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Filmmaker details fight to eliminate Native American sports mascots

Oct 28, 2022
A man speaks on a stage.
A man speaks on a stage.

KOKOMO, Ind. — In the conflict over the Washington NFL team’s former mascot, many voices spoke for and against the name, seen by some as tradition, and others as a racial slur. 

Filmmakers and brothers John Little and Kenn Little, members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, created a 70-minute film, More than a Word, to give voice to native people in this controversy. It was released in 2017, before the team changed its name to the Washington Football Team in 2020, then rebranded as the Washington Commanders in 2022.

John Little talked about the film, and ongoing efforts to eliminate Native American themed mascots, as part of Indiana University Kokomo’s social justice speaker series Thursday (October 27).

“This is about mascots and cultural appropriation,” said Little, who is also director of native recruitment and alumni engagement at the University of South Dakota. He’s proud the film was 95 percent indigenous made.

“It was a bunch of native people going up against a billion-dollar organization,” he said. “We wanted to provoke discussion, and open dialogue and conversation. We’re starting to see other changes as well.”

Those changes have included the renaming of other mascots, including the Cleveland Guardians, leaving only Atlanta with a native themed mascot in Major League Baseball.

The change is happening slowly, however. The number of schools with Native American mascots has declined to 1,913 in 972 districts, representing about 8 percent of mascots. Native Americans make up about 2 percent of the U.S. population.

In Indiana, Little added, there are 57 Native-themed mascots, including Braves, Warriors, Raiders, Apache, Blackhawks, Thunderbirds, Cherokee, and Mohawk.

Little encouraged students to be allies, to speak against injustice when they see it. He used the example of Ian Washburn, a third-generation Washington football season ticket holder he followed with a camera as Washburn led a petition drive for the name change.

“He’s an amazing example of being an ally,” Little said. “He looks like he’s from that community. Sometimes it gets put on native people to change these conversations, at the same time we have other trauma to deal with. It’s important for non-native people to speak up, use your voice, and have those conversations. Just raise your voice about it and raise awareness.”

Kokomo resident Sally Tuttle, an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation who serves on the Indiana Native American Indian Affairs Commission, said the organization passed a resolution last week requesting and demanding that all schools in the state do away with native themed mascots, and investigate stereotyping taught in the schools.

She recalled her own youth in a boarding school, where staff used degrading language against the students. Tuttle also remembered her grandmother cautioning her not to move to Indiana in 1970 because “they don’t like Indian people there,” based on the forced removal of the Miami in 1836.

“The words are what hurt. The words are what stuck with us, and put us through trauma,” Tuttle said. “You see how long that impact lasts. It doesn’t go away with just one generation. It takes every generation to keep fighting to bring dignity to the native community. It takes cooperation of people who are not native, who are outside, and see the injustice, who help. That’s what we ask for, is help.”

 Tess Barker, vice chancellor for student affairs and enrollment management, said the social justice speaker series is designed to provide space to listen, learn, and understand, with the goal of fostering a more just community.

Education is KEY at Indiana University Kokomo.

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