Indigenous Peoples and Sports Mascots

by waaseyaa'sin christine sy

Indigenous Peoples and Sports Mascots

Earlier this week, I was contacted by Michael Purvis, writer at “The Sault Star” newspaper in Sault Ste. Marie, ON, my hometown. He wanted to know, given the recent public attention to use of sports mascots that portray Indigenous peoples or appropriate Indigenous culture/symbols, what I thought of the Bawating Braves mascot.

I met Michael in Sault Ste. Marie at a conference on Anishinaabeg peoples that he was covering for “The Sault Star” where I was presenting. He was kind enough to interview me on my research. An article was published about it and other presentations made at the conference the next day. The whole process of sharing knowledge, talking about it, producing it, disseminating it, being asked questions about it, interpreting it–everything–is HUGELY about power and privilege. The opportunity that Michael created by asking me questions and by publishing those ideas was based on his decisions and how he negotiated his power and his privilege as a reporter and writer. I live in those spaces too and I’m becoming more and more aware of the responsibilities that go with this. As the interviewee, and an emerging scholar, having a reporter be interested in your work is a big deal. Third, besides the fact that he was making space for an Indigenous woman’s research in the local (settler) news, the other thing that really impressed me about Michael’s work was his question: do you ever see Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous peoples working well together in a better world. (Ok, this is not the question verbatim but it is the essence of his question.) I really liked this question because it created space for alternative thinking, alternative possibilities. See, my presentation was very much about the social history that shaped the creation of my research project: this social history was informed by racism, sexism, white power and privilege, and a denial Indigenous womens’ history and sovereignty in the lands where Canadian workplaces exist. My presentation was not about “will Indigenous-non-Indigenous peoples ever be able to get along”. His question opened up this space of possibility.

It’s within this context that I’m going to talk about what I appreciate about the sports mascots article and what I would have done different had I wrote it.

What I Appreciate:

1) That space is even being given to this important subject. I think every local newspaper needs to do this because the use of Indigenous peoples or Indigenous cultures as sports mascots is a phenomenon that likely occurs in every city with a highschool or municipal sports teams;

2) That Michael interviewed me. Heck yes. Who doesn’t want to share their thoughts on something that is important to them;

3) That my words were not skewed or grossly placed out of context. This happens a lot with people who give interviews in order to portray the views that the reporter wants to portray. Not in this case;

4) I like that Michael had a few different voices sounding in on the matter;

5) I like that there is both men and women sounding in on the matter. I’m not sure if this was  purposeful on Michael’s part but it’s significant and important. On a daily basis we are inundated with men’s perspectives of the world and this can be shifted by ensuring women are sounding in on matters of public concern. Also, the fact that a woman is sounding in on matters that are dominated by men–sports–is key;

6) I like that Michael includes the emotive/affect of this issue as expressed through my quotes; the emotional impact of being poorly represented by a dominant group of people is distressing and has an emotional impact on people of all ages and genders. Also, because we live in a society that diminishes the importance of emotive learning and emotive relating, and puts things like reason, logic, rationality, and the imaginary concept of ‘neutrality’ on a pedestal, it is important that the emotive aspect of a thing is included. This is not only reflective of an Anishinaabe intellectual tradition (see Robert Warrior for more on Indigenous intellectual traditions) and way of being but is much needed in a society that, to its detriment, minimizes the value and significance of emotive ways of knowing the world.

What I Would Have Done Different:

1) I would have used the word Indigenous peoples in the title and not “Native” because Indigenous refers specifically to our place, history, relationship with place and land and importantly, it is the the language that is used internationally to identify ourselves as people of the land. (For more on this see the UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples.)

2) I would have used a different title because as is the title implies that a controversy is resurfacing and I have to ask, is it? Or, is this subject the interest of the reporter. There is nothing in the article that talks about a pre-existing controversy regarding the Bawating Braves and so it’s hard to know is something is resurfacing;

3) I would have balanced the quotes between woman and man. As is, Maurice Switzer, editor of Anishinaabek News, has more of the floor;

4) For those ideas that were similarly shared by interviewees, I would have said, “Both Sy and Switzer state that meaningful consultation with Indigenous peoples first on such matters is what needs to happen”;

5) I would have left my spelling of Indigenous as Indigenous and not changed it to indigenous.

Now, final point. Going back to one of this reporters’ strengths in posing questions that open up new possibilities. In the interview done for this, he asked, “Can sports teams names/imagery etc. ever be used in a respectful way?” This part of the dialogue was not included in the article. (I get space limitations etc..) I think this part of the dialogue is key so I’ve included the answers I gave below:

“Great question. I sure hope so. Here is when it can and is respectful: i) when Indigenous Nations/peoples use our own imagery or create our own imagery to reflect our own life/sports. etc.; ii) I have not heard of this happening but if an Indigenous Nation goes to a Canadian institution and ask them to consider using a symbol/imagery significant to that area and that sports team does as a way to honour that relationship, that knowledge, that request, I think THIS would be a very interesting possibility for respectful use of Indigenous symbols/imagery; iii) if someone who is non-Indigenous on a committee or something wanted to use an Indigenous symbol/imagery for their team and they wanted to use that to reflect the Indigenous peoples in that area, the history, the significance, the relationship AND they went and discussed this with the Indigenous peoples/Nations of that area and got permission, then I think this might also be another possibility for respectful use.

It feels good to respond to this article. I hope to see  “The Sault Star” and other news sources in SSM including thoughtful coverage of matters the are important to Indigenous peoples, particularly given such news sources exist in Indigenous homelands.