I knew the grocery store clerk did not mean to hurt or offend us with her question.
But I saw my sister look down when the woman asked the question amid our idle hurry-and-ring-up-my-groceries chatter, and the big sister in me felt compelled to act.
“She’s your sister?” the woman asked, the surprise evident in her voice as she looked from me, to our baby sister, Dani, and then at Ernie, who stood next to me with her arm around my waist. “Is she adopted?”
I hated that question.
I hated it because I knew the person asking meant no offense. I hated it because it made me feel like my sister wasn’t mine because the same woman hadn’t given birth to both of us. And I hated it because I felt like it sent subtle messages to the little black-eyed beauty I called Ernestito that she wasn’t a real Donaldson.
I never asked Ernie about it, but she has always been so eager to please and easy-going, I'm afraid she would have shrugged and said it didn’t bother her, even if it did.
But I know being constantly reminded that you are an Inupiat Eskimo in a family of Irish and Scottish descendents wasn’t always comfortable.
“No,” I said as kindly as I could, while I pulled Ernie closer. “Our father had an affair with an Eskimo woman. She’s my sister.”
I will never forget Ernie’s face as we laughed about my impromptu decision to soil our father’s reputation. Her giggles washed away my anger, but it also helped me understand that sometimes an innocent question can cause real damage.
I have never felt the sting of racial prejudice. No one’s ever called me derogatory or ethically bigoted names. And no one has ever made me feel like the culture of my ancestors is so flawed, I should turn my back on every aspect of it.
But I have a sister — Ernestine Roxanne Kuutuu Kignak Donaldson — who has had all of these experiences.
And it is my love for my sister that moves me to voice my opinion on the Washington Redskins controversy. It is my understanding of how even the most subtle prejudices and insensitive racial stereotypes can chip away at a person’s self-image. It creates unintentional but dangerous cracks in the confidence of people who don’t understand why there is misunderstanding or misgivings about the color of their skin or the culture into which they were born.
When society embraces stereotypes and images that are hurtful or insulting, it can cause a person to question, reject and even hate that part of themselves, oftentimes without even being aware of it. Sometimes those of us embracing the stereotypes don’t even understand the ways in which we’re hurting other people.
Before I explain why and how my sister’s struggle growing up Eskimo in Alaska relates to the NFL’s Washington Redskins, I need to explain why I didn’t realize just how subtle these messages are sent until I took my sister to meet her biological half-sister in Idaho a few years ago.
Meeting Dora Lynn Kignak-McClain was a life-altering gift. Not only did I see the unconditional love she had for my sister, Ernie, but I also noticed something that’s made me think about racism much differently.
Dora grew up in Idaho and she is deaf. Ernie grew in Alaska and she can hear. This matters because growing up Eskimo in urban Alaska can be a demoralizing experience, especially as part of a white family. While there are issues for those who try to maintain their traditional culture in rural Alaska, those who live in urban areas seem to struggle with the stereotypes that persist. They include the idea that natives are lazy, that they are drunks, and that they are dumb. These ideas are expressed as jokes, sometimes in pictures, other times in the form of verbal barbs or offensive pictures. There is no escaping the fact that there are those who not only don’t see the value or beauty in native culture, but they see it as something of which to be ashamed. It has echoes of the old American Indian boarding school motto, “Kill the Indian, save the child.”
Ernie never embraced her Eskimo heritage as a child, even while my family did. I assumed it was simply the fact that she was growing up in a Caucasian house and so fried potatoes were more appealing than Muktuk (whale blubber).
But watching Dora, who expressed pride in her Eskimo culture in almost every way, interact with Ernie, I had another thought. Maybe Dora wasn’t ashamed of her cultural heritage because she couldn’t overhear the barrage of subtle insults to which Ernie had been subjected all of her life.
Maybe Dora was proud because she hadn’t been subjected to the shaming. Our family has always had a good relationship with Ernie’s biological mother and that’s allowed my sister to connect with family members who share Dora’s pride. Over time, I’ve seen Ernie feel that same pride as she’s reconnected with those relatives.
I cannot help but think of Ernie, Dora and their biological family members whenever the Washington Redskins are discussed. I listen to Dan Snyder talk about why he won’t change the team’s name and why he doesn’t see it as racism. It makes me cringe.
And just yesterday, I read about former head coach Joe Gibbs defending Snyder’s stance by saying the term doesn’t mean what some Native American advocates think it means.
"It was always prideful. It was courage involved," Gibbs said of Washington's team name in a CBS interview. "We have a song, 'Hail to the Redskins.' And so everything — everything — about that name has been positive for me in my past."
And that’s the key to this debate, at least in my mind. Everything about the name “Redskins” is positive for Snyder, Gibbs and their devoted fans. But sports culture shouldn’t trump actual ethnic culture. I don’t believe anyone meant any disrespect when they came up with the name. I agree that the depictions and logos have a courageous and proud energy about them.
But the reality is that referring to Native Americans as “Redskins” has and never will be a compliment no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves otherwise. They don’t refer to each other with that term, and even the dictionary defines it as an offensive term.
The reality is that we’ve outgrown it. We’ve evolved. We didn’t know better when we chose the Redskins as the team’s mascot. Back then, we chose a lot of mascots and depictions of people and their cultures that were silly or belittling. But we know better now. We should defer to the people being portrayed. In many cases we have, but we could still do better, and the Redskins are simply the most obvious.
We should consider the Native American and Eskimo children who are bombarded with images that are often the furthest thing from flattering or courageous. We should consider our own cultures and heritages and how we’d feel if society mocked us in so many ways.
If we really respect Native American culture, we won’t trivialize it by making it a mascot for our sports teams. Even if that sports team is a great organization with a proud tradition.
The tragedies and indignities suffered by Native Americans are clearly chronicled and we should do our best to rid ourselves of any remnants of a time when we not only didn’t respect the courage and beauty of their culture, but tried our best to eradicate it. What's the difference between mascots like the Redskins and the Fighting Irish? Our government never defined Irishmen and their stereotypical propensity to drink and brawl as less than human. In policy and action, our government did exactly that to Native Americans, and so depictions can never be devoid of that historical perception.
Even if the team or school does an admirable job of portraying a tribe or people in a positive light, the fans often engage in stereotypes that are hurtful and inaccurate. The inappropriate use of Native American clothing or distorted traditions can be found among almost every fan base devoted to a Native American mascot.
This isn’t a case of racism as much as it is about racial insensitivity. The real answer is dialogue and education.
We need discussions that are truly open-minded and conversations that seek to bring understanding. We need to stop making excuses, and we need to stop rationalizing what we want. We need to, as the old proverb says, walk a mile in the shoes of those who feel insulted and hurt.
The solution involves the sacrifice of a beloved mascot.
But it also includes a long overdue message that this country should send every day in every way to its citizens of Native American descent: We value your feelings more than we value a jersey. You are infinitely more important to us than a helmet decal or a bumper sticker.
“I seek strength, not to be greater than my brother, but to fight my greatest enemy — myself,” says a prayer from the Lakota Sioux Chief Yellow Lark, translated in 1887. “Make me always ready to come to you with clean hands and straight eyes. So that when life fades, as the fading sunset, my spirit may come to you without shame.”
May we consider how we talk about others — whether it’s their culture, their religion, their family make-up or their socioeconomic status — with this wise man’s words in mind.
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