Saturday, 14 June 2014

The Washington 'Redskins'

When I was in South Carolina last year, I watched a debate on CNN about Native Americans protesting against the Washington 'Redskins' football team. There was a panel of four men (three white guys and an African American) discussing whether it was right for the football team to change their name, the term ‘Redskin’ being offensive to the Native American community. All were from a sporting background but to me, there was an obvious error: shouldn't a debate involving Native Americans invite a representative from that community? I recognise that the term 'Native American' or 'American Indian' is very broad and can encompass many different tribes, but the absence of someone who could be (and frankly, is) involved in the debate was glaring.

According to the team's management, the name is a badge of honour. It respects and admires the Native American community and is no way offensive. Some commentators have argued that all of this debate is just 'political correctness gone crazy.' The problem with this defence is that the people the team are meant to be honouring ARE offended by it. But of course, they're choosing to ignore that awkward situation. 

In February, the National Museum of the American Indian held a daylong symposium on the use of Indian mascots by sports teams. Museum Director Kevin Gover, of the Pawnee Nation, said the word "redskin" was "the equivalent of the n-word” and the Oneida Indian nation in New York has launched a campaign against the name. Even if some people aren’t bothered about the debate, the majority of Native Americans believe that the term itself is offensive:

The Washington Post conducted a poll to ask fans what they thought of the name. 8 out of 10 did not want the name to be changed, despite the fact that most believed the term is disrespectful towards Native Americans. Confused? Yes. Especially since most of the fans would continue to support the team if the name was changed: 

The basic fact is, the term 'redskins' is racist. It was used in a racial context to discriminate against American Indians, and there is no way around the fact it is an offensive term. It would be like calling a team the Washington Niggers. Racism is horrible and a stain on global humanity in general, but why is discrimination against Native Americans treated in a different way to African American racism? The scandal over Donald Sterling caused international outrage - which was a good and necessary thing - but why can a football team parade around an offensive term? The team is using a racial slur to sell merchandise - from T-Shirts to mugs - and it is completely unacceptable to discriminate against and marginalise an ethnic group. It reveals a lot about the nature of American society and how discrimination and the past has been swept under the carpet.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

The Navajo Code-talkers of WW2

This is a fascinating article on the death of the last original Navajo Code Talker of WW2. Chester Nez died (or to use the Navajo phrase 'walked on') this week at the age of 93. During the War, 29 Navajo men developed a code in their own language that Japanese forces could not break, which helped the US Army win the War in the Pacific. The mission was so secret the Code Talkers could not talk about their role until 23 years after 1945.

It's fascinating to consider this aspect of American history, considering that Chester was banned from speaking his native language at his boarding school. He released a memoir a couple of years ago - the only Code Talker to do so - and it's now sitting in my Amazon basket….


Lewis and Clark!

The story of Lewis and Clark is one of the most fascinating sagas in American history. It's my dream to one day travel along the Lewis and Clark trail from start to finish - Missouri all the way west to the Oregon Coast and back again. I've travelled sections of it but to do the whole thing? Magic.

A new blog post by the Smithsonian of DC has highlighted that Lewis and Clark have only become famous in the last 150 years. Indeed, for decades after their original journey (1804-6) their names were nearly forgotten. The third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, had always been curious about the 'West', a vast and relatively unmapped land. He wanted to learn more about his country, from the topography and the wildlife to Native American tribes. Once the Louisiana Purchase had been completed in 1803, Jefferson sent Meriweather Lewis and William Clark on an incredible mission to the west coast in an attempt to find a Northwest Passage. Although they failed in this mission, Jefferson - ever the pragmatist - worked hard to ensure it was not seen as such by the East.

Later expeditions failed to mention Lewis and Clark and it wasn't until the early twentieth century that their mission was 'rediscovered' by explorers and historians. The centennial celebration of their exploration was celebrated (particularly in Oregon) but it wasn't until the 1950s that they were remembered as heroes. More effort has also been made to focus on the interaction with Native American tribes and the instrumental contribution of Sacagawea, the interpreter and guide for the expedition.

Read more: