If you’re white, maybe you identify as French. Maybe you’ve got French customs in your family. Maybe you celebrate French holidays. Maybe you even speak the language.
Now imagine someone came up to you and told you that you were Irish. You’d be like, “Nah, I’m French. I speak French and everything.” But they were like, “Nope. You’re legally Irish,” and then drew a cartoon stereotype of a French person’s face, put it on their hats and shirts and schools, started selling it, turned to you and said, “Don’t worry about it. We did it to honor you as an Irishman.”
You’d be like, “Dude. What the actual fuck are you even talking about?”
Now, everyone knows Native Americans are called “Indians” because when Christopher Columbus landed in the “New World” that fool thought he landed in India. Perhaps something you didn’t know is that right now, in 2019, the indigenous peoples of this country are still legally referred to as “Indian” by United States law. Really think about that. We all know the United States of America is not India, but rather than correct the mistake of one white man — a mistake we are now and have always been completely aware of — we are not only willing to write that mistake into law, but also keep it there more than half a millennium after that universally acknowledged mistake was made.
“When you see people as less than people, you treat them accordingly.”
That’s what the tribal ambassador for the Penobscot Nation, Maulian Dana, said to the New York Times in support of a recent change we’ve made here in Maine. In case you missed it, on May 16, Gov. Janet Mills signed into law LD 944, a bill prohibiting the use of Native Americans as mascots in all public schools. Maine is the first state to do this. That’s right. The first. This doesn’t mean racism is solved and it doesn’t mean there isn’t still a long, long road ahead, but I’d like to take just a minute to acknowledge some progress in this state, even if it is literally symbolic.
This time last year I was writing about Susan Collins’ support of bigot-in-pimple-form Jeff Sessions. Before that I was writing about person impersonator Larry Lockman. And, of course, there’s the face of Maine racism, Paul LePage. So much Paul LePage. I know he hasn’t been gone long, but let’s appreciate just for a moment how wide a chasm we’ve actually jumped here.
Less than a year ago, this state had a governor whose very existence answers the question, What would happen if racism and shame had a weird, gross baby? LePage’s racism frequently made local, state, national and even international news. And some of that was during the Trump presidency! Think about that. I know it’s difficult to tell sometimes, because we’re so close to all of it, but ask yourself: What level of racism would you have to achieve in order to break through the nigh impenetrable armor of Trump’s 24-hour news cycle of racism? The answer is Paul LePage. You would have to be at Paul LePage–level racism.
And now somehow we’ve gone from a global laughing-stock that consistently disrespected Maine’s Native tribes to a state with an actual human being as a governor. It gives me faith in the country.
Anyway, so no mascots? C’mon! What’s the big deal? It’s supposed to honor them! It’s the thought that counts, right? The intent is good!
Well, no. See, you can claim that your intent is to honor me, but if I tell you I’m insulted by your actions and yet you persist, your intent is no longer to honor me. Your intent is to honor yourself and shame me into compliance.
I understand that point may be confusing. If so, and your intent is to honor the indigenous peoples of this country, just ask yourself this question: Since Native Americans were historically put into concentration camps; mutilated; murdered in endless, unspeakable ways, including the deliberate spread of disease and being hunted for sport; made eternal refugees in their own homeland; forced into more than 500 treaties with the U.S. government — all of which were broken by the US government; and continue to have the few rights this government allows them stripped away to this very day (Standing Rock, anyone?), exactly how does a caricature honor them?
If you’re actually interested in honoring the indigenous peoples of this state, penobscotnation.org is a great place to start.
Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller, as well as a locally known filmmaker. He can be reached at email@example.com.