Tom Porter doesn’t get upset easily these days, but he still has his opinions. And he’s more than happy to share them if he’s asked.
“You get [to] my age, you get used to things and let them roll off your back,” said Porter, a member of the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation and spiritual leader of the small community of Mohawks he created in 1993 in Montgomery County called Kanatsiohareke. “But if some of the younger people want things corrected that’s good. I encourage that. I encourage them to keep pushing.”
Porter, who will be the guest speaker at the 19th annual Capital Region Archives Dinner Oct. 4 at The Stockade Inn, was referring to the practice of using Native American references as sports nicknames, and in particular the word “Redskins.”
Despite pressure from several fronts, Daniel Snyder, owner of the NFL team in Washington, has said he will not change the team name that many Native Americans find offensive. The team has used the name since 1937.
“Yes, I think they should stop using the word,” said Porter, who turns 70 this year. “There are a lot of other names they could use, and that one and others are kind of racist.”
The history of Native Americans is a rich one in the Capital Region, with both the Mohawk and Mohican nations inhabiting the area where the Mohawk Valley merges with the Hudson Valley.
The Iroquois Indian Museum held its annual festival two weeks ago in Howes Cave celebrating that history. Before Porter’s talk at The Stockade Inn the first week of October there will be two more local events celebrating Native American tradition and culture: the Saratoga Native American Festival next Saturday and Sunday at Saratoga Spa State Park, and the Alongonquian Peoples Conference Sept. 27-28 at the New York State Museum.
Porter, who grew up in Hogansburg near the St. Lawrence River, will perform the spiritual opening for Saturday’s event in Saratoga.
Kay Olan, one of the event’s organizers and a Mohawk storyteller who will provide some of the entertainment, said the battle over “Redskins” may be currently dominating the headlines, but the issue is part of a larger war on racism Native Americans have been fighting for centuries.
“It’s been around since 1492,” she said. “There is a real problem with how Native American people have been represented through logos and mascots, and also in figures of speech and in the media. It’s been an ongoing problem, and it’s not just with Native Americans. There have been many ethnic groups who have experienced racism, and I think there needs to be more sensitivity.”
The origin of the term “Redskin” has been debated in academic circles, and Snyder does have some support in his contention that the nickname is not negative but, in fact, honors Native Americans. Olan doesn’t agree with that assertion.
“My feeling is that if somebody says that a particular term or name is offensive to them, then that should be acknowledged,” she said. “It’s not up to somebody else to determine whether or not that term is offensive to you. If the group that it is being referred to indicates that they have a problem with it, then that should be respected.”
Mathew Johnson, an associate professor of sociology at Siena College, isn’t a Native American, but in 2004, while at the University of Maine in Presque Isle, he founded the First Nations Summer Institute, an organization that worked to increase enrollment of Native Americans at UMPI. Johnson says the debate over the origin of the term “Redskin” might be interesting, but it’s not important.
“Yes, I think the term is offensive,” said Johnson, who has taught at Siena for the past seven years. “I think it stereotypes a group of people and contributes to a misunderstanding of our history. But whether or not it’s negative to me is irrelevant. The people that it portends to represent are saying that it is offensive and deriding to their heritage and history, and that should be enough.”
Schenectady’s Dave Cornelius, a descendent of Mohawks and Mohicans, is a local historian who does Native American presentations at various sites in the area, including the Mabee Farm in Rotterdam Junction. Cornelius thinks any use of Native American caricatures — such as Indians, Warriors and Chiefs — is inappropriate, but he feels the term Redskins is particularly hateful.
“Are there any Indians on that football team?” asked Cornelius rhetorically. “In fact, the majority of players on that team are of another race. Would it be more appropriate to use another derogatory name? Of course not.”
Cornelius said his study of history indicates that the term originated when the first European hunters came to the New World in the 17th century and began hunting and trapping the land.
“There was a bounty placed on Indians, just like there would be on mountain lions or wolves,” said Cornelius. “To get that bounty, you had to peel skin off a human scalp and turn it in, and that’s the connotation that word has for me. I think that’s disgusting, and that’s why I don’t use that word.”
Joe Bruchac of Greenfield Center is a poet, storyteller and author of more than a hundred children’s books that reflect his Native American ancestors. He’s heard the history Cornelius speaks of and believes it to be true. However, its authenticity doesn’t really concern him, nor does the notion put forth by some historians that the term is derived from a French translation of Native American speech, and therefore should not be considered derogatory.
“All that really is irrelevant,” said Bruchac, who holds a B.A. from Cornell University, an M.A. in literature and creative writing from Syracuse and a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the Union Institute of Ohio. “You could talk about the origin of the ‘N’ word, but where it came from doesn’t make it any less offensive. To me, and most Native Americans, the term ‘Redskin,’ is equivalent to the ‘N’ word. I’ve traveled all over this country, and I know there are some who don’t find it offensive, but even those people wouldn’t refer to another Native American in that way. It’s about being respectful and showing some politeness.”
Native American nicknames are still used by many high school and college teams in New York, although the number has decreased over the years. Syracuse University dropped the Saltine Warrior as its mascot back in 1979, and Siena College changed its nickname from Indians to Saints in 1988. St. John’s University ceased being the Redmen in 1995, and in the fall of 1999, Canajoharie High School became the Cougars instead of the Redskins.
“I know people can have an emotional connection to their school’s nickname,” said Bruchac, “but there’s a lack of understanding involved in that sentimental attachment. And it’s not about political correctness. People use that term, ‘political correctness,’ to water down the effect that the use of those certain words have. When it comes to Redskins, there’s been a fight going to eliminate that as a nickname for decades.”
In April of 2001, the state Education Department issued an official request for all New York public schools using “Indian” themed mascots and symbols to “cease such practices as soon as practical.” Some have listened and changed. Some have not.
“When the first Europeans came here they meant to exterminate us,” said Porter, who has served in numerous positions on the Mohawk Nation of Chiefs Council for over 25 years. “There’s nothing honorable or respectful about that. We’ve been taught by our mothers and fathers to always be proud of who we are. We have a spiritual view of the world and that’s what gives us value. We are different, and we’re not willing to let that go.”