The great failure of the Indians mascot debate? Thinking of it only as racism

A fan in Cleveland waves a Wahoo sign during Game 1 of the World Series. Michael F. McElroy/ESPN

Sterling HolyWhiteMountain is a fiction writer and essayist. He currently lives on the Blackfeet Reservation, and directs the writing center at Blackfeet Community College.

When I think about the Cleveland Indians I think about growing up on the Blackfeet Reservation in northwest Montana. I think about going out with my friends in the summer evenings to hit softballs and, when there weren't too many cars parked nearby, baseballs. And I think about a hat I wore all the time, sprung from that common mid-'90s mold, with a huge, grinning Wahoo stretched across the front. I was as much an Indians fan as you can be in a state where baseball isn't a thing, on a reservation where basketball is the only thing, at a time when professional sports on TV were not easily accessible.

Though I can't say for sure, my identification with the team was probably twofold. I had some sense that I was an Indian, in particular Blackfeet, and the goofy iconography and name were familiar. The name of our high school basketball team is simply the Browning Indians. Kids on this reservation, like kids on many reservations, grow up hearing older people refer to themselves as Indians, though it is becoming more common now for people to refer to themselves by their respective tribal names, in their respective languages, those indigenous languages that precede the arrival of English in North America by millennia. And Wahoo-like imagery is still not uncommon in Indian Country, though it is typically used for humorous or ironic purposes -- our way of turning the stereotype on its red face.

For many reservation people, the truth of the Wahoo image has been slow to arrive. Even if we have difficulty admitting it, we're aware that Indian people come in all shapes, sizes, colors and attitudes. Although Wahoo is based on a degrading stereotype stemming from a time when America was trying to destroy American Indian people while simultaneously mocking and romanticizing us, it is difficult for that stereotype to take hold in a place where 99 percent of the people are Indian. Like people in any dynamic community, we see each other every day (for better and for worse). There is a palpable distance between the falsehood of the stereotype and our lived experience; Wahoo is overcome by the reality of real Indians, with real names, real hungers, real loves and real problems. Yet reservation Indians live with the difficulties of the noble-savage stereotype each time we cross the boundary lines of our respective homelands and enter that other world called America. We deal with the difficulty of overwhelming American ignorance regarding Indian people -- something Indians who live off-reservation deal with every day.

These issues of stereotype are, however, familiar by now, and it has been the great failure of the Indian-mascot debate to connect the issue to something other than racism and the self-esteem of individual Indian people. What remains unaddressed is the true history of Indian Country, which is to say the true history of the United States: a story of abrogated treaties, of tribal sovereignty limited by Congressional law and of specious Supreme Court decisions, all of which have either hampered or destroyed the ability of tribal people to govern themselves as political sovereigns on their own land. It is this history that created a set of systems that keep tribal nations locked in a suffocating political and economic limbo. American Indians are not minorities in any traditional sense. We are the descendants of the original majority, citizens of over 500 distinct tribes, and holders of special legal and political status resulting from the treaties we signed with the U.S. government, the same government that broke every one of those agreements.

Right now, while the Cleveland Indians have a chance to win their first World Series since 1948, the most significant American Indian protest of the last 40 years is taking place just north of the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. At Sacred Stone Camp, hundreds and sometimes thousands of people have been camped for months, protesting an oil pipeline whose route crosses land taken from the Lakota people by Congress, a violation of an 1868 treaty between the Sioux and the United States. More than a hundred peaceful protesters have been arrested in the last week alone, and, as construction has brought the pipeline nearer to the Missouri River, neither side has shown any sign of backing down.

It is a strange thing to consider, that while the Cleveland Indians play a baseball game televised to millions of elated fans, all of whom will see the Indians' egregious mascot paraded across their TV screens, real Indians will be standing in the way of a pipeline that could endanger not only the water supply of multiple reservations, but also the lower halves of both the Missouri and Mississippi River ecosystems. These latter Indians are the ones I know. The ones who assert their sovereign rights even when those rights are not recognized. The ones who travel from all over the country to support a particular tribe's cause because, though we are all distinct peoples, we are nonetheless all in this together. The ones who will laugh, as we American Indians tend to do, even in the darkest of circumstances.

Because I cannot be in North Dakota this week, I will undertake my own lesser protest action, that of bearing witness to the World Series. I will bear witness to how far we haven't come since the time of broken treaties. I will bear witness to the distance between here and a future when tribal nations can govern themselves without U.S. federal oversight. I will bear witness to Wahoo, who is not merely a symbol of disrespect, but one that reminds Americans and American Indians alike how the United States has failed to honor its agreements with tribal people.

And while I watch this Series, my nieces and nephews will surely be around, because they are always around, doing what little kids do. Each one of them beautiful, each one of them Blackfeet, each one of them nothing like Indians are supposed to look. I will watch this Series for them, because, despite the resurgence of Wahoo imagery, it will not always be this way. Someday, when there is less money to be made, Cleveland will come to its senses. Its so-called chief will fade into Native American studies classrooms and Internet searches, and all of us will be better for the loss. I will watch this Series because I want to tell these kids, when they're old enough to understand, that once there was a World Series played when the most racist mascot imaginable was everywhere you looked, while at the same time Indians, real ones, were being illegally arrested in another state, peacefully protesting a pipeline that endangered millions of Americans. I will tell them that, despite all of those things being past, the history that made them lives on -- and they will fight that history for the rest of their lives.