Story assignment leads to reflections on discreet discrimination in society

Prejudice can be stealthy

Posted: Sunday, March 23, 2003

I recently was assigned to cover a story on the Native Youth Olympics, a story that deals with a unique facet of Alaska Native heritage that has transcended time.

I am not originally from Alaska, so I was excited by the opportunity to cover such an interesting story, one that would allow me the potential to meet some of the indigenous people of this great state.

Alaska is an area rich in Native life, with many different cultural groups, and, since I am new to the area, understanding and accurately reporting the tribal identities of the people in the story was becoming challenging. I asked a neighbor, who was born and raised in Alaska, for some help, thinking the person could assist me with sorting out some facts. I was shocked with what the person told me.

"I would really try to play down the Native American thing if I were you."

Huh! Wouldn't that be like playing down the independence thing on the Fourth of July?

What's even odder is the person claims to be opposed to racism. In fact, I've heard this person speak out on issues involving prejudice against African Americans on several occasions.

It hit me that this person was prejudiced and didn't even know it.

The statement was derogatory to Natives, but in a subtle way. Racism isn't always obvious hatred and overt actions of violence. It can lurk silently in thoughts and opinions, only showing its ugly presence through an occasional and discreet form.

There are many ways Natives are still discriminated against -- one example is the trivial use of Natives and their culture by sports teams.

Teams like the Washington Redskins, Atlanta Braves and the Cleveland Indians, just to name a few, are disrespecting the Native community with their racial, cultural and spiritual stereotypes. Americans barely register these offenses due to the learned social acceptance of prejudice against Natives that is so discreetly prevalent in society through these sporting events.

Would we stand idly by if there were a team called the Cotton Pickers that used a Confederate flag for the team logo and featured a mascot called "Blackie" or "Uncle Tom" running around at half time?

Yet, we barely blink an eye at offensive and degrading mascots like Chief Wahoo and Chief Nokahoma (knock-a-homer) used by existing teams. Some will argue these mascots honor the Native people, but there is nothing about a buck-toothed, big-nosed, red-skinned mascot pretending to scalp members of the opposing team that is respectful to Natives. The cavalier use of deeply religious paraphernalia like drums, dancing and feathered costumes in halftime shows is disrespectful to the spiritual beliefs of Natives.

The "n" word once used in regard to African Americans is now recognized as a viciously hostile epithet. "Redskin" is a word believed to come from early colonial times when fur traders offered bounties for the scalps of slaughtered Indians. Yet, it can be spoken without shame or fear of persecution, despite its legacy of racial hatred that underlies the history of its use.

Natives are people, not mascots for America's fun and games. Furthermore, it should not be up to whites, but wholly up to Natives to decide what's offensive to them. However, I guess as far as sports are concerned, the first Americans will be the last to get respect.

Now, I'm not writing this because I'm Native, but I'm not writing this because I'm not Native either. Let me explain.

Too often have I witnessed that white Americans will feel extremely guilty about what history teaches us "our" white ancestors did to other ethnic groups. Whether it is trying to overcome prejudices learned during the indoctrinations of childhood or out of sincere regret for historical injustices, whites often let this guilt shape their behavior in an unusual way. They replace one prejudice with another, the latter being the insidiousness of over-compensation. Their guilt will produce an over-friendliness or an over-helpfulness that creates a relationship as false as the one it replaces.

I'm simply writing it to point out the ignorance that continues to prevail in American society even among individuals who consider themselves enlightened in their beliefs of equality for all. Equality means all races are the same, not just whites and blacks.

Natives are not some members of a "disappearing or bygone race" that can only be studied in museums and textbooks. Native communities exist in the present all across North America, and Native people can be found in nearly every profession and trade. They are our co-workers, neighbors and friends.

No Native community has remained unchanged by the historical contact with whites, but Natives have survived nonetheless. They've survived war, disease and separation from land and family during the forced acculturation by missionaries and the federal government as recently as the last century.

Despite repeated attempts of destruction and assimilation, their values and beliefs of family, community and living in harmony with nature continue, even if in an altered form. Natives have survived and will continue to survive, thus adding a vital element to the rich mosaic that is life in America.

Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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