Letter: Keep ‘Indians’ but embrace true Native Americans’ history

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To The Editor,

Football season is just starting for the Unionville-Chadds Ford Indians. Parents and coaches shout “Go U” to the players.  Its catchy, but it struck me as odd that “Go Indians” is never heard.  Asking around it seems parents are shy about the school’s mascot. Reading between the “let’s not go there” responses I’ve gotten to the topic led me to believe many feel the term is derogatory or offensive to Native Americans.

As a newcomer to the area, I have no sentimental attachment to the Unionville “Indians” mascot. If residents are shy about the mascot, then it’s obviously not working for them and they should change it to something more relevant to the area. Unionville is horse country so maybe the Unionville “Stallions,” or the Unionville “Show Jumpers” would be better fits!

I think renaming the team is potentially more offensive to Native Americans than leaving it as it is. I’m not a native american so I can’t write about how it feels to hear a term, coined by Christopher Columbus, that misidentified two continents of people based on a math error and signaled the end of their culture. But I don’t think the question is whether the term is objectionable or not. The question in my mind is do we leave this objectionable name for a people from whom we can continue to learn, or do we change the school stationary to continue their cultural eradication? All we have left of the people who settled this land are a few random and largely meaningless names of counties, rivers and towns, some of which we mispronounce.

 

William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, had a lot of ideas that blossomed into our modern core beliefs (religious tolerance, all persons are created equal, and respect for indigenous people’s rights). Penn signed treaties with the natives, and paid them for their land.  What Penn didn’t understand is that Native Americans didn’t share his view on property ownership. And what many people don’t understand, even today, is that Native Americans didn’t name their property, or even themselves as Europeans did. I find it more than ironic that native people didn’t identify themselves as part of individualized groups or tribes. They weren’t “tribal” in the way we mean that word today (parochial). They solved the problem of how to politically correctly classify and name themselves and others. Don’t.

Like Columbus, America’s European colonists were great namers and categorizers of what they found. And like Columbus, they got a lot wrong. They named the red breasted thrush they encountered the “Robin,” but the Turdus Migratorius is really nothing like the English Robin (Erithacus Rubecula).  Our Poplar trees (Liriodendron tulipifera) aren’t Poplars (Populus) at all. The wood looks similar, but that’s about the end of their similarities.

Europeans tried to fit the new and not understood into the old world with which they were more familiar. And they made mistakes.  

When French trappers asked about the identity of a neighboring group of natives, the Ojibwe speakers they asked responded “Nadouessioux” meaning “enemy,” literally “little snakes.” The French shortened the name to “Sioux” and the name stuck. When the “Sioux” people were asked about their identity, they responded “Lakota,” “Dakota,” or “Nakota” all of which meant “friend” in different dialects of their language.

When the Ojibwe speakers weren’t mad at their neighbors, they called the Sioux “Bwaanag” or “people who roast food,” which really isn’t a name at all. It describes something they did or did differently. In our area, no native tribe ever called themselves the “Delaware.” Europeans named them based on the region they inhabited (named for Lord Thomas West, Baron De La Warr). “Lenni Lenapi” is Algonquian for “original man”. When asked who they were, they responded, “we are the original men,” presumably differentiating themselves from the inquisitive newcomers. But this in no way differentiated them from other Native Americans.

The point being, the term “Indian” is just as incorrect a name for Native Americans as all the others including the names they use for themselves today. When we talk about Native Americans, we’re talking about a continent or two of people as varied and individualized as any population anywhere. They defy definition as much as any of us do. Interestingly, Native Americans have understood this fact for at least 400 years. And perhaps that’s the message we should be sharing with our children. There’s no good way to identify a large group of people. In the end, the only names that really make sense are “Lakota” (friend) or “Nadouessioux” (enemy). 

On September 17th, we have the opportunity to recognize the 280th anniversary of the “Walking Purchase,” a reminder for how important it is to share our values with our children.  After his father’s death, Thomas Penn renounced his father’s Quaker faith, instituted policies that sought to restrict religious freedoms, and in 1737 cheated the Lenapi out of what was left of their Delaware river access.  This ended centuries or more of the Lenapi way of life. They spent their summers at the Jersey shore, stockpiling dried clams and oysters for their Pennsylvania winter hunting grounds. They transported their catch up the Delaware river in great dug out canoes.  The Lenapi left our area peacefully shortly after signing the treaty. Were it not for the names of a few PA counties, rivers, and towns, our children probably wouldn’t know they ever existed.

I vote we shout “Go Indians” at football games and teach our children about the people who lived here before the Europeans arrived. I think we can all recognize that as imperfect “Indian” is for this huge and diverse population, forgetting about them entirely is far more offensive. 

Go Indians-! Show some pride in the tribe!

Adam Cherubini

Chadds Ford

 

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