Is it a case of atradition under attack, or an attempt to have a longstanding wrong righted?Whichever, it’s certainly shown just how close to the surface rampant bigotry is in Saskatoon.
The “it” in question is a movement to change the team name and logo at Saskatoon’s Bedford Road Collegiate (BRCI). The nickname for the high school’s sports teams is “Redmen,” and the logo is a red “Indian” warrior.
The group pressing for change (led by Justin Wiebe, Ben Schiff, and Erica Lee) has teamed up with Sheelah McLean, a public school teacher in Saskatoon and a doctoral student at the U of S, to gather support, arguing that both the name and the logo are derogatory and hurtful towards First Nations people. So far, they’ve attracted about 200 Facebook supporters.
They’ve also attracted a serious number of bigots.
AIN’T CYBER-HATE GREAT?
Some opponents of the movement have argued politely, saying the Redmen name and logo are an important tradition at BRCI. Many more, however, have responded to the Facebook group, named “Bedford ‘Redmen,’ It’s time for Change,” with mockeries, harassment, cyber-bullying, and threats of violence.
It’s not just racism that’s happening here, either. When Alex Wilson, a professor of education at the U of S, offered support for the group and became involved in the online conversation, she was confronted with violent homophobic rhetoric. (Even more oddly, she was also hit with suggestions that she ought to “become well-educated,” or “get a job.” Prof. Wilson holds a doctorate from Harvard University — clearly, some of these haters aren’t the smartest sticks on the proverbial tree.)
Wiebe says that many BRCI students and alumni “are attached to the logo because they associate it with all of their positive high school memories. But we’re not criticizing the school, or the people who attend it — we’re questioning the value of using an archaic, destructive image.”
Fair enough — but what about Facebook statements like “We as WHITE CANADIANS have changes enough thanks,” or “Your [sic] the racist here... if the name gets changed, shit WILL happen.” How about “Quite [sic] being an attention whore pussy bitch, it’s not gonna happen People have tried before, get the fuck over yourself.”
Disgusting stuff — but sadly, not exactly surprising.
THE MORE THINGS (DON’T) CHANGE...
Verna St. Denis, an Associate Professor of Education at the U of S, remembers working to change offensive school mascots in the San Francisco Bay area when she attended Stanford University (a university that once paraded the Stanford Indian as its mascot, before adopting the Stanford Cardinal).
“There’s always a backlash. Anything that threatens or disrupts the image that non-indigenous Canadians have of themselves as morally impeccable is, ironically, violently oppressed. This is because criticizing the Redmen logo and name (and others like it) threatens non- indigenous identity — it strikes at the heart of who they think they are,” says St. Denis.
“Given the violence faced by indigenous people in Canada today, including the astonishing number of murdered and missing indigenous women, it’s hard to see how an image that has been used to [portray] indigenous people as inferior is somehow now about honouring us,” says St. Denis.
“This logo and name, like thousands of others akin to it, does not come from indigenous people or their culture; it was created by a dominant Canadian culture that legally defined First Nations people as less than human,” McLean adds.
“Young aboriginal males have difficulty gaining access to education and are especially prone to police brutality,” Wilson also points out. “Romanticizing aboriginal males as fierce, aggressive and animal-like — and choosing a mascot that symbolizes these qualities — only further justifies racist behaviour.”
Still, many students and alumni firmly believe that the school is both honouring Wilson also points out people and respecting tradition by using the Redmen logo and name.
At BRCI, “Tradition is huge,” says Joy Adams Bauer, a spokesperson for the Saskatoon Public School Board. “This school has been around for 88 years, and when it comes to naming, the community is very proud.”
But ironically, the term “Redmen” originally referred to the red colour of team jerseys, says Adams Bauer. The lantern, which is visible today on the school’s signage, had been the school’s official logo since BRCI was founded in 1923. It wasn’t until the early sixties that the “Indian head” logo was adopted by the school’s sports teams.
This isn’t the first time a name change has been suggested, either.
In 1996, some parents, students, teachers, and community members expressed concern about the Redmen name and logo. The school held a debate and discussion about the logo in what Adams Bauer calls a “structured controversy,” during which every classroom received a prepared “package of information.” A panel of experts spoke to the school, including aboriginal supporters of the Redmen name and image.
They held a school-wide vote on the issue, and seventy-five percent of those who voted “strongly agreed” to keep the name and logo.
(Some concessions were made, however. The figurehead logo was removed from the school’s letterhead and motto, where it was replaced with the original red lantern. The “Redmen” face and name, however, continues to be associated with the school’s visual identity; the logo decorates the gymnasium floor, appears sporadically on uniforms and athletic wear, and adorns various academic trophies and achievement medals.)
Proponents of keeping the Redmen name and logo also argue that the sheer number of “Indian head” logos in sport and popular culture render these attempts to change either meaningless or futile. But Lee argues that “many, many organizations in North America have made positive changes.”
In 2006, for example, the American National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) ruled that the University of North Dakota’s “use of the Fighting Sioux and the mascots and the imagery that represents are hostile and abusive.” The NCAA decided that if this university (and others within the Association) wanted to continue to participate in popular and lucrative NCAA competition, it was time for racist names and logos to be retired.
Many similar reforms (mostly at primary schools, secondary schools, and universities) might be credited to a recent treasure trove of research coming out of the U.S. that describes the detrimental effect of racist mascots.
In 2005, the American Psychological Association (APA), among many other similar professional organizations, called for the “immediate retirement of all American Indian mascots, symbols, images and personalities by schools, colleges, universities, athletic teams and organizations.”
The APA based its position on the “growing body of social science literature that shows the harmful effects of racial stereotyping and inaccurate racial portrayals, including the particularly harmful effects of American Indian sports mascots on the social identity, development, and self-esteem of American Indian young people.”
182 of the 494 current students at BRCI (a 37 percent minority) are self-declared First Nations or Métis, according to Adams Bauer — a significant number.
Judging by the ugly response in online forums, however, change at BRCI will come slowly or not at all. “[Students] would have to be willing to put their heads on the chopping block to criticize the Redmen logo,” Wilson says.
“You can try to believe that we are making progress, and that racism doesn’t exist here in Saskatoon, but when you read these [violent online] comments you realize that we’re doing a good job of masking our racism,” she says.
“You don’t have the human connection tempering people’s speech that you would have in the classroom or even in a discussion with friends. The extreme reaction in this case points to the fact that we don’t have the space to talk about race or racism in a way that goes beyond outward niceties and a very superficial understanding of history.”
McLean says her group will continue lobbying for change despite the hate that’s been hurled at them — and despite not being given an opportunity to present their case at a recent Public School Board meeting.
“When it comes to human rights issues, a popular vote is the last thing an administration should do,” she says.
“This controversy will keep coming up,” Rose believes. “So let’s talk about creating an inclusive tradition. There could be, in 20 years, people looking back and remembering this school as one of the first schools to begin a positive change. Let’s be proud of a team name that represents everyone and that nobody feels oppressed by.”