Blowback against the long-standing use of Native American mascots highlights issues of identity and cultural appropriation. Supporters of using Native American symbols, names, and images for sports teams and schools say it honors tribal culture, but many Native Americans say it shows disrespect stemming from a lack of understanding toward indigenous peoples.
University of Oklahoma Native American Studies Associate Professor Heather Shotton says the use of native mascots skews perceptions of identity among non-natives, and does a disservice to the cultural diversity among native tribes.
“Each tribe is unique,” Shotton said. “We carry our own unique histories, cultures, ceremonies, experiences.”
In a wide-ranging conversation from the second installment of Race Matters with host Merleyn Bell, Shotton discusses the complexities of Native American identity in the face of stereotypes and misrepresentation. Shotton also describes the challenges she’s faced as a Native American and educator, and why she feels it’s important to have more accurate and inclusive school curriculums.
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On Shotton’s Background And Adjusting To A More Non-Native Environment
I grew up, my home is in Davis, Oklahoma, so it’s a very different makeup; It’s a small town. So, I grew up around a very particular population in that part of Oklahoma. There are a lot of Chickasaw native people and I had grown up around my family, around Chickasaw people, and being surrounded by natives. And (I) moved to Texas right on the cusp of going into my junior high years. And so it was a very different experience moving into a place that was predominantly white and there really weren’t many native people in that town. And, it was a very different makeup and weren’t a lot of people who shared my identity, particularly as a Wichita person, as a Kiowa and Cheyenne person.
It was positive in that I learned how to adapt very easily to situations and being in a place where I was exposed to other races and cultures that I wasn’t going to be exposed to growing up in a small town in rural Oklahoma.
On the flip side of that, though, because there weren’t many native people, I was often mistaken for other races or lumped into...really there was often a black/white binary in my community. So, you were either/or, and I wasn’t really either, and so it was difficult figuring out, well where do I fit in terms of my identity because I’m not African American, I’m not white. Even though my mother is white—I’m half white biologically—that’s not how I identify.
On Misperceptions Faced By Native Americans And Tribes
There’s this kind of misconception that we still exist in the past and not as contemporary people, not as your professor, not as your doctor, not as your attorney, or your school teacher, your kindergarten teacher, and not in these everyday lived realities that everyone else is going through as well.
I think that there are a lot of misconceptions about sovereignty and the rights of tribes and how that operates within states and within the United States, so that it’s often misperceived as special privileges or rights.
And, it’s a confusion of the trust responsibility of the federal government when it comes to education as a part of our treaty rights and what was negotiated in treaties with tribes in the United States government in exchange for lands that were ceded. I think that there are a lot of misperceptions around gaming, around wealth with tribes because of gaming.
On The Importance Of Native American Students “Connecting With” Their Studies
I think that seeing themselves reflected in curriculum is critical for native students, and that’s at the K through 12 level, that’s in higher education. The issue of invisibility really, I think, does a lot of damage to our students because they don’t see themselves reflected in what they’re learning. So, if you think about how that impacts how I see my future self.
And so it’s critical, I think, to have those changes in our curriculum so that native students see themselves reflected in the literature that’s used for courses. That they see themselves reflected accurately when we’re talking about history or social studies or government. Anything that we’re learning in school, there is a place for native people.
MERELYN BELL, HOST: Heather, let’s start by talking about your experience as a young woman attending high school, where the student population in Terrell, Texas was predominantly white. Did you have other friends and classmates who were Native American?
HEATHER SHOTTON: I did. I think there were a total of four. Four of us all together. In fact, in my class, there were three of us who were native and there was a young man who was two years older, which was interesting. There were two brothers who were actually from Oklahoma, like myself, and a young lady who was from a tribe in Texas. She was Alabama-Coushatta. So, there were other natives, but like I said there were, I think, four of us all together.
BELL: Did you tend to band together?
SHOTTON: We...I had close relationships, yes. It was different, though. I grew up, my home is in Davis, Oklahoma, so it’s a very different makeup; It’s a small town. So, I grew up around a very particular population in that part of Oklahoma. There are a lot of Chickasaw native people and I had grown up around my family, around Chickasaw people, and being surrounded by natives. And moved to Texas right on the cusp of going into my junior high years. And so it was a very different experience moving into a place that was predominantly white and there really weren’t many native people in that town. And, it was a very different makeup and weren’t a lot of people who shared my identity, particularly as a Wichita person, as a Kiowa and Cheyenne person.
BELL: How did that affect you and your ability to maintain the identity that you already had as a native person and as a young person? I mean, high school is so difficult for all of us, anyway. But I imagine that the lack of diversity affected you in very particular ways.
SHOTTON: It did affect me, I think, in a few ways. But in one way, it was positive in that I learned how to adapt very easily to situations and being in a place where I was exposed to other races and cultures that I wasn’t going to be exposed to growing up in a small town in rural Oklahoma, I think that was a really good experience because I was exposed to a lot of different types of people. On the flip side of that, though, because there weren’t many native people, I was often mistaken for other races or lumped into...really there was often a black/white binary in my community. So, you were either/or, and I wasn’t really either, and so it was difficult figuring out, well where do I fit in terms of my identity because I’m not African American, I’m not white. Even though my mother is white—I’m half white biologically, my mother is white—that’s not how I identify. I identify as a native person and so figuring out where you fit was difficult and really being around people who hadn’t been exposed to native people and really didn’t have much of a contemporary concept, I think, of who native people are was a challenge at times. But then again, it also forced me to learn how to adapt in different situations and to be resourceful and I was exposed to people that I otherwise might not have been exposed to.
BELL: So, when you graduated from Terrell, you made the decision to come back to Oklahoma and attend the University of Oklahoma. I wonder if you still had many of the same experiences in dealing with your own identity and sort of relation to the binary that you talked about with OU, then and now, being a predominantly white institution, if you had those same feelings and interactions.
SHOTTON: No, actually when I was looking at colleges, I specifically was looking at institutions that had native programs that were known for having strong native student populations and so those were the types of institutions I was looking at. Coming to University of Oklahoma was an intentional decision to come home. Because this is where home was, Oklahoma was home. My father had a strong affinity for the University of Oklahoma, but also, the University of Oklahoma was known for having a strong native community. And so, I was looking for places that...where that existed and made that conscious decision when I chose OU.
BELL: So, when you came here, the situation sort of shifted and you started interacting with more people that shared that same native identity, and maybe talking to professors and other students that sort of helped to shape that identity once you got here?
SHOTTON: I wouldn’t say that, because my identity has been my identity as a Wichita person, as a Wichita, Kiowa, Cheyenne woman, has always been my identity. That has been shaped by my family, not by interactions in my school setting or with other people. That has very much been shaped by my family. However, my experiences in school settings and whether it were middle school or high school or college, have shaped...have shaped me in very particular ways. But my identity, particularly my tribal identity, has come from my family and from my connection with my family. And so, coming to the University of Oklahoma, being exposed to different tribes, that was a very different experience. Being exposed to native professors, I’ve talked about this quite often in that when I came to OU, I met a professor by the name of Jerry Bread, who many know on this campus and around other universities. And what was unique in that experience is that I knew Kiowa people, I knew my family, but I had never met a Kiowa person who was a professor, who had a Ph.D. And so that was something that was very different for me. And, I met other native professors here at the university, Barbara Hobson. And that experience, seeing different possibilities for myself, I think is really what shaped me and started to shape the path that I took. So, maybe more of shaping an academic identity as a native person, not necessarily my identity, my tribal identity or my identity as a native person, but as a native academic, I think.
BELL: You mentioned being an enrolled member of the Wichita and Affiliated tribes and Kiowa and Cheyenne. I wonder if you can identify for us what it means to be an enrolled member, as opposed to someone who identifies, but maybe is not enrolled.
SHOTTON: All of our tribal nations have different criteria for citizenship. So, because tribes are sovereign nations, they, much like any sovereign nation, determine their citizenship. And so, many of our tribes base that on blood quantum, so what percentage of blood you are of that particular tribe. Some may base it on decendency, some may base it on whether or not a parent is enrolled, or a particular parent. So, tribes are all different. So, my tribe that I’m a citizen of, the Wichita and Affiliated tribe, bases it off of a particular blood quantum and that determines citizenship.
BELL: Are there other common threads among or between tribes? Not just about what determines who’s enrolled and not enrolled, but sort of cultural common threads.
SHOTTON: Each tribe is unique. We carry our own unique histories, cultures, ceremonies, experiences. However, there might be some similarities across certain tribes from different regions. We might find similarities across some of our histories, especially if we look at a lot of the tribes in Oklahoma. Our histories, the similarities and shared experiences that we have in our interactions with the federal government or our experience in the state of Oklahoma and the founding of the state. And so, there are some shared histories there, but I think it’s really important to understand that each tribe is unique in its own unique sovereign nation and has its own unique culture and history, its own unique language and so forth.
BELL: I think it’s fair to say...I’m going to say that it’s fair to say, we’ll see how other people feel about this, but when we talk about the shared native identity, when we talk about Native Americans, that there is a perceived commonality there. And I wonder if you feel like that perception as fair and if that matches your reality as a native person and specifically a native woman, or not.
SHOTTON: Well, I often find that the common perceptions of native people really don’t match my reality or the reality for most of us, because I think that common perceptions are often shaped by stereotypes and misconceptions and a lack of understanding or knowledge of native people, and so they often don’t match my own reality or even a lot of native people’s realities and lived experiences. I think that we do have some shared experiences, but again, just in talking about the vast differences amongst, there are over 560 tribes in the United States, and so if we look at each of those unique tribes, tribal nations, those are all different experiences and cultures, though we do share some very common experiences in history. Particularly, with regard to our history in the United States and with the federal government and with the historical treatment of native people.
BELL: This is Race Matters. I’m Merelyn Bell. If you’re just joining us, I’m speaking with Dr. Heather Shotton, assistant professor of Native American studies at the University of Oklahoma. Heather, you mentioned before the break that there are a lot of misconceptions about native people. So, I want to start back up by talking about some specific examples of the misconceptions that you hear and are very frustrated by. Can you give us a few of those examples?
SHOTTON: Yes, there are a lot of misconceptions about native people. One is that we aren’t contemporary, that we still exist in this kind of frozen imagery that we often see native people, in representations of native people, this frozen imagery of the plains native or the Plains Indian, which is not representative of the majority of our tribes - this really stereotypical representation of native people that is often one dimensional. And so, there’s this kind of misconception that we still exist in the past and not as contemporary people, not as your professor, not as your doctor, not as your attorney, or your school teacher, your kindergarten teacher, and not in these everyday lived realities that everyone else is going through as well. I think that there are a lot of misconceptions about sovereignty and the rights of tribes and how that operates within states and within the United States, so that it’s often misperceived as special privileges or rights...not even rights, but special privileges that are not deserved as opposed to seeing them as sovereign rights that tribes have, and citizens of tribal nations have as citizens of sovereign nations. And I think that’s a really huge misconception or misunderstanding, something that’s not even on the radar of most people is that tribes are actually sovereign nations that the misunderstanding that native people are not just a racial group, but we’re also a political group because we are citizens of sovereign nations. So, we’re often lumped in, when it comes to issues of diversity and race, we’re lumped in with other groups but our issues are different because we are members or citizens of sovereign nations. And then I think there are the everyday stereotypes and misconceptions about what comes free for native people. So, the misperception that native students go to college for free. I hear that a lot, which is not true. And, it’s a confusion of the trust responsibility of the federal government when it comes to education as a part of our treaty rights and what was negotiated in treaties with tribes in the United States government in exchange for lands that were ceded. I think that there are a lot of misperceptions around gaming, around wealth with tribes because of gaming.
BELL: That every tribe is doing just fine.
SHOTTON: Yes. That every tribe is fine and that we all get a per capita payment off of gaming which is not true. Not all tribes one, have gaming, and not all tribes that have gaming actually pay per capita payments. There are quite a few who don’t. And that these issues, that all of the issues are the same. So, there are a number of things...that I get to hear quite a bit.
BELL: I’m sure in the day to day, you have experienced micro aggressions directed toward you personally, whether they’re well intended by the person that they came from or not, which is sort of the definition of a micro aggression. Can you talk a little bit or give us an example of some things that may have been said to you?
SHOTTON: Sure, I think one of the things that always comes to mind when I think about these examples is, as a young professional at another institution, I was walking with my boss into a meeting in the main administration building and an upper-level administrator was walking into the building at the same time, and this was someone that I respected very highly, thought well of, had been very dedicated to our native students on campus and very dedicated to diversity issues on campus and had really garnered a lot of respect. As we’re walking in, this was a day where it was raining and we were all walking in together and this administrator made a joke and said, well if Heather were smart, she would tell everyone that she did a rain dance, today. So, as a young professional, you can see the conundrum that we’re often left in when we’re facing micro aggressions. How do I deal with this? How do I confront this? Do I not confront it so this whole internal conversation and this really kind of dialog that’s going on inside of my head as a young professional, do I say something to this administrator? Do I...am I going to embarrass them if I correct them in front of other people? If I don’t stand up for myself, then how do I feel when I walk away because I didn’t say something and I didn’t take the opportunity to correct that kind of behavior? Though it was, probably in their mind, a well-intentioned joke, not really okay. And so that’s really the thing that goes along with micro aggressions is that the receiver of that is the one who walks away with kind of struggle that continues after it’s been perpetuated of; Did I react the right way? Did I not? How do I react? How do I feel about that? Now, how do I reconcile how I feel about this person who I perceived as very friendly and an advocate and how does that shape my experience at this institution now?
BELL: I would imagine it’s very difficult because, as you’ve said, you’re in a subordinate position to this person who’s just micro-aggressed toward you, to turn it into a verb. And being able to stand up for yourself, or know how to make the right response to that micro aggression, can be very difficult. When people do say things there’s often a backlash against them for being too sensitive. So, I wonder if that doesn’t shape how you respond to things as well.
SHOTTON: Absolutely. I think that our everyday experiences with race, with racism, with micro aggressions, definitely shapes, I think, our responses to that kind of behavior. You have these environmental micro aggressions at institutions or places where there are native mascots, that just by the nature of having to see those things... Having to, if you imagine, on a university campus, walking into a book store and seeing these stereotypical representations of native people and how that shapes a student’s experience, a professor’s experience, a community member's experience of how they are misrepresented as native people. And again, that kind of frozen imagery of native people that isn’t even really accurate, and this really kind of misappropriation of aspects of our culture that are sacred and important for many of us - so, when we talk about people putting on headdresses and what that represents for many of us. And so, there’s so many things I think that really does reflect a larger issue of the racism that exists still today against native people.
BELL: I know we could talk about that all day long. Just the mascot controversies alone, but I wanted to expand a little bit, since you mentioned the students that you work with, on your thoughts on what the shared identity for native young people might look like in the future. You know, with all of these issues that there are to tackle—no pun intended—you work with students all the time, so, do you envision a better sense of their native identity and how we respond to that native identity in the future?
SHOTTON: You know, I think that that is one of the things that we talk about so often when we’re talking about native students is that their constantly changing and our native students represent so many different experiences. They’re coming from different backgrounds. We have students who are coming from backgrounds where they are very tied to their tribal cultures. That is their identity, and they have grown up in that, they have been immersed in their tribal cultures and that is a very...that is at the core of who they are. And on the other end of the spectrum we may have native students who have grown up away from their tribal communities, who have even grown up away from their native families and don’t have a strong cultural—tribally cultural—identity, but they know that they’re native and they have a connection and they feel a connection. And then we have all of the students who fall along that spectrum somewhere in between. And, while that doesn’t necessarily answer the question, I know it’s kind of broad to say "Well, it depends," and "There’s a spectrum," but that is true. To say that there’s one, it’s the same as saying is there one black identity? Is there one white identity? Is there one Hispanic identity? There’s not. There’s a spectrum because we...and we all fall somewhere at different places on that spectrum. And so I think it’s the same for native students.
BELL: In your work, you’ve promoted changes in public education so that Native American students can see themselves in the curriculum that they’re being taught, right? So, I wonder if that’s one of the changes, those curriculum changes, that can help native students to better build an identity?
SHOTTON: I think that seeing themselves reflected in curriculum is critical for native students, and that’s at the K through 12 level, that’s in higher education. The issue of invisibility really, I think, does a lot of damage to our students because they don’t see themselves reflected in what they’re learning. So, if you think about how that impacts how I see my future self. How do I see, and Dr. Stephanie Fryberg talks about that in the damage that that does to students in being able to see the possible self – the invisibility, whether it be in the media or representations of themselves for native students. And so it’s critical, I think, to have those changes in our curriculum so that native students see themselves reflected in the literature that’s used for courses, that they see themselves reflected accurately when we’re talking about history or social studies or government. Anything that we’re learning in school, there is a place for native people. And, when we’re talking about English, you know there are so many wonderful native writers that can be included in that curriculum and it’s critical in terms of self-esteem and what native students see for themselves. In terms of identity, I don’t know if it’s about forming identity, but more of a reaffirming who they are. Reaffirming who they are as native people and being able to see themselves actually reflected. Because, I think about what that experience must be like for native students to look in a book and not be able to see themselves. So, I have a daughter who’s in fourth grade and I think about, as she’s reading, when she’s reading books, who does she envision when she’s reading those books, when she’s envisioning characters? Who does she see? Does she see herself or does she see someone of another race? Does she see someone that looks like her and is represented of her, or not? And I think about that for a lot of our students. You know, who do they see reflected in their textbooks, in the books that they’re reading, in the lessons that they’re learning in their classrooms and how does impact how they feel about themselves and how they feel about what they’re able to do?
BELL: Heather, we’ve talked about so much today in relation to the native identity, but I wonder if you could leave us with your thoughts on what you’d really like people to know in terms of what it means to be native in 2015?
SHOTTON: It means so many things. One; it means that we are citizens of tribal nations, of sovereign nations, first and foremost. We are citizens of very specific tribes and that’s a part of who we are. That we all have our own unique experiences, that there are various tribal cultures, tribal histories, tribal experiences, and that there’s not one singular native identity, that most of us most really identify more by our tribal identity. I think, particularly speaking, personally for myself. And that more than anything that we are contemporary people as well. While we are citizens of tribal nations, while our tribal identities and our tribal cultures are at the core of who we are and that makes us unique, that we are also contemporary people. We are your coworkers, we are your friends, your teachers, your doctors, your professors, so many different things. But we still exist today, right? So, we’re not the images that you see in old westerns or in Disney movies or the images that are perpetuated with the sports teams, that we are unique people – unique tribal people, but we are also contemporary people.
BELL: Dr. Heather Shotten is assistant professor of Native American studies at the University of Oklahoma. Heather, thank you so much for being here with us today.
SHOTTON: Thank you for having me.