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SCOTT HARRIS

Root, Root, Root for the Indigenous Team

September 11, 1997|SCOTT HARRIS

Pauline Coleman says she didn't wear this particular shirt on this particular day to this particular school to make a political statement. Coleman, textbook clerk at Birmingham High School, says she reached for the T-shirt because it was going to be another hot day in the Valley.

"The Spirit Lives On," it declared amid images of Red Cloud, Chief Joseph, Manuelito and Geronimo.

Like Geronimo, Coleman is Apache. Born and raised on the San Carlos reservation in Arizona, Coleman traces her roots equally to the Apaches and European immigrants. For some 40 years, she says, she has expressed her cultural identity in another way, donating thousands of dollars through child sponsorship programs to relieve poverty on reservations. "I helped put one girl through college," she boasts.

Coleman figures her viewpoint is as valid as that of any of the Native American activists who on Monday had a victory drum ceremony after the Los Angeles Unified school board voted 6 to 0, with one abstention, to eradicate all Indian references in school nicknames, logos and mascots. That means Birmingham High can't be the Braves, University High can't be the Warriors and Gardena High can't be the Mohicans.

"They made me ashamed," Coleman said the morning after. "How can they do something like that to something so good and noble? How can they denigrate the beautiful Iroquois we have up there?"

This is the prevailing reaction at Birmingham High--a sense of disbelief that anybody could find anything demeaning in the symbols the school adopted when it opened in 1953. The Board of Education may have officially decreed that the Braves are insensitive, offensive and thus politically incorrect. At Birmingham, the politically correct position is just the opposite. That's why the few who expressed agreement with the board's view wouldn't do so on the record.

I visited the campus this week with my own biases. Back at Frances E. Willard Junior High, I proudly played football for the Indians. As a journalist, I carry my own battle scars, and grudges, from newspaper PC wars.

Birmingham now seems to be in the denial stage.

Handsome portraits of Indians still grace the offices of administrators. Regalia bearing the Braves logo--T-shirts, gym bags and such--was still on sale at the student store. I spent $2.50 on a small towel as a souvenir. "A crying towel," somebody called it.

Inside a biology classroom, teacher Sandy Scher was setting up fans and wondering why only 32 of his 35 students had textbooks. Scher, who also coaches track, and fellow biology teacher Jerry Seliga, who also coaches girls soccer, voiced the common opinion that the money to be spent eradicating Indian imagery--estimated at close to $300,000 at Birmingham alone--would be better spent addressing the district's textbook shortage.

Birmingham, they conceded, did not always portray Indians in a respectful manner. Not long ago, Joe Brave, the erstwhile mascot, was promoting a negative stereotype when he ran around during games wielding a tomahawk and pretending to scalp adversaries. But complaints had put an end to that.

Hurtful stereotypes are one thing. It's not as though they were called the Redskins, a name that Coleman and many others agree is offensive. But how, people here ask, can a word that connotes so great a virtue as bravery be so twisted and misconstrued?

What team name would be politically correct? Would students root for the Victims of American Genocide?

Charged with carrying out the school board's orders, administrators said that losing the Braves tradition is sad, but it's also a learning opportunity.

One of the important lessons concerns the task of navigating the treacherous waters of modern multiculturalism. The PC doctrine shifts with time and place.

Eloquent arguments can be made that Indian symbols, however well intentioned, may promote demeaning stereotypes. Sonny Skyhawk, founder of American Indians in Film, points out that rival schools, in the spirit of competition, often depict Indian symbols in a degrading, hurtful manner.

"They say things like, 'Kill the Indians!' and 'Scalp the Indians!' " he said. "Sometimes they hang Indians in effigy."

Skyhawk, a member of the Lakota nation, says it's irrelevant that other ethnic groups don't take offense to such monikers as Fighting Irish, Celtics, Highlanders or Vikings. It is disrespectful, he argues, to assume that American Indians would share the attitudes of ethnic groups that were among their historic oppressors.

American Indians such as Coleman who are critical of the crusade against school names, he suggests, may have become overly assimilated.

Researchers, he said, have estimated that North America was once home to many millions of indigenous people. But in the last U.S. Census, only 250,000 identified themselves as Indians. "The United States of America is still in denial of the genocide of the American Indians," he said.

But their rhetoric and rationale is still lost on many.

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