April 25, 2019  

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Native Voices Challenge Mascot, Nickname Usage in Documentary ‘More Than a Word’

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John Little has been there himself.

“I grew up a (University of North Dakota) Fighting Sioux fan,” says Little, 30, the co-director of a documentary about the appropriation of Native American names and images by sports teams. The film, “More Than a Word,” was screened Jan. 30 at the University of Southern Mississippi.

“One reason is, they were national champions in hockey, and I wanted to play hockey for them,” Little says. “But (the university) was using that ‘honor’ to justify the treatment of Natives: We have this mascot, but we don’t really care about real Natives.” The university eventually dropped the mascot and nickname in 2012.

Little, a Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota, and his brother and co-director, Kenn, both belong to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. They created the film, released last September, to explore the intersection of sports fans’ passion for their teams and how those teams have chosen to represent themselves with images and names from Native Americans or other indigenous people.

Emotions can run high on both sides.

“One of the biggest things if you go to a news article about the issue and read the comments, it’s a shouting match,” Little says. “And people were deciding what should be right for Native Americans without including Native or indigenous voices.

“We really wanted to do (the film) from an indigenous perspective. The majority of people who participated, who were interviewed, are Natives. Our narrator is Native.”

Little was optimistic about the news Jan. 29 that the Cleveland Indians would discontinue the use of their Chief Wahoo logo in 2019. In the film, that logo is compared to the racist Sambo caricature.

“It’s really great, and I’d really like to see it happen in 2019,” he says. “They kind of announced (the discontinuation) a couple of years ago, and phased it out for a little bit when Cleveland was bad. As soon as they got good, they brought the logo and the mascot back again.

“So I want to see 2019 when it goes away and is retired. I would hope the Washington football team would make the same move.”

That Washington National Football League (NFL) team, the Redskins, is at the heart of “More Than a Word.” Early in the film, the question is asked from the Native American perspective: “Why have we been reduced to a single word, a silhouette (the logo)?”

Little avoids using the “R-Word” whenever possible. “My brother was comparing it to Voldemort at one time,” he says of the “Harry Potter” character, who is also referred to as He Who Must Not Be Named. “You don’t want to give it that much power if you don’t have to.

“I think we should get rid of all Native mascots or race-based mascots. There would never be anyone defending, ‘Oh, we could have an African slave as our mascot,’ or anything like that. I just think there should be no case for that.

“In my opinion, the Washington football team is the worst offender of all, because that is a race-based mascot but also a stereotype and a racial slur. The dictionary defines it as a slur.”

Two legal challenges in federal court to force Washington to change the name have failed, leaving advocates to create stunts like the one in December in which a fake website, social media accounts and news releases announced that Washington had decided to change the Redskins name to Redhawks.

“That was very controversial in Indian Country,” Little says. “I’m a fan of anything that will keep the issue in the news. But a lot of people were real upset by it. I can understand that because it gave a lot of people false hope. At the same time, it raised a lot of awareness, and the Washington team had to respond to it.

“There are not a lot of other options. You’ve lost the legal system, and Dan Snyder has adamantly said he will never change it. I admire the people who really pushed it.”

A less controversial movement is Rebrand Washington Football, an advocacy group of fans who love the team but no longer support the nickname. Anyone can sign a petition to change the name at rebrandwf.org.

In a talk after the screening, Little brought the issue close to home for Southern Miss students. He says he always researches the communities where he shows the film – more than 100 screenings so far, mostly at universities and colleges – to show what local schools use Native mascots and logos. 

He highlighted a list of mascots from Mississippi schools, and several students in the audience spoke up to say the film had opened their eyes about their high school alma maters’ nicknames.

“It’s really everywhere you go,” Little says. “It’s raising awareness on a local level. For most people this is always a national issue. But when you look around at cultural appropriation of mascots in general, it’s everywhere you look.

“So I hope students take away that this is what native people see every day. And I hope they can start thinking through these things a little bit differently.”

The University Forum, Department of History and School of Social Work sponsored the event. The University’s copy of “More Than a Word” will be available at Cook Library on the Hattiesburg campus in the coming weeks.