Like it or not, autumn is here, and all the signifiers have been thrust upon us: Starbucks is flooding guts with its much-beloved (or much-despised) Pumpkin Spice Lattes, big box stores have loaded their shelves with Halloween supplies (and Christmas junk) way too early, and conversations about people’s fantasy football teams seem absolutely impossible to avoid.
And although I have an unwavering fondness for gorgeous foliage, a gentle chill in the air and sweaters and scarves, there’s an underbelly to the season that never fails to show itself every September.
It all begins with the launch of the professional football season before the equinox, with its omnipresent racist sports mascots. Every autumn, die-hard Washington football fans, for example, rush to tailgate parties at which they don faux feather headdresses, pound beers and brats and yell things like, “I’m a quarter Choctaw! I can wear this if I want!” — which, in fact, was barked at me a few years back just outside FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland.
Of course, wearing a fake Native American headdress is offensive and racist any time of the year because it mocks and diminishes what they represent. Think of them as our Medal of Honor, if you will — something bestowed upon a person who has demonstrated leadership, sacrifice and selflessness— worn as a mark of one’s devotion and commitment to our people. You have to earn the right to wear one, and you certainly don’t wear one just to celebrate watching other people play a football game. I’m an enrolled citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation, and I can’t even wear one because I haven’t earned it — yet.
Then, on the heels of mascot mawkishness comes Columbus Day, the yearly countrywide celebration of an egomaniacal murdering maniac whose men would reportedly test the sharpness of their blades by filleting the skin of indigenous men, women, and, yes, even children. He kidnapped Native women for the purposes of rape, and allowed invaders (a.k.a. settlers) under his rule to sell prepubescent Native children into sexual slavery. Under his rule, according to a Dominican priest who documented the atrocities under Columbus and helped bring his administration to an end, he also had hanged 13 Natives at a time — one for each of the Apostles, and one more in the name of Jesus Christ.
Of course, while Columbus fans often excuse the seedy sailor’s genocide by claiming he “was just a man of his time!” — though he was, after all, trundled back to Europe in chains and charged with crimes against humanity because of the aforementioned priest — others are already busy trying to figure out what they’re going to be this year for Halloween.
And some of those people will put that football game headdress back on their empty head, wrap an imitation buckskin around their waist and then, right before they stumble out the door, add a toy bow and arrow to their offensive “Indian Warrior” costume.
But let’s be completely honest here: Despite the fact that, as has been said before, my culture is not your costume, American kids learn in elementary school that it is perfectly acceptable to play-act another race, at the ever-racist Thanksgiving play no less.
Despite the fact that, as has been said before, my culture is not your costume, American kids learn in elementary school that it is perfectly acceptable to play-act another race.
Parental types get all giddy when little Bobby and Mary take the stage in paper headbands and feathers, being called “little injuns” and “beautiful squaws.” (The latter is actually a grotesque term some white settlers — I mean invading colonial males — used to refer to female genitalia.) So no wonder they think it’s OK as adults to play another race. But it wasn’t then, and it isn’t now.
And, while those plays might touch on the fact that the first Thanksgiving came about because the white invaders were starving, it probably won’t mention that it was because, when they arrived, they were so busy haphazardly digging for gold that they forgot to plant crops. And they certainly won’t portray the fact that, since the colonists were grave robbers — frequently digging up freshly buried Native bodies searching for gold and anything else of perceived value — when starvation set in, they also fed on the flesh of recently deceased Natives, as author and professor James W. Loewen wrote in his book, “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.”
The lesson here is not only that no one ate turkey at “the first Thanksgiving.” If you really want to get into the spirit of the original festivities, you’re going to have to eat some of Uncle Frank.
It’s OK that you just learned that: It’s almost Native American Heritage Month, which is every November — but no one ever seems to notice. Every Nov. 1, I make it a point to wish everyone a “happy Native American Heritage Month!” The all too typical response is, “Oh, is it? I didn’t know. When did that happen?”
It happened in 1990 under the George H.W. Bush administration. But perhaps part of the problem is that kids are never in class on Native American Heritage Day — which is always the day after Thanksgiving — to learn about it, let alone to learn about who Natives are today and who we are not (i.e, mascots or drunkards, dead or gone).
So, this autumn, before you put on that mocking headdress for the big game and swill some frothy stuff, before you dress the kids up as little “injuns” and “squaws” and certainly before you put a little bit of Uncle Frank in the oven in celebration of what the earlier colonizers ate during their first autumn on American soil, think about the consequences of these hardly factual, hurtful holidays. And then be the one to refuse to participate in the continued dehumanization of Natives, as well as any racist behavior aimed at us.
Also, avoid any store that sells Christmas crap in September. It’s just not right.