MICHELLE VANHALA: Team use of Native American images, names requires complex discussion

TO THE EDITOR:

Upon the announcement of the complaint against schools that use Native American images and nicknames, the Pioneer’s Facebook page erupted in outcries; a slurry of comments spouting school pride were posted.

Mine was the first comment in support of the complaint. Almost immediately, I was called a “douche-bag,” told to “screw off,” and was advised to leave the country.

Rather than immediately ostracizing those with differing viewpoints, I propose we take this opportunity to engage in thoughtful discourse with each other and, most importantly, with the Native American tribes whose names we have commandeered for our schools. Ultimately, they should decide whether schools are allowed to use the associations that belong to them.

The arguments that have been brought up in support of using the tribal names only highlight the ignorance and white-bias that underlie the whole issue.

“Why doesn’t PETA sue for animal mascots?” asked one commentator.

“Why don’t the Vikings have to change their name?”

The answer is obvious: Native Americans whose names are being used are neither voiceless animals, as the first question implies, nor are they a distant, ancient culture.

They are living, breathing human beings with whom we coexist today – and it is imperative that we respect the intricate, distinctive cultures that these names represent.

Multiple commentators wondered why this is just now becoming an issue, pointing out that these schools have always had these names. In reality, this is a question that has been debated in the past in school districts. Moreover, such arguments could have also been used in support of slavery, of segregation: Just because something has existed for so long does not mean that it is right and should be continued without question.

The most legitimate defense is that the references are used to honor Native American tribes; however, I question the validity of this argument. Many of the names and depictions used are not accurate representations of the cultures that they are said to be “honoring.”

How can a culture be “honored” if caricatured and inaccurate images are used to portray them? Although it may be possible to utilize Native American names in schools as a symbol of respect, doing so requires extensive research and collaboration with the tribes being represented and is a sensitive task, as my experiences as a Central Michigan University Chippewa have demonstrated.

Finally, protesters are arguing that this complaint is distracting from more important problems at hand. Although Michigan certainly may have other problems, that is not an excuse for ignoring a potential infringement of basic human rights. Rather than discounting differing opinions, schools should take advantage of this opportunity to encourage students and communities to engage in critical thinking in order to analyze the issue from multiple perspectives.

It’s time for us as a community to carefully reconsider the names and images that have been used so thoughtlessly for so long and, most importantly, to make sure that we allow for and respect the Native American voices in this critical issue.

MICHELLE VANHALA

Big Rapids

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