If At The End Of His Speech You Still Think That Mascot ‘Honors’ Him, You’re Still Missing The Point

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There's been a long-standing debate surrounding sports teams with names and mascots derived from Native American people. Some argue that these names are "paying tribute" or "honoring" Native Americans, but this moving speech from 15-year-old Dahkota Brown sheds much-needed perspective on on how these team names affect students like himself.

Still not convinced? Check out the Center for American Progress' recently released report, "Missing the Point: The Real Impact of Native Mascots and Team Names on American Indian and Alaska Native Youth" for a detailed breakdown of why this conversation is so very important.

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Dahkota Brown: [foreign language] Hello and good day. My name is Dahkota Brown. I'm 15 years old, and a proud California Miwok from the Wilton Rancheria. I currently attend Argonaut High School in Jackson, California, where I am getting ready to start my junior year. I'm here today on behalf of the Center for American Progress and the Center for Native American Youth as a 2013 Champion for Change.

Today, I would like to share my own experience and struggle with Native American mascots. I've always loved watching and playing football for my school. For as long as I can remember, I've always loved watching and playing football for my school. For as long as I can remember, I have always gone to my high school football games, and once I got into high school, it made it that much more fun being on the field.

But there has always been one game I've dreaded going to. One of our schools biggest rivals are the Calaveras Redskins. Calaveras has always had an obscene amount of school pride. But little do they know how damaging their game-time routines are, not only to the natives in attendance, but most likely to the Native Americans that attend their own school.

Such routines consist of a war-bonnet-clad drummer on top of their announcer booth who does the stereotypical Indian drum beat after every touchdown, while thousands of fans throw their tomahawk chops. Cheerleaders in skimpy outfits resembling traditional buckskin dresses. Hundreds of students with warpaint splattered on their faces yelling "Scalp 'em!", or the announcer commentating with remarks like "A wild party of Redskins on their way to sack the quarterback!"

All of these actions, along with many more, hurt my heart. With so many around me, I feel ganged up on, but at the same time, all of these screaming fans don't know how offensive they are, or that they're even in the presence of a native. Most of the time, they don't even know that natives still exist. Worst of all, most of the offensive stuff doesn't even come from the Redskins. It usually comes from the rival schools. By having the racial slur of a name, Calaveras has granted all schools that they go against the right to mock and make fun of Native Americans.

I've witnessed my own school partake in such actions. In the past years, there have been stories of our cheerleaders dressing up one of our own students in a Halloween Pocahotty costume, and dragging her out on the field and staking her in shackles against her will. They proceeded to dance around her, acting as if they were beating and torturing her like a slave. This is one of the most sickening half-time shows I have ever heard of, considering that our people really were beaten and treated in such a manner.

I've heard my own friends yelling around me, "Kill the Redskins!", or, "Send them on the Trail of Tears!", along with countless other phrases. With comments like these, it's hard to believe when they say, "Oh no! I really do like Indians," or, "I'm part Indian myself." It's hard to believe the students that go to Calaveras when they repeat over and over, "We are honoring your people. Haven't you seen that mural in our gym, or the paintings around the school?" I have seen the paintings, and they depict the same stereotypical Plains native wearing a headdress in the Redwoods of Northern California.

An overwhelming amount of Native Americans have voiced their opinions against native mascots, and I think it's time for a change to be made. I highly encourage the United States Department of Education to step in, and to help to stop the use of race-based mascots in the school system.

My story is not the only one. There are countless native students that feel the same as I do. I'm here as a voice for all native students. It's time for change. It's time to change the name, and change the mascot, not only in Calaveras, but across the nation. In California alone, there are 184 schools that still use offensive native mascots. I promise you that this is nit an illegitimate battle that we are fighting. This struggle is real, and there is data to prove it. With our sacred native people as mascots, the younger generation, my generation, has lost our sense of identity and pride.

As the founder and president of my own non-profit organization, Native Education Raising Dedicated Students, I've witnessed first-hands the absence. I've had numerous students who wanted to join NERDS, but doubted themselves because they didn't think they looked like a real native. They didn't match the stereotypical Indian mascot, so they didn't think they were native enough.

Native teens have the highest drop out rates, lowest graduation rates, and the highest rate of suicide among any ethnicity, but people don't think of natives as having these tragedies, but rather as mascots. When people hear that we're native, all they see is a football helmet, or a big-nosed head on a baseball jersey, including many of our school and staff teachers. One day, there was a group of us native students standing around talking when our vice principal came up to us and asked what we were all doing. When we told her that we were talking about my organization, NERDS, and other native topics, she replied with, "You guys are Indian? I wouldn't have known it by looking at you." Individuals have quit seeing native people for who we really are. All they see are mascots and stereotypes.

I have two cousins who went to Calaveras High School, both in their 30s now. One decided to take a stand against the school and their mascot. She was expelled for speaking her mind and trying to make a change after being physically harassed. She was criticized and put-down by other students and staff. She was forced to switch school districts to get a high school education.

The other cousin felt the the need to fit in, and was so desperate for acceptance by his peers that he became the school mascot. The students figured, since he was native, he would be the perfect mascot. He didn't wanna say no, so he wore the fake headdress. He ran from class to class throwing doors open, doing war cries, letting the students know it was time for a game or rally. He was told to act as savage as possible. He lost his native identity because he wanted to fit in. He knew that if he didn't conform, he would be the school's puppet. He wouldn't fit in with anybody.

There are so many native students today that are afraid to take a stand for fear of being shot down and punished, myself included. I'm terrified of what will happen when I return home, where countless Calaveras alumni wait. I'm only one county over, and less than 14 miles from Calaveras, meaning that we get the same newspaper. All of Calaveras County will read about this event once I get back. Who knows what they will think or what they will do? Whatever it is, it doesn't matter at this point. All that matters is that we get these native students the justice they deserve.

Native mascots don't only affect native youth, but they also give non-native students a false sense of representation among native people. Native mascots have installed the idea that natives are savage, and look the same as the cartoons representing schools and professional teams, in the minds of non-native students. In the third grade, I dressed as Red Cloud, the chief of the Oglala Lakota, for inspirational person report. I got to school excited to share all I had learned about Red Cloud with my friends. But instead, I was harassed by a group of non-native sixth graders. They danced around me doing war chants and stereotypical drum beats, much like those performed by teams in schools with race-based mascots.

With over 2.1 million American Indian, and Alaskan native youth living in the United States today, we owe it to them to help secure their cultural identity, and defend all of our honor. Before I leave, I would like to leave you with a quote from author Arthur Burt: "Nothing happens until the pain of remaining the same outweighs the pain of change." The amount of pain felt by our native youth outweighs the pain of any dedicated, racist mascot fans by an immeasurable amount. It's time for a change. Thank you.

There may be small errors in this transcript.

This speech by Dahkota Brown is from The Center for American Progress. Dahkota's nonprofit organization, Native Education Raising Dedicated Students (NERDS), can be found on Facebook. Oh, and a big shoutout/thank you to one of my favorite blogs, Native Appropriations, where I originally found this speech. Thumbnail image via Keith Allison, used under Creative Commons license.

Aug 02, 2014

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