Photo by Joshua Peacock on Unsplash

Rethinking the injustice of Native American cultural appropriation: Mascots, tomahawk chops, and superfluous DNA testing

Rev. Bryan D. Jackson

March 19, 2020

Leading up to this year’s Super Bowl, stories surfaced again about Kansas City Chiefs fans dressing in Native regalia and “chopping” away with their imaginary tomahawks. Oglala Lakota Simon Moya-Smith reminds us that this cultural hijacking has never been stronger.

I propose that this problem is not about political correctness, as some have suggested. It is about kindness, compassion, and respect, things that, as I understand them, the Lord God would have us emulate. In the book of Isaiah, the Lord offers an example of an ideal we should seek to attain: “‘But with everlasting lovingkindness I will have compassion on you,’ says the Lord your Redeemer.” (Isa. 54:8b NASB).

I propose that the problem of Native American cultural appropriation is not about political correctness, as some have suggested. It is about kindness, compassion, and respect, things that, as I understand them, the Lord God would have us emulate.

I grew up in a home where Atlanta Braves baseball ruled supreme. In those days—we’re talking the 1970s here—despite my father being of Cherokee descent, we cheered the team’s mascot, Chief Noc-a-Homa, who would emerge from a teepee in the stands and dance whenever a Braves player (most often my childhood hero, Hank Aaron) would hit a home run. We found it entertaining. But those were different times and my family was not part of a tribal community, and clueless to the type of disenfranchisement such antics create. My family’s lack of understanding is something for which I have tried to have compassion in middle age.

Things are different today. Native tribal members and other serious individuals of legitimate tribal descent are usually not amused by such behavior. With respect to American Indian mascots, Moya-Smith references the American Psychological Association (APA), which made a statement about this in 2005. Former APA President Dr. Ronald F. Levant said:

The use of American Indian mascots as symbols in schools and university athletic programs is particularly troubling because schools are places of learning. These mascots are teaching stereotypical, misleading and too often, insulting images of American Indians. These negative lessons are not just affecting American Indian students, they are sending the wrong message to all students.

That was fifteen years ago. Yet, Dr. Levant’s words are worth inwardly digesting. If something is insulting, it implies disrespect. Native Americans have been arguing for years that the lack of compassion shown by other Americans, particularly at sporting events, reeks of a carnival or circus-type atmosphere by which non-Natives are blinded. Contemporary Americans simply cannot seem to grasp the disrespect inherent in donning a costume (often a variation of one considered sacred or holy by one tribe or another) and using it—too often in a drunken stupor—to cheer on their favorite team and/or mascot.

The writer of Ephesians tells us: “…so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” (Eph. 2:7). I take this to mean that God intends for us to show others grace and mercy by way of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps, in our context here, it means honoring another’s sacred traditions and/or religion by not dressing up like a child at Halloween and trick-or-treating through the use of senseless mimicking of Native standards and profoundly loved traditions. I could be wrong.

But here’s the thing: as a devout Cherokee descendant who takes his heritage and tribal community seriously, I doubt it.

I’m cautious about my fellow Christian neighbor who, influenced almost exclusively by what he has garnered through his local church and a terse reading of the Old and New Covenants, might be ignorant of cultural appropriation and its consequences. This is probably someone who might recall a little U.S. history from his secondary schooling but not much. And there is no way he was exposed to the true history of American Indians.

How do I know this? Because none of us were. It won’t be in your old history book (or the Bible, so please don’t waste your time or mine).

In addition to mascots, pseudo-Native dress, and imaginary tomahawks, there is the ever-popular DNA test. Americans have become hyper-focused on genetic testing in efforts to “prove” Native identity. Although these attempts are usually sincere, the concern about respect is real. More than one well-known individual has taken the “DNA evidence” idea to astoundingly disrespectful heights.

One either has testable Native American ancestry or one does not. Tribal citizenship is important, but not as much as standing on the shoulders of Native ancestors one actually knows existed, and doing one’s best to bring honor to them.

Jesus said, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt. 7:12 ESV) This message is sometimes referred to as the Golden Rule and is anchored in absolute, mutual respect. Our Lord’s command to us is an example for all contemporary Americans. Many who swipe from another’s culture today claim they are merely “honoring” Natives. My Cherokee self would not think of humiliating my German self by standing outside of a bar, beer stein in hand, wearing a WWII helmet and glass eye monocle, making Third Reich gestures to passersby.

Can that guy holding his history book see the problem? What if this was his wife, husband, parent, or child that I was seeking to “honor?”

Overall, people mean well. The Great Spirit created us and “saw that it was good,” as we read in Genesis. This is a lack of awareness issue that, as with so many with which we are forced to deal, will hopefully reverse as we see change—in ourselves and in others.

Kindness, compassion, respect: As a Christian of Cherokee descent, these are traits I seek in myself and others above all else. They make the world go round. Perhaps Tecumseh (Shawnee) said it best when he was believed to have uttered, “Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours.”

We can—and must—do better than appropriating and confiscating Native American cultures. Faith, hope, and love call us to a higher standard.

The Rev. Bryan D. Jackson is an American Baptist minister and a member of the Mount Hood Cherokees, a satellite community of the Cherokee Nation. He lives in Kirkland, Washington and is the author of Chattahoochee Rain: A Cherokee novella.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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