The Football Name Debate: Are We Missing the Point?

One of several indigenous college students at the CAP panel.

“The debate is over about the R-word; it’s now about whether if it’s proper to have a football team in this country carry on using a defined slur.” That was the closing statement by Jacqueline Pata, the Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). Her comment capped off a forum at the Center for American Progress, Missing the Point: The Real Impact of Native Mascots and Team Names on American Indian and Alaska Native Youth. The Center released a new report that examined several bodies of research about the harmful impact of mascot representations on the self-esteem of AI/AN youth, how they create a hostile learning environment, and the decades-long movement to retire them. The report by Erik Stegman and Victoria Phillips looks at recent key findings and incorporates statements from several Native youths, providing context that is relevant today regarding the use of these mascots and imagery.

Sitting on today’s panel was Pata; Travis Waldron, Sports Reporter,; Mark Macarro, Chairman, Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians; Dr. Michael Friedman, Clinical Psychologist; and Erik Stegman, Associate Director, Center for American Progress. The forum started with very poignant remarks by fifteen-year-old Dahkota Franklin Kicking Bear Brown, a student at Argonaut High School in California, and a Champion for Change at the Center for Native American Youth. Congresswoman Betty McCollum (D-MN) also spoke briefly at the event.

Over the last year, the debate over the use of the slur by the Washington professional football team has largely centered on issues of economics and fan nostalgia. The larger issue at hand, however, is beyond the sports soundbites that dominate this discussion. Data and research now shows that the use of such racist and derogatory team names (and by association, ‘traditions’ and fan antics) have real and detrimental effects on Native youth today. With fifty percent of the Native population being of 25 years of age or younger, the danger of perpetuating this practice and continuing the cycle of defeatism, hostile learning environments, and poor self-esteem is all too real.

(R to L): Travis Waldron, Sports Reporter,; Mark Macarro, Chairman, Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians; Jacqueline Pata, Executive Director, National Congress of American Indians

Studies are also showing that these mascots are undermining the educational experience of all students, particularly those with little or no contact with indigenous and Native peoples. These stereotypical representations are too often being understood by the population as factual representations of Native culture and people, contributing to the development cycle of cultural biases and prejudices.

Think that’s not really an issue in today’s progressive twenty-first century? Brown shared some of the experiences that happened in his high school. “Our cheerleaders dressed up one of our own in a Halloween ‘Pokahottie’ costume, tied her to a stake after dragging her out on the field in shackles against her will. They proceeded to dance around her, acting as if they were beating her, treating her as a slave. It’s one of the sickest halftime shows I’ve ever seen.” An avid football fan, he nonetheless dreads the game against rivals Calaveras, who use the R-word slur as their team name. “The most offensive stuff doesn’t even come from the [other team fans]. It comes from their rival schools, mine included. I have heard my own friends yelling around me, ‘Kill the Redskins!’ or “Send them on the Trail of Tears!'”

It took a lot of courage for Brown to address the audience, knowing he would be returning home to California and his schoolmates, many whom taunt him and other Natives on a consistent basis for his ethnicity. “When they hear the world ‘Native’ all they see is a football helmet or a big-nosed head on a jersey. Even the staff isn’t immune,” he said. “I was with a group of Natives at school and a teacher asked us what we were talking about. We said we were discussing some Native issues, and the teacher responded with ‘Oh, you are all Indians? I wouldn’t have known by looking at you.'”

Congresswoman McCollum put the debate into perspective. The entire issue was past the debate of the use of the name, and has moved into education on the issue. “It’s important for young people to have a positive image about themselves,” she said. How can that happen if the word is given a free pass in schools and by organizations, and yet other dictionary-defined slurs are considered forbidden? “This is an educational experience we have to be willing to take a journey on.”

Jacqueline Pata, Executive Director, National Congress of American Indians and Dr. Michael Friedman, Clinical Psychologist

The panel largely discussed how detrimental these mascots and imagery are towards Native youth. A decade ago, the American Psychological Association (APA) issued a resolution calling for the immediate retirement of all team names, mascots, and other derogatory representations. They found through several key findings that such imagery “undermines the educational experiences of members of all communities–especially those who have had little or not contact with Indigenous peoples.” In 2001, a statement from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said:

The stereotyping of any racial, ethnic, religious, or other groups when promoted by our public educational institutions, teach all students that stereotyping of minority groups is acceptable, a dangerous lesson in a diverse society. Schools have a responsibility to educate their students; they should not use their influence to perpetuate misrepresentations of any culture or people. Children at the elementary and secondary level usually have no choice about which school they attend. (Statement of U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on the Use of Native American Images and Nicknames as Sports Symbols, 2001)

The APA also found that these misrepresentations create hostile learning environments that decrease student academic achievement and the ability to succeed. Native youth today have some of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country and endure poverty at nearly double the national rate.

Ultimately, however, it’s tribal leadership that needs to be there to support their youth. Pata noted that as a tribal leader herself, it’s important that every decision the tribe makes is for the next generation. “Tribal leaders are recognizing the issues our youth are facing today,” she said. “We want their lives to be different, and this is one way [by opposing mascotry] to do that.”

Friedman emphatically noted that the suicide rate among Native youth is two-and-a-half times the national average. “This isn’t a political correctness issue,” he said. “It’s a public health issue.” He noted that these high rates are set against the backdrop of the highest poverty rates, poorest health, and lowest educational outcomes in the country. Combined with rampant substance abuse and poor self- and community-esteem, the challenges are nearly insurmountable for Native youth, holding back their entire community and preventing future opportunities. This carries forward as they age, keeping tribal identities suppressed and perpetuating these ills.

Dahkota Franklin Kicking Bear Brown, Student, Argonaut High School; Champion for Change, Center for Native American Youth

Before one can brush off such statements, an understanding of the unique perspective of Native communities is necessary. A recent article in the Journal of Clinical Psychology said:

The military action, missionary efforts, the Federal Indian Boarding School Movement, the Dawes Act, the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, and the Indian Child Welfare Act forever changed the economic, physical, and social lives of AI/AN people. Once self-reliant and self-sufficient, the policies of the federal government forced tribes/indigenous people toward removal, relocations, isolation, and in some cases, termination and extinction, resulting in social, economic, and spiritual deprivations. (Journal of Clinical Psychology 66(8), 2010)

But there’s hope. Native youth today are making their stands. “Our younger generation is now saying what’s acceptable,” said Pata. “Schools are beginning to talk about what’s right, tribal history, and other discussions that helps bolster our youth to formulate change.” The road is hard, however, because the Native minority population in this country is so small; to make their voices heard, a consistent push for change is necessary.

“Part of the problem,” Macarro said, “is that we are invisible by the numbers, so these characterizations and stereotypes perpetuate in society,” making Natives ignored in the conversation. This concept of invisibility is a big deal among tribal leaders, who grew up in the previous era, noted for termination, removal, and revocation policies. Even today, many Native-dominant schools – founded and started by non-Natives – retain similar racial slurs as their mascots and names. “It’s a fact that many Natives do submit themselves to conformity by wearing the apparel, accepting the slur as a team name, perpetuating the racism,” said Macarro. “But what is wrong on the reservation is still wrong in the world.” It doesn’t diminish the argument for change.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN)

Despite the fact of such acceptance, trumpeted by some media and opponents of change, Natives are out there facing the task ahead. “It’s not just a fight about the Washington football team mascot,” said Stedman. He indicated other steps that can be taken, or are being undertaken by Native advocates. The report outlined several at the local, state, and federal levels, including working with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Education. Similar actions such as that taken by Oregon in banning outright all discriminatory mascots are mentioned, and suggests nonprofit legal assistance programs provide education programs for students and families about their rights, and help file complaints to OCR and other relevant agencies.

Additional research is needed, of course. Stedman recommends that the “federal government work across agencies to identify new research topics to better understand the extend to which these mascots and team names perpetuate bullying, hostile learning environments, and negative attitudes about AI/AN people.”

While the spotlight remains on Dan Snyder and his organization, the fight has progressed beyond the simple economic and soundbite war of using the current moniker. The deeper issue, when one takes the time to wade into the waters, is the ripple effect that washes over Native communities in this country, affecting tomorrow’s Native leaders and continually damaging their communities. The cycle has to end, and eliminating these racial stereotypes is a giant step in the right direction. With all the rhetoric, politicizing, media soundbites, and PR spin, let’s not miss the point.

“The use of these slurs and logos homogenizes tribes and their individual identities into a false grouping and stereotype,” said Macarro. “What it comes down to, fundamentally, is respectfulness.”

Change the name.

Hey R**skin Fans, Snyder Cares! (Not Really)

#changethename by Michael E. Woestehoff (used with permission)

#changethename by Michael E. Woestehoff (used with permission)

(Originally posted at WeLoveDC on 3/26/14)

With little fanfare, Washington pro football team owner Dan Snyder slipped a letter out to the team’s fan mailing list this past Sunday. It was a masterful work of self-service. In it, Snyder finally realized there were problems in Indian Country, based on a supposed 26 visits to various reservations around the country. The visits – all cherry-picked to councils who “agree” with him about the “non-offensive” nature of the team’s moniker – apparently opened his eyes to the plight and ills of reservation residents.

Let’s set aside for a moment that Snyder refuses to meet with tribal councils who oppose the name, including the still-open invitation from the Oneida Nation in New York. Snyder quickly jumped to the “hey, there’s more important issues to deal with than changing a football team’s name” defense, pointing out the horrific poverty rates, unemployment, poor health, and abysmal education found on many Native reservations. And yes, these are real problems. Big ones.

Changing the name would be a step in the right direction.

But Snyder, in his lovably (read: infuriating) sly and slick manner, forces you to think that you can only solve one or the other. Either change the name, or address these other problems is the implication. As CBS Chicago columnist Tim Baffoe says so eloquently, “Because sound logic dictates that we should ignore less significant issues that can easily be resolved in favor of the big ones that will take a whole lot of time and money to fix.”

So to that end, Snyder pats himself on the back for his revelation experience, and shares his latest plan: the formulation of a charity (the Washington [slur] Original Americans Foundation) to dole out money and goods to tribes in need. And, I suspect, only to those who “agree 100%” with the team’s racist name. Oh, and notice the addition of “original Americans.” If the R-word name is meant to honor, then why not just call it the R-word Foundation?

This latest move by Snyder is tantamount to bribery, really. And obfuscation. What, we can’t demand the removal of something that symbolizes hundreds of years of rape, theft, and genocide just because you’ve now had your eyes opened and decided to help the poor and disenfranchised? It’s like saying it’s okay to go wear blackface to a costume party because you donate to the United Negro College Fund or the NAACP. While Snyder may claim a supermajority of acceptance from his hand-picked supporters, it’s clear a significant chunk of Indian Country disagrees with him.

I’m all for new avenues of assistance to the reservations; God knows every cent is sorely needed. But using this latest charity ploy as a deflection tactic to tacitly approve his stubborn insistence that the team’s name isn’t racist or derogatory is reprehensible.

But then again, this is Dan Snyder. And as we know, he’ll “NEVER” change. And you can put that in all caps, people.

What’s In a Football Name? Snyder Thinks He Knows – And He’s Wrong

(Originally posted on 10/11/13 at WeLoveDC.)

So this popped out the other day.

It’s no secret how I feel about the whole name thing with the Washington football team. I oppose it. I think it’s racist. I have several personal issues with the name. But that’s not why I decided to post something about it.

The letter is a poor public relations attempt, mostly to mollify diehard team fans who will, unto the bitter end, support the racist moniker. Not out of reason, but blind emotion.

Hey, I get it. I understand why. Team fandom is a complicated, deep, personal thing that involves a lot of emotional investment and history. It’s difficult to hear that your beloved franchise is doing something wrong – simply by using a name (and by extension, mascot and other fan accoutrements).

The problem comes when that moniker is unveiled to be racist. The Washington issue isn’t anything new; it’s been around for decades. The movement today has found new momentum and has begun to find rightful traction in righting a wrong. (Just like the Civil Rights Movement began finding traction nearly one hundred years after Emancipation.)

The first third of Snyder’s letter is a play on his loyal fanbase’s emotional strings. “I still remember…the passion of the fans…the ground beneath me seemed to move and shake…he’s been gone for 10 years now…” All phrases and words evoking emotions and certainly causing the reader to recall their own cherished memories. Setting them into their defensive stance, so that the rest of the letter, which uses standard PR spin and deft deflection, only ratchets up the emotional volume for their impassioned – and misguided – defense.

Oh, and then there’s the trite “Our past isn’t just where we came from–it’s who we are” phrase. Bold and italicized, even. Because it’s important!

And yet that same phrase should be viewed in the light of the atrocities and attempted genocide of the native population that tried to co-exist here during the nation’s past. Dan, Native Americans have a past, too – and it isn’t just where they came from. It’s also who they are.

Okay, first “point” made by Dan: the team name was changed from “Braves” to its current incarnation because “four players and our Head Coach were Native Americans.” Right.

Problem the first: There’s strong evidence to show that William “Lone Star” Dietz actually posed as a Sioux native for several reasons–none of them altruistic. Dietz was nothing more than a “wannabe Native.”

Second “point” made by Dan: George Allen consulted with the Red Cloud Athletic Fund on Pine Ridge to design the emblem. And was then honored by the organization a few years later. He then uses that to claim the emblem and plaque as a “symbol of everything we stand for: strength, courage, pride, and respect…”

Problem the second: George Allen actually created the Red Cloud Athletic Fund. So…yeah. The organization that owes its existence to Allen was used to create the emblem and then “honor” the man. There’s a lot you could infer or assume from that, which I’ll refrain. Basically, Snyder’s making his case based in part on consultations Allen had with a group he created. And was then honored. By same group.

Third “point”: Two polls are mentioned, the infamous Annenberg poll from 2004, and the AP survey from back in April this year. These are trotted out to show that the Native community overwhelmingly supports the team name.

Problem the third: The Annenberg poll is suspect, based primarily on its methodology. This article does a great job outlining all the problems with its methods, including the entire “self-described” hooey. (Oh look. Wannabe Natives popping up again.) And the AP poll? While 79% said the name shouldn’t change, he fails to mention that just about 80% said that if the name WAS changed, they’d still support the team. So…yeah. Clearly changing the team name would oh-so-upset the fanbase to the point of abandoning it. (Not.)

Fourth “point”: Snyder trots out a columnist’s interview with three tribal leaders, who were all quoted as not being offended by the name.

Problem the fourth: Well sure, of course there will be Natives not offended! Just like you can find Democrats who dislike Obama, or Republicans who do support the ACA. So what? There have been plenty of statements by Native leaders who have stated that they-and in a few cases, the entire tribe-ARE offended.

Dan then finishes off his teary-eyed missive with more emotional phrases and calls to the fan heart strings: “participated in some of the greatest games in NFL history”…”won five World Championships”…”the passion of our loyal fans”…”speak proudly”… Yep, build up the emotional groundswell there, Danny-boy.

And if that wasn’t enough, there’s the final, personal tug: “So when I consider the Washington [***] name, I think of what it stands for. I think of the Washington [***] traditions and pride I want to share with my three children, just as my father shared with me – and just as you have shared with your family and friends.”

Oh, and as a kicker, he hammers once again about the “81 year history” and “the team name…continues to hold the memories and meaning of where we came from, who we are, and who we want to be in the years to come.”

Funny. When I hear the name, I cringe inside. I think of other names and places: Wounded Knee. Black Hills. Trail of Tears. Gnadenhütten. Ash Hollow. Red River. Sand Creek. Achulet. (Don’t know them? Look them up. Be horrified.)

Nowhere in Dan’s letter does he address other points about the name: that dictionaries define the word as offensive; that the team, held up as some sort of racially inclusive organization ‘honoring’ its ‘native’ coach, was the last to desegregate – and only because the federal government forced the issue; that over the last 35 years, more than 2,000 high schools have changed their similarly racial nicknames to something else; that studies have shown that negative racial stereotypes are known to play a role in exacerbating inequity and inadequacy among Native youth; and that many Native leaders have indeed spoken out against the name. Among other things.

Dan closes with this final thought: “I respect the opinions of those who disagree. I want them to know that I do hear them, and I will continue to listen and learn.”

Good. Then I urge you, Dan, to take up the Oneida Indian Nation on its open invitation to visit the tribe’s homeland and talk with its leaders and people.

I personally dare Dan to walk in and greet the nation using the name as he contends it to mean.

I’m fairly certain he’d learn firsthand what that word really means to Natives.

A Conversation on Culture and Change Regarding the Washington Slurskins

Photo courtesy of BrianMKA
FedEx seats
courtesy of BrianMKA

(Originally posted on 2/8/13 at WeLoveDC.)

By now, local Washington media has covered the internet with their summaries of a timely – yet still largely ignored – issue involving a particular football team located in this area. While Racial Stereotypes and Cultural Appropriation in American Sports spoke to the broader issues regarding Native American culture and peoples and their use as sports logos and traditions, make no mistake: the local NFL team’s moniker was a lynchpin in the discussion. The topic was subject of one-third of the day’s symposium, and itself is well-covered elsewhere. (You can watch the recording online in its entirety.)

I couldn’t attend in person, so I settled for the live webcast. And I’ve spent time re-watching the panels as well, because there was so much information and passion involved I couldn’t catch all of it the first time around. I could probably write several blog posts about the topic, and may yet in the future.

But what I wanted to really comment here and now, since other outlets are more focused on the local team aspect, is some key comments made by Director Kevin Gover at the start of the day. Thanks to NMAI, I received a full copy of his remarks; they provide a context that is important to the background of the overall discussion. While I won’t simply copy them all here – you can listen to Dr. Gover online for that – I did want to point out some relevant comments.

Photo courtesy of New York Public Library
Broncho and the Redskin
courtesy of New York Public Library

The call to change the team’s moniker isn’t an isolated issue and it’s not, as many opponents callously bawl, “a bunch of PC bull.” It’s part of a broader issue in how we, as humans on this planet, relate and respect each person’s beliefs, culture, and ideals. How is it that this crude and racist epithet continues to exist on the fourth-most valuable sports franchise in the world? It’s an issue that goes beyond the misguided use of a word; it’s the taint of a past that many refuse – or ignore – exists. Dr. Gover addressed this in his opening remarks:

Certain myths persist and are reinforced. Disney’s animated “Pocahontas” celebrates the Indian-princess-helping-white-people-bring-civilization story of old. Even the movies in which Indians are heroes too often engage in the old stereotypes. The large blue Indians of “Avatar” and the Indian werewolves of the popular “Twilight” series may be heroes, but note the spectacular violence of which they are capable. Note as well the addition of new stereotypes that evolved in the late twentieth century: Indians as pristine environmentalists and, even better, magic Indians.

Further, these characters represent Indians of the past. Television, movies, and books almost never portray Indians as contemporary characters. are confined to the past, as though the government’s policies directed toward the deconstruction of Native nations had succeeded universally. The practice of using Native people as mascots largely emerged at the very time government policy was to deliberately destroy Native language, Native religion, and Native identity. In this respect, the mascots served very directly the government’s purpose by portraying Indians as proud and noble figures, but only figures of the past. Government policy and the popular culture assumed that, certainly by the end of the twentieth century, there would be no more Indians.

These policies find their roots in the misguided beliefs of the nineteenth century in racial hierarchy and the ranking of cultures from primitive to civilized. It hardly bears noting that the so-called “science” of race in the nineteenth century always concluded that white people, “Anglo-Saxon” or “Nordic” white people in particular, were the pinnacle of human development and their civilizations were the best ever achieved. This foolishness has long since been discredited as simple racism, as have the policy ideas that arose from it. The popular culture, however, has kept alive the “vanishing red man” stereotype that is at the foundation of the phenomenon of Native mascots.

The celebrations of our extinction turned out, of course, to have been premature. However, certain ideas and themes in the popular culture remain persistent and influential. Native mascots are primary offenders in perpetuating these stereotypes. Consider why a franchise or university might choose a Native image to represent its team or teams. We are told that they are meant to honor Native American qualities such as bravery, strength (physical, not mental), endurance, and pride. Certainly Native people had and have those qualities in varying degrees, though I do not believe that they had or have them in greater quantity than other peoples. And why is it that Native people are not chosen to represent positive human qualities such as intelligence, piety, generosity, and love of family? I suppose the answer is that we are far less interesting to mascot makers when revealed to be ordinary human beings, with all the virtues and failures of other human beings.

At the National Museum of the American Indian, we address a public that has been deeply influenced by the failings of formal education and the misinformation imbedded in the popular culture. The existence of Native American mascots is partly responsible for this misinformation. Mascots stereotype Native people, employing imagery and ideas that arose from the racism of the nineteenth century.

I challenge those who find the whole “name change” issue either pointless or an affront to their team loyalty to take the time and watch the symposium, listen to the panelists. Better yet, visit the museum. Talk to the staff. Grasp the cultures of the hundreds of nations that were here before Europeans – and still thrive today. Learn more about the “history” behind the team traditions. (Did you know Lone Star Deitz, whom the team was supposedly named for, was actually 100% German and posed as a Sioux to avoid serving in the Army? I didn’t until yesterday…)

We need to look at this issue not with burgundy and gold glasses, but with educated respect and understanding. That’s how change truly begins. And hopefully, one day soon, we’ll all be united in cheering on a re-branded and re-birthed Washington football franchise.

NMAI: Hear the Song of the Horse Nation

Photo courtesy of
courtesy of ‘bhrome’

(Originally posted at WeLoveDC on 10-31-11)

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian opened its doors this past weekend to a new exhibition, “A Song for the Horse Nation.” The exhibition, nestled on the third floor of the museum, tells the epic tale of the how the return of the horse to the Americas changed Native culture, from lifestyle to war to art and beyond. “For some Native peoples, the horse still is an essential part of daily life,” said exhibit curator Emil Her Many Horses (Ogala Lakota). “For others, the horse will always remain an element of our identity and our history. The Horse Nation continues to inspire, and Native artists continue to celebrate the horse in our songs, our stories, and our works of art.”

To walk the exhibit’s path is to walk side by side with the conjoined path of Native and horse. Though horses were introduced to the Native Americans relatively late in North American history—the early 1700s saw the initial widespread explosion of the horse from captured Spanish mounts in the southwest—the image of Indians astride these graceful animals is one that is common to modern Americans. The “Horse Nation” quickly entwined themselves with Native communities, forever altering tribal culture and the Indian way of life.

The Smithsonian’s exhibit seeks to give us a view into that not-so-distant past. But it’s more than just a simply history lesson: subtly but surely, “A Song for the Horse Nation” reveals how interwoven both horse and man became among 38 tribal communities from the Plains and Western United States. The horse was more than a beast of burden or a tool; the animal became a part of Native culture that still resonates among the people today.
Photo courtesy of
‘beaded coat’
courtesy of ‘bhrome’

It opens with historical context, showing the arrival of the horse to the North American continent from as early as the 1500s. Believed to have returned to the continent after evolving and moving westward through Asia and Europe, the horse made its return among the exploratory ships of the Spanish and British. The first appearance of the horse was quite the shock to the native peoples and helped the Spanish to quickly overcome any opposition. Natives had never seen an animal that could carry a person and many struggled to come up with a name for the new creature. Many Native names for the horse ended up being a derivative of “dog” such as the Cree’s “big dog” (mistatim), the Lakota’s “mystery dog” (sunkakhan), or the Blackfoot’s “elk dog” (ponoka-mita).

Natives quickly turned their fear of the horse into desire for them. In 1680, the Pueblo Uprising opened up the floodgates as hundreds of captured Spanish horses were traded to nearby tribes. The horse population quickly expanded north and east across established tribal trading networks. Historians often note that as the acquisition and absorption of the horse moved west-to-east, the rifle’s debut and spread among Indians moved east-to-west. By the time of the country’s western expansion in the 1800s, both rifle and horse were fixtures among the encountered Native communities.

courtesy of ‘bhrome’

The exhibition quickly recounts the historical narrative, however, moving from scholarly education into that of cultural definition. By the time of America’s expansion into the West, horses had made their mark among the Indians. Their likenesses decorated shirts, dresses, tipis, blankets, and toys. Because the Native perspective sees creation around them as a partner in life rather than an obstacle to overcome, the horse was a fellow creature to share the land with. It’s grace and beauty were respected and honored by Natives; to own a horse was a mark of prestige and blessing. The practice of “giveaway” became an honored tradition and a symbol of wealth. Owning several horses was one thing; generously giving them away in times of ceremony and to those less fortunate was the ultimate gesture in prosperity and humbleness.

Of note is the lengths the exhibition goes in pointing out the importance of horse capturing to these communities. Young men would often go out either solo or in small groups and raid an enemy’s encampment through taking horses. Several artifacts on display show a warrior’s personal record or stories to that effect, decorating their blankets or clothing with these heroic exploits. A young man who could return to the camp with a captured horse received praise and honor from family and friends. Horse capturing was elevated to an art form. And there was no greater honor for such a young man to return astride such a prize and then give it away to a widow or other unfortunate member of the community. Such actions manifested the man’s generosity of spirit, as well as his bravery.

When seen from this point of view, it isn’t hard to page back through the history books in our minds and remember the stories taught about “Indian horse thieves” and how it was a scourge upon the Western colonists. From the white man’s viewpoint, it was breaking the law. From the Indian view, it was a cultural norm. These contradictory viewpoints were but a part of the constant conflict that clashed repeatedly between the ever-expanding Americans and the Natives of land.

Photo courtesy of
‘cree saddle beadwork’
courtesy of ‘bhrome’

Even as the West was lost and the reservations became the norm, the horse never left the Native communities. By the 1900s, the horse was irrevocably tied to Native culture, honored in beadwork and drawings in both art and personal belongings. Though many horses were confiscated by the U.S. government (such as the vast herds of the Nez Perce), they remained an undeniable part of the community. As the exhibition winds through the last days of the frontier and the ends of the Indian Wars, the horse is seen more in cultural symbols and traditions of the tribal communities than as a weapon of war.

It becomes obvious that the cultural shift remained permanent. Even as the reservation lifestyle forever altered Indian ways, it did not sever the connection Natives had to the horse. More and more, Native peoples honored the horse through their beadwork and crafts, creating elaborate decorations and ornamentation for use in celebrations, parades, and powwows. The Smithsonian’s exhibition blooms at the end with artwork from the turn of the 20th Century through the modern day. Contemporary artwork using traditional methods such as beadwork and quillwork, as well as ceramics and oil painting, still convey the respect and honor Natives have for the horse. At the very end, a short film highlights the Nez Perce’s continued efforts to rebuild their horse herds through the Young Horsemen’s Program, which seeks to preserve the Appaloosa made famous by their ancestors. Their dedication to not just breeding but in respecting the animal speaks volumes of the attitudes of many tribal communities today.

By showcasing modern artwork through everyday items such as martingales and blankets, masks and paintings, the exhibition ties together and drives home just how important the horse truly is to Native culture and relevance. It is a syncretistic blend of the old and new, adaptation and growth, and a shining example of the spirit of today’s Native people. The Horse Nation is alive and well because of their efforts and will remain an integral part of the history, culture, and understanding of Native America for generations to come.

A Song for the Horse Nation will remain open through January 7, 2013. The National Museum of the American Indian is located at the corner of 4th Street and Independence Avenue, SW. The closest Metro station is L’Enfant plaza, servicing the Blue, Yellow, Orange, and Green lines. For more information, visit the museum’s website. You can see some of the items in the exhibit on my Flickr site.