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Indians mascot dialogue is overdue

by: Courtesy photo The Scappoose Indians mascot is one of 15 in the state that could be banned if the Oregon Board of Education agrees with some who believe such icons are derogatory and disrespectful to Native Americans. The board met March 8 to discuss a proposed ban.

For a meaningful discussion about Scappoose High School's use of 'Indians' as the school mascot, it's important to face some difficult truths.

First, those who say use of the term Indians and the representative cartoon character chief is intended as an honorific for the Native Americans who historically inhabited Oregon and - for that matter - all parts of North America prior to the arrival of white European settlers, are justifying a questionable use. There are myriad ways to honor cultures and peoples.

One such possibility would be an educational school fair that showcases real aspects of tribal culture.

There are nine federally recognized tribes in Oregon, each with its own cultural background.

It rings false when those whose primary connection with Native American culture is the opportunity to root for local sports teams talk at length about honor when, in fact, those who speak on behalf of the group being 'honored,' for the most part, ask to be spared that distinction.

It is not an honorific, especially considering use of Indians as a mascot goes back to time when the goofy looking, big-nosed Native American caricature inhabited space where now resides a regal-looking 'chieftain.'

Use of Indians in Scappoose High School, however, is reflective of a community spirit - if not a cultural one - that is difficult to separate from the idealized version many have of Native Americans today. Its use as school mascot is not something to surrender lightly, having been cultivated and embraced as a source of community pride over several generations. It has taken on dual meaning, and therein lays the rub.

As psychologist and Lewis and Clark College assistant professor Andraé Brown points out, it's immoral to force a questionable version of 'honor' on a minority group that has been systemically repressed.

'We do not want to let go of something that was never ours to begin with,' Brown said in testimony to the Oregon Board of Education March 8.

Those communities and high schools, such as Scappoose, have taken ownership of a cultural heritage of which they never had a legitimate claim.

And considering many such institutions were founded by white majority civic leaders, the power differential of majority communities who use minority group iconography - especially from those groups, such as Native Americans, where historical evidence of subjugation exists - is lopsided and, frankly, unfair.

Those who dismiss such concerns as being the product of a politically correct society are wrong.

Our preference, however, would not be for the Oregon Department of Education to move forward with a heavy hand in this matter. Instead, we believe real soulsearching dialogue within the schools, among the school students, school board members and community at large, needs to take place. We are encouraged organizers of the annual Pow Wow festival have indicated a move toward legitimate Native American cultural features at the upcoming event.

If schools, such as Scappoose, intend to use the Indians mascot, then it is the responsibility of the school district to devote educational resources toward ferreting out facts from fiction regarding our local Native American roots.

If local solutions are not discovered, it is very likely the Department of Education will impose its own will on the district, possibly forcing the change away from Native American-based mascots for all publicly funded schools.

Then, unfortunately, the community will experience the unfriendly hand of having some other entity's will imposed upon it, despite its wishes to the contrary.