I come from the Chatsiks-si-Chatsiks and Chahta communities in Oklahoma. I was also safe for the Pomona-Pitzer California college football team. This juxtaposition is not uncommon. There is a long history of entanglement, violence and complicated feelings between Indigenous peoples and American football.
On Monday, I celebrated the NFL team in Washington, DC announced its plan to change its name and mascot to a racist caricature that has been deeply offensive to me and to Aboriginal communities across the country. On Thursday, 15 employees of the team exposed accusations of sexual harassment in a Washington Post report. The team, and the NFL as a whole, is corroded from the inside.
Although the removal of Washington’s name culminates in decades of activism by Indigenous peoples across the country, it is also unclear that this change – largely driven by the loss of financial sponsorships like FedEx – has taken so long to materialize. . It also reflects the most emphasized role that Indigenous peoples have played in America’s favorite sport – as mascots, rather than as real people.
Sally Jenkins’ book The real all americans argues that America’s fascination with its own brand of football started around the same time as the closure of the western border. The conquest issue was largely settled, so what would satisfy this desire for Manifest Destiny and the glory it brought to young people of the upper class, often in the oldest and most prestigious universities from America? Such a violent game, made up of schoolchildren, seemed a plan as good as any other. “It was as if America, not knowing what to do with itself once the desert was under control, had hit football as an answer,” said Jenkins.
At the same time, the losers in the Indian wars, my ancestors, found themselves familiar with a new form of American retribution – the education system. The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition estimates that between 1869 and the late 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Indian children were removed from their communities, far from their families, and placed in boarding schools operated by the federal government and the churches. Although these schools were responsible for the care of indigenous youth, the coalition notes that these institutions were sites of significant physical, sexual, cultural and spiritual abuse. The violence of the war against indigenous peoples has not disappeared. It had been institutionalized.
Yet, like generations of ancestors before them, these Indian children would resist – in class, in their communities, and for some of them, they would resist on the football field. These boarding teams, particularly the Carlisle Industrial Indian School of Pennsylvania is legendary. By the early 1900s, Carlisle teams – with players between the ages of 12 and 25, according to Jenkins – would continue to defeat almost all of the major American powers in the game, including Harvard, Penn and Minnesota. The 1912 team would defeat the army, replaying the conflicts of a generation before. Famous before the game, Carlisle’s coach Glenn “Pop” Warner inspired the team by telling them “to read their history books”.
I love this story. I like the idea of a group of boys taking a game that is not for them and taking their conscience out of nowhere. I like the idea that by doing so, they captured a little sense of agency time, because almost everything else was captured. I love the feeling of continuing this tradition – the grandson of a former halfback and a survivor of a residential school.
In my own playing career, my father often told me this story, reminding me that football, at the heart of its American core, was our Game. An Aboriginal game. I have no doubt that this was mainly intended to inspire me before playing. But I also think it was a small way of trying to preserve a story that was known to him. A series of memories that would help him walk more easily in a sport and a society, often indifferent or worse to our existence.
This makes my appreciation of the game complex. I like football. This gave me an agency outlet. It made me feel supported and secure in a world that easily dislocates Indigenous peoples. It connects me to my family and our ancestral home in a unique way. Football has made an indelible mark on my life.
But as my body tells me after years of playing, football, in its most basic form, is ordered to violence. “Among the games I know, football is the closest to war without falling across the border and becoming an outright war,” says Mark Edmundson, author of Why football is important. It is therefore logical that the survivors of boarding schools have so easily taken up the game. Finding a space in which this violence could become a triumph must have been a balm in hell.
But finding a respite in this way is not the same as healing this story. The results of Aboriginal youth tell us the same. A 2014 White House report on Indigenous youth notes that Indigenous children have suicide and PTSD rates three times the national average. The only comparable demographics in this regard are veterans of the Iraq war.
Carlisle’s story provides a more appropriate picture of the participation of Indigenous peoples in American football. Often painted as lifeless and dull caricatures, we have been objects of fervor, desire or guilt. But rarely are we allowed to be characters of our own humanity. If that were the case, perhaps the real indigenous people who helped shape the game would be better known than a racist mascot. Perhaps our very real conflicts would be more appreciated than they are.
I am thankful today that the name has changed. For a franchise in the most popular sport in the United States, it is important to recognize its wrongs and its correction. But this was not done by the elevation of moral or ethical conduct. It has not been recognized that the origins of the game itself are part of the racist involvement of football in Aboriginal history. At one point, the financial cost of maintaining the name outweighed its conservation. So it changed.
It should be noted that the team’s financial considerations only arose due to protests against police violence against black Americans. But if there is a football season this fall, there will always be racist mascots in the game. There will always be worrying rates of chronic injury to a largely black player base. There will be no guarantee that the fame given to these black players will protect them from brutality off the field. I believe that we, as a football collective and as a nation, are reforming. I wonder if we transform and heal.
Football has been a notable part of my life and the life of my family. But I can’t pretend that it doesn’t bring out some of our worst community instincts. So I have to ask, when the games are played and we turn off our televisions and collectively watch our thoughts on the screen, do we like what we see?
Rory Taylor is a Ckiri / Chahta journalist covering Indigenous politics, politics and culture. He currently lives in the territory of Ngāti Whātua Orākei in Tāmaki Makaurau, where he is pursuing a master’s degree in indigenous studies at Te Whare Wānanga o Tāmaki Makaurau.
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