Tommy Orange opens his award winning book “There, There” (Knopf, 2018) with a discussion of the Indian head which used to appear on TV channels as a test pattern, circa 1939 to 1970. I’m old enough to remember this profile of an Indian Chief with circles around it, random bull’s-eyes and buzzing in the background. The head meant no TV to me, hard to imagine today with our 24 hour news cycle. But Orange uses the head as an indication of white culture devaluing Indigenous People.
The question of misuse of Native American symbolism bubbled up in Idaho where the four Tribal nations who live in the state have asked that school mascots reflecting Native Americans be shelved. This request has been met with mixed results. In Boise’s liberal North End with the highest academically ranked high school in the state, the Boise Braves have been transformed to the Boise Brave. The ubiquitous Native American mascot has been removed and a contest is underway to identify a new symbol reflecting the “Brave” value. This change in mascot was not done without some public disapproval, but not as much as one might think because of the long liberal roots of the North End. Boise High is now “Home of the Brave”, a personal value shared by students. I read in the paper that some testimony at public hearing said, “a value can’t be a mascot.” Having sat in a full gym and heard the entire student body shout in unison, “BRAVE” with fists raised high, I think an athletic opponent will be able to understand strength in community as a symbol of school spirit.
I was reading the Tommy Orange’s book when the Boise State Broncos played the Florida State Seminoles this fall. I was surprised watching the game on national TV how offended I was when the Seminole mascot, clearly not a Native American, rode out in full regalia on an Appaloosa horse. A Native American profile is the FSU symbol. Having just read how poorly Whites have treated Indigenous People, watching whites role playing native people on national TV during a ballgame seemed a travesty. It gave me some sense of how offensive all these Native American mascots must be to Indigenous People.
Having a Seminole as the Florida State Mascot is extremely ironic. President Andrew Jackson launched two wars against the Seminoles between 1842 and 1855. By the time he was done, 4000 Seminoles were forcibly transported to Oklahoma and the 350 remaining tribal members fled to the Florida swamps, not exactly a proud moment for white America. Yet Florida State still clings to this inappropriate mascot. This is not to say that Idaho has a better record with Native Americans. After all we are part of the Trail of Tears. This is name given to the retreat of the powerful Nez Perce in 1877 led by Chief Joseph in his unsuccessful effort to lead his people to Canada. He and his people were captured in Montana.
White mistreatment of Indigenous People continues to this day not only on reservations but as Tommy Orange immortalizes in beautiful vignettes in our cities as well. Mr. Orange’s fictional piece on the Big Oakland Powwow captures the strange limbo land in which Native Americans living off the reservation find themselves. They are neither wholly Indian or fully integrated into urban settings. Whites have much more to regret than native mascots in our treatment of Indigenous People. If you have any interest in emotionally understanding our despicable legacy, reading Tommy Orange’s “There, There” is a good place to start.