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Indigenous Activists, Artists And Politicians Speak Out On #NotYourMascot And Racist Team Names

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The battle over indigenous team names and mascots has been heating up as Toronto faces off against Cleveland in the American League championship series, fueled by the #NotYourMascot online campaign and other social-justice movements pushing for diversity and representation across the cultural spectrum.

HuffPost Canada made an editorial decision last week to not use these names anymore, and you can read our explanation here.

This fight, however, has been around since at least the 1970s when the first lawsuit was filed against Cleveland’s baseball team. The team's lawyers were back in court this week, defending their name and "Chief Wahoo" logo against a human rights complaint by residential school survivor Douglas Cardinal who hoped to see both banned in Ontario.

“You could not call a team the New York Jews; why is it OK to call a team the Cleveland Indians?” argued Cardinal's lawyer Monique Jilesen but on Monday, Justice Thomas McEwen rejected the call for an injunction without explaining why, saying he'll release his reasoning at a later date due to the urgency of a decision.

Well, the judge may not have revealed his reasons for supporting the continued use of racist sports team names and mascots, but people who are directly impacted are more open with their reasons for rejecting them. HuffPost Canada reached out to several indigenous activists, artists and politicians so that they could explain why all of us should care about this issue.

Wab Kinew, NDP MLA for Fort Rouge, Manitoba
Ojibway from Onigaming First Nation

What message is the Cleveland baseball team name and mascot sending to people watching the playoffs?

It sends the message that indigenous people are cartoonish, a stereotype, something less than deserving of the same respect and human rights as everyone else. The same type of dehumanization has been used for centuries to set the stage for the mistreatment of indigenous people.

It's easier to ignore the suffering of a cartoon than that of a real person.

Chief Wahoo is more obviously racist but do you consider all teams using indigenous team names and mascots an equal concern?

I've yet to see a dignified mascot so I think they're problematic because they make a caricature of indigenous cultures. A name could potentially work if it had the consent of the indigenous nation in the area, like the Seminoles, and the team educated their fans about indigenous cultures and how to honour them in a respectful way.

Why we still tolerate language on a jersey that we would not tolerate on the field is beyond me." - Wab Kinew

Why is the #NotYourMascot movement important?

No kid should ever go to a sporting event and made to feel ashamed of who they are. #NotYourMascot pushes us closer to the day when that will be true.

We don't hear as much about the Edmonton Eskimos, but what is your stance on their name?

The name is considered a slur by Inuit people. It should be changed.

Finally, this is a continuing issue in little leagues and schools. What impact does it have on young people and what role can government play in getting these teams new names and mascots?

From the time I was a child, every time I have seen an indigenous person characterized by a sports team name or mascot I have cringed and felt the hairs on my neck stand on edge. As an adult I've realized that's a symptom of stress hormones being released into my body. Over a lifetime this could lead to real physical hardships. Hopefully, there's a day when my children's children don't feel that way when they want to watch the Blue Jays play.

We spend a lot of time in sports today focused on the emotional well-being of young athletes — and rightfully so. We do respect sports seminars and learn about long-term athlete development.

Why we still tolerate language on a jersey that we would not tolerate on the field is beyond me.

Tori Cress, Idle No More organizer
Ojibway and Pottawatomi from the Beausoleil First Nation community of the Anishinaabe Nation

To most Canadians this may not seem like a big deal because anywhere in their daily lives they can turn around and see themselves represented everywhere in mainstream society. That is not true for indigenous people. The use of our images, misappropriated culture and caricaturization of our peoples continues to dehumanize us while we are already the most marginalized peoples on our own territories in Canada.

It is not honouring a people by using images that are rooted in racism and misappropriated from their culture. There is no room for old racist iconography in Canada and we will continue to educate Canadians, many of whom do not realize we are still here because of the systemic racism that still exists within the education system.

Our youth are one of the fastest growing populations in Canada who are proud of where they are from and want to be heard." - Tori Cress, Idle No More

Between the ALCS and Halloween season, now is a good time to have that conversation and make space for indigenous people to share their voices.

Perhaps this seemed appropriate when our population numbers dipped to an all-time low, as a way to honour the "dying Indians," but today, in 2016, we need to move away from those old demoralizing ideas and we need to do that now.

Our youth are one of the fastest growing populations in Canada who are proud of where they are from and want to be heard.

Ryan McMahon, Comedian, Activist, Star of "Colonization Road"
Anishinaabe and Métis from Couchiching First Nation

ryan mcmahon

I think there's still a disconnect between indigenous peoples' realities and the mainstream. Whether it's the Cleveland Indians or the Washington Redskins or the Atlanta Braves or any of these teams, this is about larger issues.

How do I explain this to my kids when we're watching TV that it's OK for people to be in redface and do Chief Wahoo war whoops with their hands over their mouth? How do I explain that? Well, I can’t. I have to tell them the truth, that the world's a shitty place and that racism often goes unchecked and is often accepted as normal behaviour.

Explain to me why it is OK to use a cartoon human likeness of one group of people as a sports logo? It's easy for the mainstream to tune us out because this is what we're always talking about: having control of our own lives, of our own imagery, of our own representation.

Indigenous Team Name Protests
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It is important to hear from indigenous people but at the end of the day I need you to go home and talk to your partner. I need you to go home to your parents, to your neighbours, to your friends. I need you to sit at a dinner table and hear a racist joke and go, “You know what, dude? That was fucked up. You can’t talk like that and here's why.”

We need non-indigenous people to do the work.

I mean, there was a headline in a sports article — "Five reasons for Jays to fear Indians" — and that's crazy, right? I’m not triggered by words, I’m a comic, but it dehumanizes a specific group of people and takes our lives out of context and creates a safe space for mockery, a safe space for redface. We get the same kind of disrespect around Halloween.

"I need you to go home and talk to your partner. I need you to go home to your parents, to your neighbours, to your friends. We need non-indigenous people to do the work." - Ryan McMahon

Sports teams have third and fourth and fifth jerseys. They have throwback jerseys. They make millions of dollars by changing their jerseys. I don't know why this would be treated any differently. The idea that sports teams have some grand legacy behind their imagery is bunk because their imagery changes.

I think what happens is that race is the privilege of being in the power elite and does not allow you to see the actual dehumanization. You're just too disconnected from our lives as indigenous people to really see how that affects my daughters.

We're just saying we can do better.

I actually don't have time to talk about this shit. None of us have time to talk about this. We don't have the luxury of time to talk about this. Most of us live in the crisis. We're in a constant state of trying to keep a ball in the air in terms of our lives. Yes, there are far bigger issues but when you put gas on a fire you get a really big fire. There are many issues that create this large storm of problems, and this happens to be a visible, relevant one right now.

Ian Campeau, activist and musician with A Tribe Called Red
Ojibway from the Nipissing First Nation of the Anishinaabe Nation

ian campeau

You started your successful fight to get the Nepean Redskins to change their name in 2011. How has this issue evolved in those five years?

Oh man, it became a North American conversation. I always knew it was racist but even I didn't really realize the implications and how systemic it was. Like everybody else, you see it and you're like “oh, that's that,” and then you carry on. It doesn't register all the damage that it creates and the stereotypes that are being perpetuated.

But when Obama, the President of the United States, starts talking about it? This had never even been a conversation between local mayors and now it's being discussed by world leaders.

That just goes to show the power of social media to really bring forward the voices of people who never really had a voice before. We’re able to confront these stereotypes and these oppressive institutions and create discussion and have people really, really think about what it means to use these images and exploit these people for sport.

It seems that over the past five years it's gone from small protests to a massive conversation. I don't want to dismiss the work that went on before, it paved the way for us to get here. We stand on the giants that carried it before but now we have access to globally speak on this.

" I don't want to be known as a fierce warrior. I want to be known as someone that loves my kids. I want to be known as a good father, a good husband." - Ian Campeau

Canada, after being discussed for its racism for the past few years, is really starting to take a long hard look at itself. Having global conversations about not using the Cleveland Indians name during broadcast is just so impressive. It truly feels like finally people are listening. You're screaming at the top of your lungs for years and now people are like, "yeah, maybe there is something to this." People are starting to talk about it and we can all finally take a breath.

A human rights complaint was filed over Cleveland’s name and mascot. You took the same approach but did so in the name of your child. What impact does this have on children who grow up with it?

It is harmful. Imagine reading that Jays need to fear Indians? You realize that you're different. Society keeps telling you that you're able to be exploited and describes you as scary or marauding or terrifying and something to be feared.

It's daunting, man. I don't want to be known as a fierce warrior. I want to be known as someone that loves my kids. I want to be known as a good father, a good husband. Why can't that be the characteristics that are shown?

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