“Trail of Tears Round 2”? Indeed…

By Karen Sause, Ph.D. student, Department of History,(and a not-so-proud 2001 graduate of Allegany High School, Home of the Campers)

Since it made headlines, people have been asking “How could they have been so thoughtless, so blindly insensitive?”

In light of November’s designation as Native American Heritage Month, I expected to see indigenous issues making headlines for the next few weeks, but I was taken aback by a story that came across my Facebook Newsfeed last Monday morning. It was posted by the native comedic sketch group the 1491s, who performed here at UMass last week; but sadly, the story was not one of their acts and was certainly no laughing matter.

This past weekend in Jefferson County, Alabama, the McAdory High School “Yellow Jackets” played the Pinson Valley “Indians.” Predictably, students and fans festooned the field and stadium with signs taunting their opponents, but the banner the McAdory cheerleaders unrolled for the football team to run through was exceptionally offensive: “Hey Indians, get ready to leave in a Trail of Tears Round 2.”

In their tongue-in-cheek commentary, the 1491s noted that they “were so honored to receive a personal invite to the second Trail of Tears,” and listed the phone numbers for both high schools and the county congressman Spencer Bachus. This way, they suggested, people could conveniently “RSVP…As there are only so many [people] the Army can move at once.” By evening, the principal of McAdory had issued the expected apology on behalf of the cheerleaders, but denied that the banner had been approved at any official level. Further distancing himself from the mishap, he noted that the squad’s regular advisor was out on maternity leave. He assured the public that all of the students at McAdory High would receive a history lesson on the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and that the cheerleaders would be disciplined. I do not believe, however, that an absentee advisor can explain this regrettable incident, nor do I think that the students intended to invoke malice. My bet is that at the time the cheerleaders unfurled their banner, they prided themselves for having made a clever historical reference that fans would find humorous.

I cringe because I know how this happened, and 15 years ago it easily could have been me who had made this mistake. Yes, I am a product of a high school with a horribly stereotypical Indian mascot, the Campers…So my dirty little secret is out. Not that it is actually much of a secret; I have used images from the annual homecoming game (when the most stereotypical troupes are on full display) in the classroom on several occasions. Some of my students have expressed bemusement that, given my course of study, I could have come from a place like that. But for three years, I played in the marching band and proudly blasted the “Tomahawk Chop” (complete with chopping arm actions and grotesquely stylized “war songs”) at least once at every home game. From 1995-1999 my hometown of Frostburg, Maryland, played host to the summer training camp for that football team from D.C. For a number of years thereafter, their fearsome mascot lingered on various light poles, signposts, and even the local tourist steam engine. I am sad to report that growing up in an environment where Indian mascots were part of the landscape, I was at first blissfully unaware, and then later unimpressed by the arguments against using Indians as mascots. It wasn’t until after college that my academic training and cultural upbringing finally began to collide. Since then, I have been engaged in a continual process of what Dr. Alice Nash teaches in her undergraduate course on Indigenous Peoples as “unlearning to learn.”

I relate this anecdote not as a mea culpa or an act of self-flagellation, but rather to demonstrate 1) the power that a complicit, hegemonic culture has over an individual who might otherwise question hurtful behaviors (I certainly wouldn’t have stood for a mascot pouncing around in black face, nor would anyone else I knew); and 2) to highlight the danger of history taught as series of dry and disconnected facts that students memorize in order to circle the correct answers on a multiple choice exam. These students don’t need another history lesson — it is clear they have already memorized this key event from U.S. history and have demonstrated that they know the Trail of Tears was not a winning occasion: it was an event for losers. What they lack is the ability to answer the questions “So what?” and “How does this event continue to have resonance?” They need an accessible social narrative that connects the issues of the past to the present.

When we ask ourselves how a group of high school students could have been so insensitive, we have to consider the parameters of the world they inhabit and we constructed. To them, and no doubt most of their parents, the Trail of Tears happened way back then to those people, and there is no connection that those people are today’s indigenous peoples — the remaining survivors of a government instituted physical and cultural genocide supported by a complicit citizenry. It is here that we arrive at the crux of the Indians-as-Mascots issue: I am sure that in their minds, these cheerleaders weren’t poking fun of living people, they were taunting a mascot, a caricature, a non-person, a non-living-never-has-lived-or-breathed cartoon, an entity which is the intended target of jest and ridicule.

When at the national and local levels we accept the appropriation of living peoples into historically inaccurate caricatures that are used for the star attractions in rituals of playful trash-talking fodder, we can’t act surprised when teenagers do not understand that they have breached a barely tangible line of appropriate behavior. After all, the gap between declaring that some Indian-themed team was “on the warpath” and telling the Indian-theme opposition that they’re gonna “leave in a trail of tears” is a short and highly slippery slope. In short, our society set these young ladies up to fail.

Whatever ramifications are in store for the cheerleaders at McAdory High, I hope that the spirit of “the teachable moment” their principal promised prevails. I hope the young ladies walk away understanding that their error was not merely a matter of semantics in a battle over political correctness, but part of a larger movement toward acknowledging our nation’s violent heritage. I hope their history teachers rethink their curricula and find ways — even with government mandates and constrictive testing formats — to make history a living, meaningful story. Most of all, I hope that Pinson Valley, my alma mater, and That-Team-In-Washington-Whose-Owner-Won’t-Change-Their-Bloody-Name, all finally bow to modern sensibilities. With a new cultural climate, each subsequent generation of America’s youth will have less to unlearn and be better equipped to deal with present problems that carry over from the past.

Here’s a suggestion: All Hail the 2014 Pinson Valley High School Fighting Jelly Fish! “Stock up on Baking Soda — Our Touchdowns Burn!!”

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