Honor your roots; listen to the trees

BY JESSY HEGLAND – heglandje@mnstate.edu

For the past several years, a sliver in my mind has been festering.  Certain sports teams in the NFL and at colleges are using indigenous people as a mascot. In the NFL, a particular mascot is a textbook definition of a racial slur.

“But my great, great, great, great grandmother was a Cherokee princess, so I’m 1/umpteenth Native American. I say the mascot doesn’t bother me. I have authority on this. I say we are honoring them.” 

I’ve heard many defensive people explain this to me as a way of taking some sort of “authoritative” stance on the issue when it has been proven such mascots and terms are dehumanizing.

It also reinforces stereotypes about an entire group of people. Such stereotypes, like the use of these mascots, are dehumanizing.

The words of Rosebud Sioux hip hop artist Frank Waln illustrates the viewpoint of Natives as a “people of the past rather than a people with a past.” 

November is American Indian Heritage Month. MSUM and other colleges around the country have many activities for students to participate and learn about Native peoples and their heritage. It certainly is an opportunity to take advantage of. 

Walking around this campus, or anywhere, you can see and meet these people. There are events being hosted on campus to learn about Native Americans in their own words.

They are real. They exist. They have hopes and dreams and feelings just like the human beings we all are.

So, when there is a protest of 4,000 Native Americans declaring these mascots are hurtful and are not OK, we should listen. As human beings, we should listen and learn.

Why do I feel so passionately about this? 

The short answer is:  I’m a human being that doesn’t want other human beings to have pain of any kind.

When I hear someone tell me that their “great, great, great, great grandmother was a Cherokee princess” I tend to feel a bit offended, mainly because anyone that actually takes the time to research about indigenous peoples, particularly the American Indians, would know that there were no kings, queens, or princesses.

The long answer is I care because of my roots.  I was adopted the from the Spirit Lake Nation near Devils Lake, N.D. 

A couple summers ago, I took a genetic test that clarified my genetic percentage of Native Ancestry. I am 1/4 Native American. However, due to a closed adoption, certain things cannot be traced and the struggle with legal documents makes it difficult to enroll in a tribe. 

That may be something I will do someday if that is where my journey takes me.  But right now I know where my path is leading.

As a person who has what’s called “passing privilege” —having the privilege to be seen and “pass” as white and not experience the systematic, institutionalized oppression — it is my responsibility to honor my roots. 

How do I honor my roots?

I listen. I listen to the words of the people standing up saying that these mascots do not honor them or represent them. I listen to music by native people. I listen to the trees within the forest of my ancestors.

I read history books, blog posts, twitter, Facebook and websites by native voices.

I watch films directed and written by native people, and do whatever I can to be a good ally and to listen.

That is how I honor my roots. There is no honor in racism, and there is no honor in blissful ignorance wrapped up in cognitive dissonance.

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