I have to hand it to him. John Kane isn’t angry, bitter or resentful.
He has spent an adult lifetime observing, and sometimes suffering, the slings and arrows (no pun intended) of those who presumably don’t know better.
It hasn’t twisted his world or made him a cynical crank. He believes that most folks, once informed, don’t cling to prejudice or embrace racism. He remains what he always has been: A well-adjusted, spiritually generous guy whose ancestors were here before the Mayflower arrived, and have – in one way or another – been paying the price ever since.
Lancaster High School, or any other institution, clinging to the “Redskins” nickname is a relatively minor slight, given an appalling history of government policies designed to exterminate, “resettle,” and erase the culture of Native Americans. But there are no degrees of inexcusable.
“At best, you’re reducing someone’s identity to the color of their skin,” said Kane. “At worst, it recalls a history where ‘redskin’ was the scalp of a Native American, hunted for bounty and given as proof of his killing, since it was easier than transporting a body.”
Geez, nice nickname.
Kane has a professor’s vocabulary and a linebacker’s shoulders, with a waterfall of long, dark hair. The host of the weekly “Let’s Talk Native” show on WWKB radio and the former COO of a Native American-owned factory has seen plenty of casual, unthinking prejudice in his 55 years. So he is displeased, but not apoplectic, over Lancaster’s refusal thus far to place its racially offensive “Redskins” nickname next to Aunt Jemima, Amos ’n Andy and a legion of black lawn jockeys into the embarrassing dustbin of history.
Indeed, Kane will join Tuesday night’s discussion forum at the school, which hopefully will shed more light than heat on the issue. It’s apparently needed, given that village workers recently placed a pro-Redskins banner across Central Avenue, implying official sanction of the offensive term.
Credit Kane and other Native Americans for patience and equanimity. They presumably are encouraged that, in 2015, there are far fewer Archie Bunkers than when the ever-stoic Tonto roamed the TV range.
“I think most people, once you explain where the ‘Redskins’ reference comes from and why it’s offensive, are like, ‘OK, I had no idea,’ ” Kane told me Friday, at a Hamburg restaurant. “What made Archie Bunker such a buffoon is he was hard to enlighten.”
Kane grew up near Albany, one of few Native Americans in a high school with an “Indians” nickname. He was called “Chief” by his coaches with affectionate intent, and “Wahoo” by some classmates. A confident kid, the nicknames didn’t scar him – but they didn’t just bounce off, either.
“A part of it sticks with you,” he said. “But for kids with less self-esteem, it isn’t easy.”
Granted, Native Americans are not unanimous in their “Redskins” distaste. Just as I’m sure there were blacks in Alabama who voted for George Wallace. Unanimity is hard to come by, particularly when a race of people has been marginalized for so long. Any attention – and Native American stereotypes ranged from “noble leader” to “rampaging savage” – was better than being ignored.
“It was all we had back then,” Kane said. “It was something from the dominant culture that acknowledged our existence. But as we came into our own as a people, we realized what a mockery all of that stuff is.”
It’s 2015, and a significant number of Native Americans think “Redskins” is offensive, if not downright racist. That should be enough. Particularly when the people in question were on the short end of a long, inglorious chapter in American history.
Various government policies involved decimating Native American populations, stealing their land, forcing them onto reservations and shattering families by removing kids from their parents and shipping them to distant boarding schools – where their languages, customs and cultures were erased. So I think Native Americans deserve the benefit of the doubt when it comes to offensive nicknames. It’s the least the rest of us can do.
“It imbeds this stereotype, portrays us as relics of the past instead of a living, vibrant people,” said Kane. “It’s dehumanizing for a people to be utilized as a mascot, even when it’s claimed to be about dignity and honor.”
I don’t fathom how a town of fewer than 1 percent Native Americans claims “Redskins” is part of its “identity.” Changing an offensive nickname doesn’t erase peoples’ memories of high school, negate their experience or break their bonds. It just lets them bury – better late than never – an embarrassing association. One that many institutions put behind them years ago – with no one suffering side effects or long-term damage.
It’s bad enough that the owner of Washington’s NFL team stubbornly clings to a racially offensive nickname. It’s worse, to my mind, when an educational institution hoists the same banner. What’s the lesson – that offensive stereotypes are OK? That prejudice is not just condoned, but promoted?
Kane and others will come to Tuesday’s forum in the name of enlightenment, in hope of easing the road to an obvious resolution. Because if you can’t plead ignorance, then you are out of excuses.