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As A Dakota, I Am Shocked Any American Handed A Headdress Would Wear One

Originally published in XOJane. I was also interviewed about this in June by MTV: Here's Why You Shouldn't Wear a Native American Headdress.

While I appreciate Pharrell Williams’ 15-word apology last week for posing on the cover of Elle UK in a headdress precious to my people, I wonder how is this still happening? How can he NOT know how Native American people feel about the misuse of our culture?

From my MTV interview on Pharrell's Appropriation
I am shocked that any American handed a headdress would wear it. The headdress represents our leaders who were hunted down and murdered by the U.S. military of this country. It is not a fashion accessory it is an honor and a symbol of the sovereignty of the Plains tribes and the authority vested in the people to choose their own leaders. It should only be worn in circumstances that a head of state would participate in as a representative of these nations. This headdress should NOT be worn when posing for a fashion magazine cover next to titles screaming out details of Keira Knightly’s love life.

There are photos at the Smithsonian of my ancestor Owl Man wearing his headdress when he met President Andrew Johnson at the White House in 1868. As a Dakota, I would never presume to wear this regalia and even tribal members who have been so honored would never wear it on the cover of a fashion magazine.

Saswe Deloria (Owl Man) at the White House with Yankton Dakota delegation in 1868. Small man on balcony, President Andrew Johnson. Miami tribal delegates on balcony on the left of the picture.
And yet, when Native people speak out they are often met by claims of Native ancestry by those who are disrespecting our heritage. Whether it is Washington Redsk*ns fans, Chief Wahoo supporters, celebrities appropriating our culture for glamour shots or hipsters at art festivals, it’s always the same claim: “But I am part Native.” This notion that some fabled Native ancestry allows Americans of all colors some right to our cultural heritage and a voice that exceeds actual citizens of Native Nations underscores so much of the dialogue.

In this case, outrage over Pharrell’s misuse of regalia was met with outcries that he is part Native American thus it should not be an issue. Despite the fact that even if an enrolled member of a tribe who had earned the headdress wore it on the cover of a fashion magazine they would be lambasted for it by their own people. It’s simply not appropriate.

This focus on ancestry reflects United States’ policy of measuring our blood quantum as a way of reducing our numbers—another pathway to eventual elimination of the indigenous population. The hope was that we would all eventually have too little “blood” to qualify for citizenship in our own nations and tribes would then disappear and trouble U.S. claims to the land no longer.

It also demonstrates complete ignorance of our actual political status as citizens of our respective nations—all 566 of them. These nations are still sovereign and exist within the borders of the United States. They still retain jurisdiction over their lands and the states within whose borders they lay have no jurisdiction over them or right to tax because our nations occupy a status higher than that of states. We are sovereign nations that persist within the United States and much of U.S. policy has been guided by an interest in masking that reality. Some of our nations issue passports that their citizens can travel with internationally.

So, being Native American means being a citizen of a nation that pre-existed the establishment of the United States. You either are one or you are not. There is no “part” citizen of the United States, is there?

The taking of our identity, our regalia, the silencing of our voices, our point of view, is fully inline with the historical nature of the genocide of Native people that is the legacy of Manifest Destiny. This cultural taking also causes great damage to Native people. Our youth have to deal with folks like Pharrell and go through the complicated emotions of liking his music, wanting to feel represented by his art and then distanced by his stereotyping of their culture.

In the age of information literally at our fingertips I can’t believe Pharrell did not look at that headdress being offered to him by a British stylist and say, “Wait a minute. That doesn’t feel right.” And quickly research it on the Internet where in minutes he could find hundreds of articles written on the subject, many by actual Native Americans.
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My Thoughts on Navajo Code Talkers' Endorsement of Redsk*ns Team Name

Navajo Code Talkers being honored at a Washington Redsk*ns game in November 2013.

I've had the good fortune of being asked to be an editor at The Good Man Project a site I've been admiring for some time now. Joanna Schroeder the Executive Editor brought me on and I am so excited to share the work of Native writers and thinkers with a larger audience.

Here is my first longer piece for them about the recent endorsement by the Navajo Code Talkers Association of the Washington Redsk*ns team name. An unfortunate and sad chapter for the venerable association.

When I saw Peter MacDonald on television, still looking dapper and handsome at age 85 in a jaunty red scarf and Navajo Code Talker yellow velvet shirt standing on the sidelines of the Washington Redsk*ns game the week of Thanksgiving I was shocked, but not surprised. He was with three other Navajo Code Talkers, and yet in all the mainstream press coverage of the event no one mentioned he was the former Navajo Nation Chairman, serving an unprecedented four terms from 1971 to 1989 before being convicted on federal racketeering and fraud charges. “Big Mac” as he was known on the Navajo Nation, spent 8 years in federal prison before finally receiving a pardon by President Clinton in 2001. Recently, news has come out that he may have acted unethically in his role as President of the Navajo Code Talkers Association; closing bank accounts, passing Resolutions that place all power with himself in meetings and endorsing the Washington Redsk*ns name in a meeting where only 7 of the 40 living Code Talkers were present.
He was our Navajo Nixon, and was once again in the national news and yet, I was amazed that the same publications–like the New York Times–who once covered his every move as Navajo Nation Chairman, seemed to have completely forgotten who he was. In every media mention he was described only as the Navajo Code Talkers Association President and nothing more.
Family members of the Code Talkers are outraged. Ron Kinsel, son of Code Talker John Kinsel, told Indian Country Today Media Network that his dad did not approve of the endorsement or how the vote was conducted. “It was done without the association’s awareness. They were trying to pass it without a quorum.”
The Facebook responses on the Navajo Code Talkers’ page were more to the point:
“People are crying. I almost threw up when I read it.”
“Sad day… so much for honor.”
“Big Mac” as he was known on the Navajo Nation played a big part in my childhood. Shimaasaani (my maternal grandmother) was a huge Peter MacDonald supporter. My mother and her siblings would shake their heads when he would come to Cameron, Arizona on the reservation and call on my grandmother whom he called auntie and in a fit of “MacDonaldmania” she would sell off yet more cattle to support his latest campaign.
To read the rest:

Big Mac and the Redsk*ns: On Leadership and Sovereignty, Fumble and Fame

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How #NotYourMascot Super Bowl Twitter Storm Happened--Play by Play

Native Seahawks fans (and one Broncos fan) enjoying the Super Bowl without Redface & cultural appropriation!

In an interview on a radio show in September, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said “I know the team name is part of their history and tradition, and that’s something that’s important to the Redsk*ns fans. I think what we have to do though is we have to listen. If one person is offended, we have to listen.”

Well, this past weekend the hashtag #NotYourMascot created by our group, Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry, was tweeted 18,000 times during the Super Bowl with many of these tweets addressed to Goodell himself via his twitter account @nflcommish. I had come up with the hashtag only the week before as our previous hashtag #Changethename had been taken over by spammers from India (ironic, I know) and was being used to sell things like real estate.

Some of the tweets criticized Goodell’s comments at a pre game press conference claiming the term Redsk*ns honors Native Americans. Despite this assertion, Goodell refused to answer when asked if he “would call a [Native American] a Redsk*n to his face?” throwing doubt on whether it was an honor or simply a Jim Crow-era artifact a few are unwilling to give up. The latest study of the team’s fans found only 25% would be bothered by a name change.

Initially, some of our allies like Fans For a New Tradition (fans who support a name change) couldn’t understand why we would be tweeting during the Super Bowl. After all, the Redsk*ns weren’t playing in it and haven’t played in the Super Bowl since 1992. The team is said to suffer under the “Harjo Curse” named after Suzan Harjo (Muscogee Creek), a long-time advocate for changing the name. We explained it was to keep the pressure on the owner Daniel Snyder, but I was also inspired by the images that were showing up in my social media feed of Native people enthusiastically supporting their teams and sharing their culture as an expression of that support on their own terms.

And not just images of Native fans on Facebook decked out in their team’s gear, but also there was the Quinault/Chinook wood carver who made a dancing Seahawk inspired by his heritage. I even bought my family t-shirts from Salish Style, a native-owned clothing company that made their own Seahawk gear featuring the logo done in traditional Northwest style. This willingness to share their culture stood in complete contrast to the taking of culture exemplified by the Redface donned by so many Redsk*ns fans.

As a Dakota, I am particularly offended by the wearing of chicken feather versions of our eagle feather headdresses and I blogged about it here: Washington Redsk*ns, Indian Mascotry & Owl Man and here at ICTM, Why We Still Mourn Wounded Knee. My ancestor Owl Man wore his headdress, given to him as a mark of honor, when he came to the White House in 1867. Our Dakota people did not fight so hard to survive so football fans could honor our “warrior spirit” by wearing our sacred headdresses to their sporting events while drinking beer.

After we decided on our new hashtag, we kept #NotYourMascot under wraps and shared it only within our social media circles through direct messaging and email. We wanted to make sure it was not co-opted by spammers, too.

Then, on Saturday night at 9pm Eastern, we unveiled it to the world. We were advised to do this by Suey Park a social media activist, and writer who had great success with her hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick. It trended to number one nationally earlier this year and received a great deal of media coverage. Still, I was doubtful our hashtag could gain trend during the Super Bowl.

Then, a half an hour in, Suey Park sent me a screenshot of us trending nationally. I credit this to our allies in the Asian American and other people of color communities online. We had like-minded sports fans like Fans for a New Tradition and sports writer David Zirin. We had thousands of Native people who were tweeting their hearts out to make sure they were heard in a country where we so often are not.

When we were strategizing at our Facebook event page “ Super Bowl Twitter Storm” one of our members Sarah Little Redfeather Kalmanson (Ojibwe) mentioned the Declaration of Independence would be read out loud between 5:30-6pm. We decided to target our tweets at the moment when Thomas Jefferson’s description of our ancestors as “merciless Indian savages” was read. But we never heard the words—they had been edited out. It made me wonder why doesn’t the NFL simply edit out other offensive words like Redsk*ns? After all, the Declaration of Independence is of more historical significance than a football team.

And then, once again, #NotYourMascot trended during the Super Bowl, itself. According to an Al Jazeera article it was tweeted over 18,000 times. Many of our tweets linked to the NCAI Proud to Be ad and helped double its views to nearly one million on YouTube.

On Monday, Indian Country Today put together a wonderful article (“Not Your Mascot’ Trends on Twitter Over Super Bowl Weekend) featuring a photographic gallery of 37 #NotYourMascot tweets. What struck me as I scrolled through them was how diverse they all were. I loved how they reflected the individuality of each Native person who wrote them and yet, they were all saying the same thing: we are #NotYourMascot!

I also read wonderful blog posts by Native supporters of #NotYourMascot like Chahta Summer at Surviving SummerMost amazing to see was ‘NotYourMascot’ Anishinabe poetry by Anishinaabewiziwin. She wrote, “ooooo nokomis/cradled deep and low/anishinaabe super bowl/four billion years old/hiy! hiy!/#NotYourMascot”

So many Native people and our allies made this happen. Danielle Miller (Dakota) who put together an amazing list of tweets for people to use and Toby Vandlingham (Yurok) who put together meme after meme which he shared with all of us at his Facebook page I Am Not Your Mascot. Also, Apache Skateboards artist Douglas Miles and his amazing tweets combining his art and photography honoring his people. And so many others at EONM and many others via Twitter and Facebook. It has been honor to work with all of you! Social media is a lot like our people. Individuals matter, but it is what we do together that really matters.

Will NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell respond? Well, even if he doesn’t this time, we will keep up the pressure on him and Redsk*ns owner Dan Snyder. We are already planning our next Twitter Storm during the Oscars to protest the nomination of Lone Ranger for Redface makeup. We won’t stop until students stop dressing up in Redface and holding signs that say ‘Scalp ‘Em’ at the Rose Bowl and Snyder finally does the right thing; #ChangetheName and realize we are #NotYourMascot.  
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FSU Seminoles & Redface

Thoughts after watching the FSU Rosebowl Game and seeing images of fans dressed up in chicken feather versions of our traditional Dakota/Lakota headdresses.

I remember when I was a kid, we'd go to powwows and my mom would run a Navajo fried bread stand. She would buy me dolls made by members of other tribes. She wanted to teach me that not all tribes are the same, that they each had their own ways & culture. I remember when I got a Seminole doll from a woman wearing the same beautiful, cascading ruffled dress as the doll. I stared at it for a long time. The dark brown cloth face with the face made of appliquéd beads. I knew it was an alien, foreign culture to my own Dakota or Diné one. I never thought the Seminole would support the misappropriation of my father's Dakota culture for money and gain or to simply appease their fellow Floridians. When I looked at that doll, I saw only the great multiplicity of what we Indian Nations are and could be.

Versus this:

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We Are Still Wounded by Wounded Knee

Here is my latest article at Indian Country Today: We Are Still Wounded by Wounded Knee.

I wrote it in response to all the moving social media coverage I was seeing on Facebook and Twitter and Youtube about the Dakota 38 riders retracing their ancestors' path back to their homelands in Minnesota and commemorating the hangings of 38 Dakota men, the largest mass hanging in U.S. history for the Dakota Sioux Uprising in 1862.  If you want to learn more about this ride I highly recommend this documentary about it:

This contrasted greatly in my mind with the lack of coverage of these important events in our people's history nationally by the mainstream media.  As I say in the article,
There are always things happening in Indian country that never make it into the mainstream news, and we Indian people are accustomed to it. We never expect the issues near and dear to our hearts to be covered 24 hours on CNN or to trend on Twitter or on Buzzfeed. And yet, this year, I felt it more than usual.
And then, three days after the Dakota 38 riders made it to Mankato, Minnesota the site of the hangings, a tweet about the Wounded Knee anniversary featuring a photo of the burial of the Lakota victims with my twitter handle attached began filling up my twitter feed.  I clicked on the photo only once but the image remained burned into my mind.

Not the kinds of things the rest of America was thinking about during the holiday season.  In fact, what was on TV that day was 3 and half hours of the Washington Redsk*ns losing yet again.  Yes, a football team in our nation's capital with an ethnic slur against us got all the coverage.  Yeah, this guy's team:

I couldn't help but to think about the stories I'd been told about about both the Minnesota Sioux Uprising and Wounded Knee.  In my family, we have a personal story about each of them.  The first has to do with my grandmother's great-grandfather Owl Man.  The Santee Dakota were refugees and fled Minnesota and came to our people, the Yankton Dakota Sioux in South Dakota.  We took them in, but Owl Man was forced to make a terrible sacrifice to protect the people from the wrath of the U.S. Military.  He had to kill one Santee to save the rest and our own people from mass slaughter.  It was a decision that haunted him for the rest of his life.  Here are some photos of him taken during his visit to Washington DC in 1867 as part of the Yankton Delegation.  In the photo taken with President Andrew Johnson at the White House he is the only one in an eagle feather headdress.

Owl Man

Yankton Sioux Delegation at White House, 1867

It also made me think of my grandmother's uncle the Rev. Charles Cook who was the mixed-blood Yankton Dakota Episcopalian minister at Wounded Knee during the massacre.  She told me how he had turned his church into a hospital during the massacre and with Dr. Charles Eastman, another Dakota worked tirelessly to save the lives of their people.  She told me he died two years later of a broken heart.  He was only in his 20's at the time.  Funnily enough, in the HBO movie done about Charles Eastman's life he is portrayed by a balding, middle-aged white man.  However, Eastman is more accurately depicted by Canadian Saulteaux actor Adam Beach.

Actor Adam Beach (and as Charles Eastman)
The actual Dr. Charles Eastman

Scene from HBO's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee of Rev. Charles Cook's church being used as hospital with holiday decorations still up and a banner "Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men."

I think a lot about these things, how we survived, what the price was, what it means to survive and be unknown in your own "country."  I try to distill these things and to explain why it is not okay to tell us to just forget and move one or why it is painful to see your culture used for cheering for football teams in our nation's capital.  I hope this adds to the discussion.  I think a lot of my family stories, although, written down in various places including Vine Deloria Jr.'s book about our family: Singing for a Spirit, which recounts the life and vision of Owl Man in great detail, and the wonderful book about Yankton Oral history, Remember Your Relatives: Yankton Sioux Images 1851-1904, and in Elaine Goodale Eastman's (wife of Charles Eastman) memoir Sister to the Sioux, where she recounts Rev. Charles Cook's actions during Wounded Knee.

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Why Indian Mascots Need to End in a Picture

Why I haven't been blogging much this past month.  This happened on December 8th -
A sign at a Sonic Drive-in in Belton, Missouri that as a Native mom I would not want my kids seeing.

Monday morning I looked at my Twitter (@jfkeeler) Interactions list and I was surprised to see that Jake Tapper, CNN anchor had answered an obnoxious response to my tweet“Why Indian Mascots Need to End in a Picture”featuring a photograph I had clipped from a Facebook post of a Sonic Drive-in in Belton, Missouri with a sign that read, “KC Chiefs” Will Scalp the Redsk*ns Feed Them Whisky Sent - 2 - Reservation.” He said to the troll,“you truly can’t understand why a Native American would find that offensive?”
When I tweeted him the photo with my one-line observation, I didn’t really expect him to retweet it. I sent it to many high-profile media figures (actually, I was most hopeful that Rachel Maddow would retweet it) and was pleased when he did retweet it Sunday night. He or one of his staff, because I’m sure not all media figures read their own Twitter accounts. Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) has over 300,000 followers on Twitter- not in the Kardashian range, but still, respectable.
Comprising only 1 1/2 per cent of the population of the United States, we get very little meaningful media coverage of our issues. And yet, as major landowners with an outsized interest in the path this country pursues regarding the development of our natural resources (fracking/water issues for example) we should have a larger media profile because the future of the country depends on us agreeing to this economic policy. Yet, even in this day and age of digital media, we are so invisible to the American public—seen only as mascots & movie characters set in the Old West that getting a prominent news anchor to publicly comment on our issues, is something that rarely happens. They don’t even know what our issues are. But you’re reading Indian Country Today, you know all this—what you want to know is how do we make Native American issues go viral and make an impact on policy, law & imagery that limits the public’s perception of us.

I like most people on social media sites like Twitter spend some time battling trolls, people who enjoy expressing the worst parts of their character and most hateful ideas at others. Like many, I share articles I find interesting and quickly found when I shared things about the Native American mascot issue, I was barraged by insulting tweets and sneered at by Redsk*ns fans who I did not know or follow. They were searching the Twitter sphere for any tweets that might cast doubt upon the future of their mascot. At first, I tried to engage them with reasonable reasons why Native Americans find that the use of stereotypes & the use of our culture for entertainment would make it difficult for actual Native Americans to be taken seriously in real life—both as individuals and as sovereign nations.
Quickly, I realized, their only defense was to insult me and make slanderous remarks about my person. One even went so far as to tell me that because I tweeted#BanRwordmy ancestors would be ashamed of me. Me, a Navajo/Yankton Dakota mother with a loving Iroquois husband both of us Ivy League-educated and raising in a safe and happy home our two children honoring our traditions and extended family obligations in every way we can. Apparently,for the sin of tweeting#BanRwordour ancestors would disown us despite everything else we’ve done in our lives for our loved ones.Further discussion descended further as the Redsk*n fan tweeted how my husband could stay married to such a “racist, B*tch.” All this from a man who originally began the conversation saying the Washington Redsk*n mascot was there to “honor” us.
Despite this, or maybe because of it, I garnered a lot of support from these online attacks from both Native Americans and non-Indians. These included Babl (@loxhobabL), Jenny S. (Cherokee,@hippocketsoul), Maggie Hundley (Mvskoke-Creek,@mshundleymaggie), Tanya Tolchin (@tanyatolchin), Samantha Eldridge (@utahsamatha), WashitaValleyGirl (@jen741) and others. Together, we reigned in feeding the trolls except to put out information in the Twitter stream about links to organizations like the National Congress of American Indians (@NCAI1944) and their excellent report on the issue of Mascots Instead, we began talking to each other and as we talked the idea formed of filing FCC Obscenity Complaints online during Redsk*ns games.
Then, last week I put together an email list (direct messaging over Twitter being too cumbersome) and on Friday Ethan Keller (@nonativemascots) put together an FB Event page (“File complaint when you hear R**skins on Radio/TVSatisfaction,”)atNo Native MascotsFacebook page and we began inviting everyone we knew to join us. We used the hashtag#FCCcomplaintRskinto make our tweets easily searchable. The FB Event page included the website address to theFCC Obscenity Complaint Formand the time and date of the game and where to hear it (ESPN, Redsk* online) and encouraged people to listen even for a few minutes.
During halftime my husband wrote an App to make time stamping every utterance easier and we tracked that the offensive word “Redsk*ns” was said every one to three minutes during game play, so no one had to listen long and once they heard the word even once, they could simply file an online complaint and then go about their Sunday. Our goal was (and is, we are doing it again on Dec. 15th) to bombard the FCC with as many complaints as we could. We reached out to all the Facebook & Twitter groups who opposed the name and Change the Name Now (@ChangeRacism) and Change the Mascot (@ChangeDCMascot) joined us. And we reached out to people we knew who have already been fighting the good fight: Suzan Shown Harjo (Muscogee Creek, Morningstar Foundation), Greg Deal (@the_lame_sauce, Pyramid Lake Pauite in DC), Se-ah-dom Edmo (Shoshone Bannock, Yakama, Nez Pearce, Oregon Mascot fighter). Greg and Se-ah-dom responded enthusiastically over Twitter and Facebook and we were grateful for their support.
An hour or so into the game, Carma Corcoran (Chippewa-Cree) a member of our Facebook Event page shared the infamous photo of the racist Sonic sign, which was also been posted on Dakota comedian Dallas Goldtooth’s Facebook page. When I saw that photo with the Redsk*ns losing badly to the Kansas City Chiefs in the background (the score was 38-7 and the sports announcers were saying,“Just ridiculous, Redsk*ns should pelt them with snowballs”) I could see how“‘KC Chiefs” Will Scalp the Redsk*ns Feed Them Whisky Sent - 2 - Reservation,’”encapsulated everything in one terrible sentence what was wrong with mascots. I’m a mom, I take my kids to Sonic for a quick bite to eat between sports and other after school activites. What if the corporate office refused to take responsibility? I had drive by our local Sonic nearly every day and the thought I couldn’t patronize it would make my world, my kids world, our world a smaller place. I suddenly saw that my small fight against one mascot was part of a larger problem that has still not gone away yet. I could not look away and believe every other person would or could do the same thing without interpreting such a sign in a public place as a license to disrespect myself and my family and create a hostile environment for us. My children are 10 and 13 years old. They deserve a better world than that.
Some may say that mascots don’t matter, in fact the typical Redsk*ns fan argument runs like this: “get over it”, “stop being a p*ssy”, “why are Indians only mad now, why not say anything all these years” (this despite NCAI issuing a statement against American Indian mascots back in 1969), “you don’t speak for Indians” (apparently, they do), “it’s not important, do something for your people like make jobs” (if it’s not important, then why not change it?) and finally, “F*ck you”. The vast majority of Americans say nothing on social media about our issues, and utterly unfamiliar with who we are and what matters to us. They ask the same old questions “why don’t you leave the reservation?” As if this would solve the problem and despite 60-70% of us already being economic refugees living expatriate lives in the United States. The mainstream media encounters every Native American issue as if it was for the first time, baffled by our status as sovereign nations—not simply ethnic groups or “special interest groups”. It is in this light that I think our online social media use, done strategically, can help alleviate some of the fundamental misconceptions about who we are that still plague us and hamper our attempts to find national support for our issues.
So, the plans of“File complaint when you hear R**skins on Radio/TVSatisfaction”,our Facebook Event page is to continue to reframe the debate by using social media to educate more and more of our fellow Americans. We want to make sure this nationally newsworthy story is not just about what one Sonic employee did or even“what will Sonic did and how will they apologize?”, they did apologize within hours. And yes, they did it on Twitter. They sent me first one tweet apologizing saying Sonic Drive-in (@sonicdrive_in) “@jfkeelerRemarks were offensive, unacceptable and just wrong. The remarks have been removed. The owner and our brand apologize to all.”And then later a tweet apologizing to my children was well (I will patronize Sonic again). We want to make sure that Americans see this for what it is, one moment where they looked at a sign and understood, even felt for a second what it is like to be marginalized and feel the wallop of hatred that stereotypes and their avatars Mascots can unpack on innocent children, our children. Our stories rarely make the evening news accept as statistics or once they have reached their final, tragic conclusion and are almost never made into movies or television shows that make us human and tell what is in our minds. Even when depicted we are mute, projections of others' fantasies. We want to make sure that this momentary, fleeting feeling in the American public does not simply fade away with a corporate apology but can make even something as small as changing a mascot possible.

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