Go Indians! (Vernon Bellecourt R.I.P)

A friend from Taos Pueblo invited me out for a drink the other night.  Turns out she had something on her mind.  “I hardly ever ask you to do anything.  You have to write a blog about the Cleveland Indians mascot because of the World series.” It’s a big issue in Indian Country.  And so, I am carrying out my friend’s wishes.

And, as it happens, Vernon Bellecourt, a leader of the American Indian Movement, was buried last week, so this story serves as a memorial to him, too.  The depiction of native peoples by teams like the Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Braves, Washington Redskins, and countless college and high school teams around the country is unconscionable.

(I put this in for the music only – and a reminder that no matter who thinks sports mascot protests are too serious and “PC”, there’s always lots of laughter in Indian country):

Cross-posted at Daily Kos

Minneapolis Star Tribune, 1/23/92:

In the 19 years since the American Indian Movement occupied Wounded Knee, S.D., battled with armed federal agents, and created indelible images of gun-toting militants, AIM has acquired a sense of humor. Dark humor, but in the high-profile campaign against the use of Indian names for sports teams, it’s proving more effective than rocks sent through courthouse windows.

Clyde and his brother Vernon were important leaders in the high visibility days of the American Indian Movement back in the 1970s.  (Star Tribune 1/23/92)

If [Clyde] Bellecourt is addicted to anything these days, it may be to leadership, which he says is part of his destiny. He is a member of the Crane clan of the Minnesota Chippewa tribe, the clan of tribal leaders. And though there is disagreement about the effectiveness of his leadership, there is no challenge to his authority. During the time he was in prison, no other leader came forward to represent the national community.

Vernon Bellecourt was arrested at a Superbowl protest in Minneapolis when the Washington Redskins were playing.  From the *Star Tribune* 1/27/92:
Bellecourt told protesters that the use of headdresses and war paint meant racist caricatures of Indians. “They call us radicals and militants,” he said, his voice hoarse from speaking. “Only a few years ago, they were calling us savages and heathens.”

Clyde Bellecourt buried his brother Vernon this past week.  His passing was noted in many of the nation’s leading newspapers.  From Suzan Harjo in Indian Country Today (well worth reading the whole thing):

”Of all 12 of us siblings, only me and my sister are left,” said Bellecourt’s brother, Clyde Bellecourt, also a longtime activist in Minneapolis. ”It’s hard to think about what we’ll do without him.” Bellecourt will be laid to rest on family land on the White Earth Chippewa Reservation in northwestern Minnesota.

  Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota, praised Bellecourt’s leadership of the AIM Grand Governing Council in Minneapolis. Westerman recalled a 1968 meeting in Denver ”where Vernon, Clyde, DJ [Dennis J. Banks, Leech Lake Chippewa] and I started the American Indian Movement; then they went to Minneapolis and made it official.”

I remember marveling at Bellecourt’s verbal skills. He was like an old jazz musician who never had a lesson or needed a rehearsal – he could just play.

  As his diabetes progressed, he called periodically to ask about my health and to say that we ought to make some public service announcements for Indian young people about what happens if you smoke and don’t eat right. He was the first to congratulate me for writing a column saying that frybread wasn’t healthy or traditional.

New York Times:

[I]t was as president of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media that Mr. Bellecourt achieved his greatest visibility. When teams with names like the Indians, the Redskins or the Chiefs appeared in high-profile contests, he was often there to protest. He was arrested twice for burning an effigy of the Cleveland Indians’ mascot, Chief Wahoo, and protested the Washington Redskins at the Super Bowl.

With many other forces in play, how much Mr. Bellecourt’s campaign has influenced colleges and universities to abandon Indian mascots is hard to gauge. But in recent years, more than a half dozen have done so, including the University of Illinois this year. In 2005, the National Collegiate Athletic Association barred Indian mascots during postseason tournaments. A few newspapers have quit using Indian-related nicknames.


Mr. Bellecourt spent years trying to get sports teams — from high school to professional leagues — to drop their use of American Indian monikers. His group urged the owners of the National Football League’s Washington Redskins, Kansas City Chiefs and Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians to change their names.

At a 1992 rally before the Super Bowl XXVI game between the Washington Redskins and the Buffalo Bills, Mr. Bellecourt spoke to a crowd of more than 2,000 people and lambasted Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke and NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

“We say to Jack Cooke: This is 1992. The name of your football team has got to be changed,” he said. To other teams with Indian nicknames and to their fans, he advised: “No more chicken feathers. . . . No more paint on faces. The chop stops here.”

Mr. Bellecourt was arrested in Cleveland during the 1997 World Series and again in 1998 during protests against the Cleveland Indians’ mascot, Chief Wahoo. Charges were dropped the first time, and he was not charged in the second case, according to the Associated Press.

And his hometown paper, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

Then something happened that changed everything: The “vanquished” started demanding that their story be told, too.

That change was painful, and is still incomplete. But it was necessary, and some of the credit for making it happen goes to Vernon Bellecourt.

Bellecourt — Indian activist, citizen of the world, politician, provocateur and ambassador for the dispossessed — was a giant force in helping to end the triumphal approach to the history of this state. Bellecourt died last weekend at 75, and is being buried today on his native White Earth Indian Reservation. During his life he helped change the way we see the world, and the way we see ourselves.

Sixteen years ago, the Atlanta Braves found their way to the World Series, and it was the same old song then:

Suddenly, as the Atlanta Braves fought their way to a trip to the World Series, other voices picked up our indignant shouts and this issue has taken on national stature.

The sham rituals, such as wearing feathers, smoking so-called peace pipes, beating tomtoms, fake dances, horrendous attempts at singing Indian songs, the so-called war whoops and the painted faces address more than the issues of racism. They also are direct attacks upon the spirituality of the Indian people.

Suppose a team such as the New Orleans Saints decided to include religious rituals in their halftime shows in keeping with their name.

For instance, the Saints fans decided to emulate Catholicism as part of their routine. What if they carried crosses, had a mascot dressed like the Pope, spread ashes on their foreheads and displayed enlarged replicas of the Holy Communion sacramental bread while drinking from chalices filled with wine?

That’s from Tim Giago, then publisher of Indian Country Today, in a Commentary published in USA Today back on Oct. 23, 1991:

Because the treaties signed between the sovereign Indian nations and the U.S. government were so sacred and so important to the Indian nations, the signing was usually attended by the smoking of a sacred pipe. The gesture intended to show the document signed was a sacred one and would be treated as such.

I’m really fond of Tim Giago’s writing, and he has stayed on this issue for many years now.  This from an open letter to Ted Turner published in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution 2/26/93:

Many years ago, a man pledged to do the Sun Dance, a rigorous, highly sacred ceremony. Three days before the dance, this man had a heart attack. He was frustrated and anxious that he could not fulfill his promise.

His son, only 8 years old, took up that responsibility for his father. During the four-day ceremony, this young boy fasted, danced in the sun, and sacrificed himself for the good of the people in his father’s stead.

At the end of the ceremony, most of the other participants gave the boy an eagle feather. The eagle, a messenger between the people and Wakan Tanka (God), is sacred. Its feathers bestow sacred honor, and wearing its feathers on your head lifts your thoughts from the Earth to a sacred place.

Mr. Turner, when your fans paint their faces with Day-Glo colors and stuff phony, dyed turkey feathers in their hair, they mock the honor earned by that little boy.

Scholastic Update ran a story about high school mascots on Feb. 10, 1995:

When the high school football team in Mukwonago, Wisconsin, takes to the field, students cheer “Go Indians!” One wall of the Mukwonago high gym is painted with the I words “This is Indian country.” And a painting in the principal’s office shows the school symbol: an Indian chief in a feathered headdress.

  Charging that they demean and stereotype American Indians, Pfaller has asked the school to change-its team name and logo. Suddenly, this tranquil village of rolling hills and grassy farmland outside of Milwaukee has found itself torn by a bitter debate, one that has been played out in cities across the nation.

  In public hearings on the issue, one resident said the issue was a case of political correctness taken to an extreme. And a poll of students found 401 in favor of keeping the logo and only 32 wanting to change it.

  Last August, the school board voted to keep the name.

  Pfaller has appealed her case to the state. Despite good intentions, she says, the name is offensive. “You wouldn’t say, ‘We’re the Mukwonago Blacks,’ and put on an Afro wig and dance around,” she says. “It would be unheard of. But it’s OK to do it to us.”

The *Portland Oregonian* ran an editorial on 11/7/91:

Of course, nothing in the name Indians, Chiefs or Braves is inherently
derogatory. Rather, it is the mocking usurpation of the traditions and
religious practices of one culture by another that is offensive.

Indians seem to be the main victims of that practice in today’s sports
world. While some fans might get a kick out of making the sign of the cross
when the San Diego Padres make a home run, it’s unlikely the team would
encourage that behavior or get a piece of the action by also selling sham

The Atlanta Braves and other teams should consider whether it’s time for
their names and sales gimmicks to get an update. The black stereotypes that
used to be common in advertising fill museums. The nation survived the loss of
pancake houses featuring the “Little Black Sambo” character; it could handle a
name change for the Washington Redskins.

And the Seattle-Post Intelligencer ran a syndicated column this week.  Nothing much has changed in the intervening years:

The inane tomahawk chop and war chant of the Atlanta Braves fans come to mind. And Redskins is definitely not a flattering appellation, no matter how well-intentioned. Would we call the capital’s football team the Washington Blackfaces? No way.

The football fans of the nation’s capital can just as easily cheer on the Washington Indians — or Tigers, or Lions, or Pandas. Much classier. Then instead of fussing over what’s in a name, we can go back to booing the quarterback.

The Christian Science Monitor published an editorial about the Cleveland Indians name & mascot this past week (worth reading in full):

We’ll have the Indians on the warpath all the time, eager for scalps to dangle at their belts.

That’s what a Cleveland sportswriter wrote in 1915, celebrating the new name of the city’s baseball team. Previously called the “Naps,” in honor of Hall of Famer Nap Lajoie, the team had recently traded Lajoie. So it needed a new name, and “Indians” was born.

So, alas, was Chief Wahoo.

Chief Wahoo is the Indians’ mascot, a grotesque caricature grinning idiotically through enormous bucked teeth. You can see him during this week’s American League Championship Series between the Indians and the Boston Red Sox. He’s a reminder of the days when whites regarded native Americans as savages on the warpath, with scalps dangling from their belts. And it’s time for him to go.

So when you watch the Cleveland Indians on television this week, watch your kids as well. Ask yourself what the image of Chief Wahoo teaches them about Native Americans. And ask yourself if you can live with the answer.

Maybe some day?  This from Giago again, this time appearing in the Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) 10/23/95:

It’s shaping up to be quite a week. Two baseball teams with American Indian
symbols and mascots are into the World Series and the national media is giving
the Indians a chance to respond.  This would not have happened five years ago.

So watch the World Series and have a good time. But, just for the moment of
one game, put your feet into our moccasins.

Watch the red-painted faces. Watch the fanatics in the stands wearing turkey
and chicken feathers in their hair. Watch the fools doing the tomahawk chop and
singing that horrible chant.

Then picture that section of fans as people supporting a team called the
African-Americans. Imagine them doing the same things to black Americans as they
are doing to Native Americans.

His advice is good for this year’s Series as much as it was a dozen years back.

This opener comes with its own built in war whoop!

A Little Good News

A mountain in Phoenix, long called Squaw Peak, has been renamed as Piestewa Peak, after Lori Piestewa, a Hopi woman killed in the same incident that brought Jessica Lynch to national attention.  Being as how the name Squaw Peak was more or less the equivalent of Cunt Peak, this is a good move.  The name change will be official the next time the U.S. Geological Survey publishes an updated map for that quadrant.

A parting note:  A few Indians have stepped forward to “approve” native mascots, such as Seminoles over Chief Osceola at Florida State University.

“In our history,” Clyde Bellecourt says, “we have always had scouts willing to ride
with the cavalry.”

Johnny Cash – Ballad of Ira Hayes

Final note:  I researched this baby on LexisNexis, so you’re just gonna hafta trust me on the older quotes.  I can’t provide links from behind the subscription wall.


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  1. An old tradition vs a new tradition.

    Personally I come down on the side of the Native Americans of course…..and think it is actually pretty funny that the white folks think that worshipping baseball teams is more important or on a par with religious worship or respect for your ancestors and people, but …hey…for them it just might be.

    And that is pretty sad!

    • Robyn on October 22, 2007 at 01:57

    My daughter is 1/32 Cherokee.  I think about that more than she does, probably, but it has become my concern…as it should have been for always.

  2. there is the commodification of an identity. It’s turned into an object and bought and sold. Lots of money being made off of this kind of disrespect and ignorance.

  3. for this beautiful memoir.

    • Diane G on October 22, 2007 at 03:26

    My heart aches. Not only for the reasons of reading his words or deed, but husband & his friends put him & Dennis and others up years back.  Good guy, he will be missed.  Hope he’s in a better place.

    Mascots suck, btw. RTFO bro, AIM lives.

  4. are familiar to me from some reading I did a couple of years ago to try to learn something about the people involved in the American Indian Movement, so I felt a twinge of recognition and sadness when I saw your headline.  Thank you for posting this diary to let us know.  Not enough people know what a tremendous effort it was for those who came together in the 1960s and 70s to call attention to the lives of native people whether on reservations, or in the cities, suburbs, etc., to demand respect from the US government as well as local governments, and especially to revive the spiritual practices and bring them out enough to pass them along–which was very diffifult in some cases.  For one thing, the “freedom of religion” we take for granted in the Constitution, did not really apply in the reservations.  Some rituals and dances had been outlawed, and cases have been winding their way through courts over the last few decades to gain grudging recognition.

    From the few books I’ve read, there was a lot of sacrifice and pain suffered by leaders like Vernon Bellecourt from the AIM days. 

    I have mixed feelings about the school mascot issue.  Just change the name–sports teams change cities.  Big name players dump one team for another that pays more.  I understand people get attached to a team name, but there has to be a way to get past that.  I’m actually associated with a school that has an Indian-related team name that is now the subject of a contest to change the name.  On the other hand, what is the big deal really?  In so many places, there are streets, and rivers and towns with Indian names.  My grammar school, high school, and the local colllege here, all have Indian names.  Was the naming based on a conquering mentality or admiration?  Or were the names just so much a part of the landscape, that sometime in the English colonial past, Native words were very much known and used–even as colonies and tribes were marginalized to near extinction.  The campaign to get rid of these mascots is good for raising awareness about this history if nothing else.  It also shows people another dimension of racism. 

  5. …as well.  Washington Warriors would do just as well, and isn’t specific to any one group.  Though it does promote warfare/violence.  Maybe Washington Whoremasters would be a more appropriate acknowledgement of the politicians, lobbyists, team owners/similar corporatists and their journalist cheerleaders in the Nation’s Capital.

    The Washington Bullets changed their name to the Wizards years ago to get away from the gun-related moniker.

    Great diary.

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