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Monuments and Mascots: Considering Indigenous Perspectives

Shadi Toloui-Wallace | Dec 3, 2020

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In a letter written in 1916 to the Baha’is of North America, Abdu’l-Baha, the eldest son of Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, wrote that we should: 

Attach great importance to the indigenous population of America. For these souls may be likened unto the ancient inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula … When the light of Muhammad shone forth in their midst, however, they became so radiant as to illumine the world. Likewise, these Indians, should they be educated and guided, there can be no doubt that they will become so illumined as to enlighten the whole world. 

Through those words, Abdu’l-Baha predicted that North America’s Indigenous peoples — their teachings, beliefs, and practices — will shed light upon the whole world. 

However, due to displacement, forced removal, false promises, and genocide inflicted by settlers and colonizers for hundreds of years, Indigenous people in North America have suffered tremendously. Until the 1970s, many Indigenous peoples in North America were prohibited by law from the practice of fundamental civil liberties, including the freedom to believe, express, and exercise ancient Indigenous traditions, spiritual beliefs, and cultural practices. These laws and the social and cultural repression they enforced resulted in generational trauma, abuse, and lost ancestral history, knowledge, and practice. 

RELATED: The Confederate Flag and the Oneness of Humanity

Just as Confederate monuments and racist imagery have represented violence, systemic oppression, and the celebration of racist individuals and ideals for hundreds of years to people of African descent in the United States, so too have colonial monuments and team mascots symbolized the same oppression to people of Indigenous descent in North America. 

Today, these monuments and team mascots have become the topics of heated debate, centered around the protection or removal of Confederate and colonial monuments and the racist characterization and misrepresentation of Indigenous people and tribes by school and team mascots. 

This episode represents the third installment of a four-part series dedicated to exploring the social and spiritual implications of Confederate and colonial monuments and imagery as public forms of art here in North America and worldwide. 

The third guest in this series is Dr. Justin de Leon, a visiting assistant professor at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. His academic work in political science and international relations focuses on Indigenous and feminist international relations. He is currently researching intersectionality and decoloniality at the Peace Institute, particularly related to peace-building processes. He is also a creative storyteller and award-winning documentary filmmaker, having contributed to the 2018 film “More Than A Word” about Native mascots of football teams. Dr. de Leon is also writing a book on creative forms of Indigenous sovereignty that focuses on how a story can be used as a means of political visibility. 

To recap, in the first episode of this series, we spoke with Dr. Derik Smith, a professor in the Department of Literature at Claremont McKenna College. We asked Derik to provide insight, answers, and perspectives on the historical context and narrative of colonial and Confederate monuments, centered on the theme of justice.

In the second episode of this series, we spoke with Dr. Layli Maparyan, a psychologist who is currently executive director of the Wellesley Centers for Women and Professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College. In this episode, she spoke at length about Confederate monuments’ effects on the psyches of people of African descent. 

In this, the third episode of our Monuments series, we invited Professor de Leon to speak about the implications of colonial monuments and Native mascots for people of Indigenous descent — particularly through his knowledge and relationship with the Lakota Sioux Tribes in North and South Dakota. 

RELATED: Why the Lakota Are Still Searching for Justice

It is important to note that the purpose of Cloud9 is to highlight artists and the intersection between their creative and spiritual practice. Like the others in this series, the conversation with Professor de Leon is still keeping within this theme. However, the difference between this series and previous episodes is that we’ve turned our focus to public works of art such as dedicated monuments rather than highlighting an artist. In this case, Native people are characterized as team mascots. 

The prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, Baha’u’llah, wrote in “Epistle to the Son of the Wolf”: 

… Arts, crafts and sciences uplift the world of being, and are conducive to its exaltation. Knowledge is as wings to man’s life, and a ladder for his ascent. Its acquisition is incumbent upon everyone. The knowledge of such sciences, however, should be acquired as can profit the peoples of the earth …

This quotation begs the question: If the purpose of arts, crafts, and sciences is to uplift all of humanity, then what happens when a work of art, such as a mascot or monument, depresses a specific segment of humanity’s population? Do art forms such as colonial monuments and Native mascots help or hamper humanity’s collective progress toward racial unity and justice for all peoples? 

We begin this episode by exploring why Professor de Leon believes the conversation should be broadened to discussing demeaning team mascots. Unlike Confederate monuments, these team mascots promote a stereotypical depiction of people and cultures alive in the present. These images, constructed by a dominant class attempting to memorialize an entire people as characters, do not speak to or represent humanity’s inherent nobility — or regard individuals as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value — as the Baha’i writings teach us. 

RELATED: Learning New Ways to Talk About Racism

We ask Professor de Leon what these kinds of team mascots do to a population — how they tell their story and how they see themselves in the present and future. We also ask him to share how Native team mascots limit the wider societal impression of the incredibly rich, complex, and diverse history and traditions of Indigenous peoples in North America and worldwide. 

Our conversation then discusses the role of memory in representation and storytelling. What often informs an imagined future is the memory of the past, which Professor de Leon clarifies is different from history. Much of the argument surrounding the preservation of these Confederate monuments and team mascots is that they represent a part of history, our collective narrative. But history is socially constructed and often represents only one side of a complex story. We ask Professor de Leon where memory fits into this conversation about preservation, how memory contributes to a more accurate depiction of the past, and how Indigenous people can imagine their future.

We continue our conversation by reflecting on the lasting effects of trauma. Over the years, research has shown that trauma often lives in an individual’s biological makeup. It can take up to seven generations to overcome a racist or traumatic experience that happened hundreds of years ago. We discuss how such colonial monuments and Native team mascots perpetuate that trauma and contribute to the negative collective lived experience of Indigenous peoples and communities. 

Professor de Leon shares some examples of how Indigenous people, particularly the Lakota Sioux, memorialize individuals or events in history, which is significantly centered on enactments and ceremony. In closing, we ask Professor de Leon to use his knowledge of the Lakota Sioux and the Baha’i teachings as inspiration and imagine what our future could look like when it came to monuments, memorialization, and mascots. 

In the next and final episode of this series, we have a conversation with Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and creative producer Anisa Tavangar. Anisa works at the intersection of art, justice, and spirituality. We talk about how the Baha’i Faith offers individuals, community members, and institutions a blueprint for memorializing the past in the future.

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