Language reflects the times, and new words, phrases and memes help us understand how our culture is shifting.
How to use language to confer respect and inclusion of people unlike oneself can be a challenge. Words used in American culture to refer to people with African ancestry have shifted over the last 60 years from “Colored” to “Negro” to “African-American” to “black” and “Black.” Now people of African ancestry are often included in the catchall term, “people of color,” or the more nuanced acronym, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People Of Color”). At The Durango Herald, we generally follow Associated Press guidelines for race, which currently capitalize Black but not white, and recommend avoiding “people of color,” as it is vague and some people do not want to be lumped into a category based on skin color.
Just as confusing as language use is the use of imagery. We’ve all been following the controversies about the use of Native American imagery for sports mascots. Savages. Warriors. Chiefs. Indians. Almost exclusively male, these images represent the “Noble Savage,” early white anthropologists’ idealized stereotyping of the indigenous North American residents they encountered and studied. (“Indigenous” now is often used as an alternative to “Native American.” It’s a good example of terminology that is currently morphing, with the outcome yet to be determined.)
Not all Native Americans feel the same about the use of Native mascots (surprise!), but many find their use offensive, and leading mental health organizations now promote their abandonment, saying they are especially detrimental to Native American youth.
A year ago, the Washington Redskins football team finally decided to retire its mascot and adopt the simple name, Washington Football Team. Most recently, the Cleveland Indians baseball team dropped its mascot and selected “Guardians,” named for the large stone guardians that flank Hope Memorial Bridge in that city. The latter has likely made the wisest choice by replacing an old icon with an new icon that can be easily adopted and reproduced in graphic arts, advertising and specialty items – and one that is already familiar to Cleveland residents.
Closer to home, the Colorado Legislature this year passed legislation that will for the most part outlaw the use of Native American mascots in public schools and publicly funded universities. The law has proved to be contentious in some locales, but the Southern Utes, the Ute Mountain Utes and the Northern Arapahos supported the bill, as have tribes in other states – including Washington and Nevada – that have passed similar laws. Individual school districts across the nation are leading their states in making decisions to abandon mascots that degrade Native peoples.
Does all of this attention to words and symbols really make a difference? The answer is an unequivocal Yes. How we see ourselves reflected in our culture defines who we believe we can become and instructs those in power how we are to be treated.
We have arrived at an inflection point, here in Durango as in the rest of the country. We are being asked to abandon outdated ideas and respect all people, particularly the Native Americans in our community and country. While these changes are hard for some people to accept, they are a necessary component of healing the rift, weaving together the rent fabric of our collective being, aiming for a wholeness we have not yet experienced.
Renaming sports mascots is at least a good start.