhawks. One of the most extremely offensive and caricatured images is used by the Cleveland Indians, their logo and mascot features stereotypical and racist features including an exaggerated grin, large nose and bright red skin. Russell Means of the Oglala Sioux and prominent member of the American Indian Movement is angered by the racist imagery projected by the Cleveland Indians, he stated: “That Indian looks like a damned fool, like a clown and we resent being portrayed as either savages or clowns”. The Atlanta Braves also have a Tomahawk logo and fans perform the Tomahawk Chop as well as wear Indian dress to encourage the team. This misrepresentation once again wrongly suggests that Native American people are warlike and aggressive.

Ultimately, no other ethnic or minority group in contemporary America is reduced to clichés and stereotypes or referred to using racially offensive words and imagery in the way that Native Americans are today. Yet, sadly, identification with a team seems to outweigh the importance of equality of Native American identity in the minds of those who are unwilling to remove the racist iconography.

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Removal – The Indian Removal Act 1830

President Andrew Jackson came up with the idea of forced removal during his presidency in the 1830s to clear the land of  Native Americans in the South East so that it could be used for settlement. It was promoted as a humane attempt to preserve the Five Civilized Tribes of the South East, including the Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole. Today it has been revised as a form of ethnic cleansing, and accounts for one of the saddest moments in American History.

In many ways the Removal Act was a response to white encroachment on Indian Land. What has been coined ‘The Indian Problem’ in American History was the method of dealing with Native American Tribes as the United States pursued its westward expansion. In Georgia, where gold had been found on Cherokee land, white encroachment had caused harassment of Cherokee peoples. The Removal Act therefore was propagated as a way of allowing the encroaching Americans to gain access to the land and to preserve the Cherokee Nation. In reality, the Act was a seen as a way of getting rid of what was arguably seen as the Indian nuisance to Manifest Destiny; that Americans were God’s chosen people, destined to conquer the land from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts.

Some of the Tribes argued against Removal on the basis that they had already guaranteed their lands through Treaty with past American Presidents. In fact, The Cherokee Nation defeated the terms of the Removal Act through the United States’ own Supreme Court. In the Cherokee Nation v Georgia and Worchester v Georgia, Chief Justice John Marshall declared the Cherokee Nation a “domestic dependent nation” whose territory was separate from State control. It deemed that white people had no right to trespass on any Native American land. Jackson made history by stating that if Marshall had made his order, he should “enforce it”.

The key event in the Removal Act was the Cherokee Trail of Tears. The Trail of Tears was the execution of the most brutal order in the history of American Warfare, as fifteen-thousand members of the Cherokee Nation, including Women, Children, and the Elderly, were rounded up, dragged, separated from families, and forced at gun point into stockades. These stockades homed the Cherokee before their epic journey to Indian Territory, land West of the Mississippi where they were promised not to be disturbed by white encroachment. Their time spent in the stockades was horrifying, as they were given little to no provisions or food, and had only enough space to sit and await their destiny. Not surprisingly there was a large amount of deaths even before the forced relocation due to “shock, poor food and disease” which occurred from the poor sanitation and water supplies. These actions were permitted by the federal Government as the Cherokees that remained on their traditional land had defied a dead-line agreed in the Treaty of New Echota for the Cherokee people to voluntarily move themselves to Indian Territory. However, many of those who defied the Treaty did so because they viewed it as illegitimate, as it had not been signed by Chief John Ross.

Each tribe had their own trails which were disastrous, but for the Cherokee, the Trail of Tears was one of the bleakest moments in their existence. Shackled in iron chains like prisoners, the Trail of Tears was a  around 2,200 mile journey across 9 states in the middle of the winter of 1838. Between 4000 – 8000 Cherokee people died en-route because President Jackson had decided that the Tribes should fund their relocation, and then be reimbursed by the Federal Government. Since the Tribe were forced out of their homes, they carried with them only what was on their backs. When they arrived in their new land, many died of heart break, disease, and were greeted by traditional enemies whom they now had to try to live with.

In light of the application of Removal it was not a humanitarian effort since it forced people against their will and breached treaty agreements. The resulting casualties, not only in the Cherokee but by the other four Tribes affected make the 1830s a bleak period in American History.