- Sayota Knight is an Apache who lives and works in Putnam County, Tennessee, and is an artist, educator and activist for Native American culture.
Living in Putnam County for 25 years, I’m disturbed but unsurprised by recent events that happened here. On Feb. 4, the Putnam County School Board voted against an exploratory committee to discuss Algood Middle School’s racist “Redskins” mascot. After months negotiating, everyone who advocated change was disgusted.
Being from the N’de, commonly called the Apache Nation, I see the dark shadows of America’s brutal history toward my ancestors. Throughout U.S. history, Native Americans were repeatedly led into unfair treaties by the U.S. government and European American citizens supposedly seeking to share resources but ultimately stealing land, promising to give something they never had a right to take. Native Americans gave trust, only to have that trust betrayed. The board’s irresponsibility is reminiscent of the same type of betrayal.
Undoing stereotypes with young people
For decades, upon invitation from teachers, I visited Parkview, Capshaw and Sycamore Elementary, Avery Trace Middle School, Monterey’s Burks Elementary, and Algood Elementary School. I taught about Native dances, songs and ceremonies — showing children traditional artwork, pottery, arrowheads and other tools used by Native American ancestry. In this cultural sharing, I saw the minds, eyes and hearts of children open, realizing that not everything they’ve been taught or believe about Native American culture is true.
My passion for better educating children comes from the constant stereotypes Native Americans battle through incorrect history books, cartoons, movies and sporting events.
Hear more Tennessee Voices:Get the weekly opinion newsletter for insightful and thought provoking columns.
Inspiration for change unfolded from recent national events. The National Football League’s Washington team decided, after economic pressure, to drop “Redskins” and the mascot. Cleveland’s Major League Baseball team dropped its cartoon image Chief Wahoo. Then due to national pressure, announced plans to drop the team name.
Although morally right, the decisions were unpopular. As Americans, we use the word “community” without truly understanding its meaning. To quote Indigenous leader Georges Erasmus, “Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created.”
In short, there can be no real community until there is real shared experience. I ask Tennesseans to embrace experiences of Native Americans. Demand that symbols and language be used with respect toward Native Americans, not just for Native Americans but for all who believe we are one community.
The violent history of Redskins
The brutal history of “Redskins” starts with the 1755 Phips Proclamation, allowing companies to hire poor European Americans as bounty hunters to hunt and murder members of the Penobscot tribe in Massachusetts. The Daily Republican in Winona, Minnesota printed an ad stating a person could earn $200 “for every red-skin sent to Purgatory.” Bounty hunters had to show proof of kill by bringing back the scalp or skins of murdered Native Americans.
State-sanctioned westward expansion was supported by cattle ranch, railroad and mining industries. Native Americans on tribal land stood in the way of company profits. After decades of brutal genocidal campaigns, Native Americans were subject to prisoner of war camps, now called reservations. What shared experiences do Non-Native people have being called “Redskin”?
Dictionaries define Redskin as: “…an insulting and contemptuous term for an American Indian.” It’s fact, not opinion, that it’s a derogatory slur.
School board can do better
How can a board that professes inclusiveness with anti-discriminatory policies, allow this offensive, racist term to be their mascot? What if the mascot was African American termed “Blackskin,” or better yet if it was European American termed “white trash”? The board wouldn’t resist abolishing it. Why is it different for Native Americans?
The boards hypocrisy in breaking its anti-discrimination policy and stopping negotiations to discuss the mascot is an outrage and betrayal to the community. I’m asking for support in demanding that Algood Middle School’s mascot be changed.
Sayota Knight is an Apache who lives and works in Putnam County, Tennessee, and is an artist, educator and activist for Native American culture.