Exhibit reviews use of native names and imagesA child’s bowl decorated with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck as Indians. A cigarette lighter featuring the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo.
By: Chuck Haga, Forum Communications Co., The Jamestown Sun
A child’s bowl decorated with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck as Indians.
A cigarette lighter featuring the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo.
An ad for Chief Oshkosh Beer.
Chief Wahoo on a PEZ candy dispenser.
A set of “drunken Indian” salt and pepper shakers.
A photograph of a t-shirt from a long-ago University of North Dakota — North Dakota State University football weekend, with an Indian figure about to have carnal relations with a startled bison. The crude slogan on the shirt urges the Indian on.
The exhibit at UND’s Memorial Student Union, part of the annual Time Out dedicated to Indian culture, history and traditions, is Richie Plass’ way of speaking out on a long-running dispute over how Indians are portrayed.
“It’s the good, the bad and the ugly of how our names and images have been used and are being used,” he said Tuesday as he unpacked hundreds of photographs, posters, children’s toys, paintings and other artifacts.
The “good” include a photograph of four generations of an Oneida Indian family, “just being people,” and a famous poster showing Geronimo and three other defiant Apache Indians, armed with rifles. “Homeland Security,” the poster is titled. “Fighting terrorism since 1492.”
The “bad” include children’s plastic hatchets, multi-colored “feather” bonnets and cowboys-and-Indians lunch boxes — and high school banners urging the hometown Indians to “scalp” their opponents.
Plass has taken his collection “from Long Island to California,” asking people to study the images and think about what they say. He said he was eager to come to Grand Forks.
“This is the eye of the storm here,” he said, “with everything that’s gone back and forth with the Fighting Sioux.”
Of the much-loved, much-disputed logo, he said: “I think it’s very stereotypical.”
Plass was invited to UND by the Indian Student Association. While some Indian students support the name or say they don’t care, others have actively opposed it. Several have sued in federal court demanding that it be dropped.
The exhibit, in the union’s Badlands Room, will be on display through Friday.
Not one Indian
“Look at this,” Plass says, approaching a photograph of the 1999 Kansas City Chiefs pro football team.
The players wear Indian dress and carry shields, rifles and knives. The photo is titled “The Tribe,” and each player is identified by an Indian name. The late star linebacker Derrick Thomas is listed as Chief Iron Eyes.
“Not a one of them is Indian,” Plass said.
Another poster has been part of the national movement against Indian-based nicknames for many years. It shows team banners, all but one fake: New York Fighting Jews, Chicago Blacks, San Antonio Latinos, San Francisco Orientals, St. Paul Caucasians and Washington Redskins.
“It’s our ‘n-word,’” Plass said of the Redskins name.
Jayde Serich, 21, a UND junior from Grand Rapids, Minn., was one of the first visitors Tuesday.
She is Ojibwe on her mother’s side and feels torn by the debate over the Fighting Sioux. “I have mixed feelings because you have the school pride but you also have your own traditions,” she said.
“The logo is always being tossed back and forth. I can see where both sides are coming from, but I’m thinking it might be time to change.”
A boy in a gym
Plass, 60, operates an Internet web site, www.changingwinds.org , a clearing house for people, schools and organizations working against the use of Indian names and logos.
The Sioux-Bison cartoon is the only Fighting Sioux item he has, “but hopefully this week I’ll be able to take some more stuff home with me,” he said.
Some visitors tell him they disagree with his theme, or they say some uses of Indian imagery are sincere and honoring. He will engage critics and persuade some but not others, he said. “Sometimes they’ll say, ‘I think I understand better now where you are coming from.’”
Where he started from, he said, is a school gym in Shawano, Wis., where in 1968 the Shawano High Indians basketball team stormed onto the floor led by a boy in buckskin and feathers, dancing as a representative of the local Menominee tribe. There’s a picture of the mascot from an old newspaper clipping.
The mascot was Plass.
“The principal and the basketball coach asked me to dress up and lead the team out,” he said. “I said, ‘No, we don’t do that stuff for show.’ But they told me to talk to my parents about it.”
His parents suggested he talk with other members of the tribe, and they told him to consult an elder.
The man said, “They want a show? Give them a show. Just don’t wear anything sacred.”
‘Tons of shame’
The first time he dressed and danced as an Indian and led his team out, the response was good, Plass said. “There were a lot of people from the reservation there. I went over and shook my dad’s hand and gave my mother and grandma a kiss.”
But when he went with the team to a game in another town, “the whole gym laughed at me, and I freaked out,” he said. “People whooped and yelled things and threw paper cups and popcorn.
“I was in tears, and I said ‘No more.’ From then on, I wanted to tell people that we are more than beads and feathers. We’re doctors, teachers, entertainers, truck drivers. We are people, and there is no honor in being laughed at.”
His personal mascot experience was good, bad and ugly, he said. He learned from it and took direction from it.
“I’ve never felt any anger about that,” he said. “But over the years, I’ve felt tons and tons of shame.”
Chuck Haga is a reporter
at the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.