Commentary: In the image of the Creator –– Native people and mascots

The Lakota borrow a story from the Cheyenne about a little mouse.

Hearing a roaring sound, the little mouse follows the noise to the banks of a great river. There he sees the reflection of the Shining Mountains and rushes back to tell the other mice of his discovery.

On his journey to the Shining Mountains, the mouse sees things he has never seen before.  He encounters others on the journeys who have lost health or spiritual identity.  He gives his eyes (his way of seeing) so that others may be made whole. In the process he can no longer see as a mouse sees. 

At the end of the story, he realizes that he is seeing differently. The voice of Wakan Tanka (God) speaks to the mouse, saying, “I have changed your name. You are eagle.” 

When we are on the journey; God changes the way in which we see the world. The mouse village loses focus as the most important thing in our world. We begin to see the world more as God. It is, however, our willingness to touch and be touched, and to give away our manner of seeing, that God uses.

The Book of Discipline says, “Our struggles for human dignity and social reform have been a response to God’s demand for love, mercy and justice in the light of the Kingdom.”  It reminds us, that we believe that the “…love of God is always linked with love of neighbor, a passion for justice, and a renewal in the life of the world.”

Often, our idea of an individual or people group takes the place of genuine understanding. When individuals or groups of people become objects, it is easier to view them within the context of our own purpose. When individuals or groups become objects, we no longer treat them as persons of sacred worth. Affirming the sacred worth of all individuals is an integral part of the mission of the church.

Logos or mascots for sports teams are publicly identifiable symbols.  Other than a limited number of historical references to non-contemporary people groups, Native people are the only ethnic groups still used as logos and mascots by sports teams. Native people are represented in caricature. Often, the image is a stereotypical one featuring the most marketable representation of more than 562 Native groups.

In most cases, the retention of Native images and names are based upon the amount of revenue produced by the images. Comic caricatures of Native people do not reflect the sacredness or beauty of Native people, and many of these images strengthen the misconception of Native people as war-like or violent.  

Both the English and Spanish offered bounties to those who killed Native people. The proof was the hair of the person killed. To prove that the hair actually represented a death, it was required that a portion of the skin remain attached. The amount of the bounty was determined by whether the hair, or red skin was from a man, woman or child.  “Redskin” then became a term with which to objectify a Native person.  Most scholars identify the act of scalping among some Native people as a result of this bounty practice.

The preservation of Native cultures has been difficult. Much has been lost.  Imagine seeing tribal dress and dances that take years of preparation and even spiritual training parodied by a non-Native person on an athletic field. It is as significant as taking elements of Christian worship and using them in the same setting.

Our theological basis for affirming Native people is found in the Wesleyan understanding of Christian discipleship. The gospel affirms human worth. The church cannot express that worth while refusing to address elements in itself and society that demean people and cultures. The desire of individuals and corporations to profit from demeaning images ought to be a concern of all people, especially those identified as followers of Jesus Christ.

At this General Conference, Native Americans are asking us to see them as they are.

God asks us to see beyond the village in which we live, to encounter new things, to “give away” our way of seeing the world.

In the end we see the world as God does.

*Buckley is director of the Native People Communications Office at United Methodist Communications

News media contact: (412) 325-6080 during General Conference, April 27-May 7. after May 10: (615) 742-5470.

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