THE GOSHEN NEWS
Discussion about the name of Washington D.C.’s National Football League team has been in the news recently. It surfaced again last week when 10 members of Congress sent a letter to the team asking that its name be changed. Team owner Daniel Snyder has said, “We will never change the name.”
I certainly have an opinion about this. A lot of people do. Maybe even most people do. This is very interesting to me. These opinions aren’t so much about sports and team identity. The opinions seem to have more to do with tradition on the one hand and a combination of guilty conscience and social justice on the other.
This hits home for us here in Goshen: Our high school uses the same team name as Washington.
I think the reason this debate about use of Native American images and terms continues to swirl around the country, from the national level to the local level, is because — regardless of opinion on the issue — we all have some fundamental discomfort with the history of what was done to the native peoples of this continent. The way our ancestors treated them, what our ancestors did to them, does not square very well with our preferred mythologies about who and what we are in this country.
One way to react to this troubling history is to honestly say, “We were the winners. They were the losers. We get to use names and images as we want to — that’s always been part of the spoils of victory.”
This is painful, but true.
Another way to react has been to adopt and memorialize certain qualities — identities, names — of native peoples with the intention that this honors their past and current presence among us, that we don’t wish to erase them from the land.
And yet another way to react to this uncomfortable history is by carefully looking at the reality, hearing the stories and recognizing that doing so might change some things.
My reading of the history of the United States suggests that exactly this kind of debate about culture — the sanctity of tradition vs. the tyranny of tradition — is what we are made for. In fact, it’s not hard to argue that this larger debate about tradition was what finally spurred the so-called founding mothers and fathers to action.
In our nation we have constantly been winnowing ideas of tradition which were once widespread and acceptable but which were later clarified as alienating and destructive. This is never easy, always painful.
I have often wondered if it will ever be possible for us to come to terms with our history regarding the treatment of native peoples. We are at a real disadvantage since we are so many generations removed from the actual meeting of our peoples, the actual back and forth fighting and slaughter, the actual instances of real neighborliness and friendship, the final acts of deception and forced removal.
It’s hard for us to know what that must have been like for the Potawatomi and Miami people who once lived near Goshen. It’s hard to imagine what those years must have been like for the settlers who participated.
I do suspect that our current attitudes about native peoples are still heavily shaped by residual attitudes of our ancestors, a tradition which has been handed down over the years in the form of mascots and team names.
We need tradition. It is right and necessary that we recognize the native peoples who lived here before us, and who continue to live among us. It is right to acclaim that which we respect about them, whether it is bravery or care for the earth, which sustains us. How best to do that, and to what extent those very people are allowed to be a part of the discussion is really the heart of the debate.
In Goshen, we are very privileged to be in the murky center of this debate. Not every community has the opportunity and reason for this kind of deep reflection. Whenever the time arrives for us to enter it, we should come — inclusive of all opinions — with passion and courage and honesty. These are among the Native American attributes which we have most highly and consistently idealized. We will need them to look into our own history and attitudes. We have so much to gain by doing so.