Monday, September 19, 2016

An exercise in bad history and cultural insensitivity

I've been working on a theory that last week's kerfuffle involving this poster design and our neighbors to the west in Clarke County could have been avoided had Iowa history still been taught in Iowa schools (it isn't) with a few lessons in cultural diversity on the side.

It's important to know that the poster, designed by a Wilton-based photographer to promote the schedule of the Clarke Indians girls basketball team, was neither printed nor distributed. Nor was any malice involved. The photographer, asked to come up with a design focused on the school mascott --- a caricature of a stereotypical native male wearing feathered headdress --- circulated the result and while it didn't exactly go "viral," the design did travel widely in digital format and attract considerable attention.

It's actually a handsome design. But the problems are legion. None of the team members photographed wearing face paint and feathers for the poster are native. A mixed bag of native symbols, some sacred, were incorporated. The totem pole as support for a basketball hoop must have seemed like a good idea (to a white guy) at the time. As did the apparent "war dance" the young women are engaged in farther down.

Ben Shirk, who created the design, subsequently apologized for playing fast and loose with cultural symbolism and removed it from his Facebook page.

School administrators, Shirk and others have attempted to make a questionable point, however --- that the poster was intended to celebrate Clarke County's native heritage. Unfortunately, that heritage consists mostly of the Clarke Indians' mascot and the name of its county seat.


The Clarke County seat, Osceola, was named in 1851 for a Florida Seminole leader --- aka Billy Powell, 1804-1838, left, by George Catlin --- who became widely celebrated among native people for leading resistance to expulsion of his people from their native lands.

The naming of a southern Iowa county seat in his honor a dozen years after his death came about primarily because Osceola, whose father is thought to have been an English trader, had been romanticized among EuroAmericans by the media following his death while imprisoned at Fort Moultrie, South Carolina. He came to be viewed as an heroic figure, which he no doubt was, by white people, too, and also --- because of his mixed racial heritage --- as a cultural bridge.

So far as Clarke County's general native heritage, much of that is prehistoric --- the artifacts frequently found in Clarke (and Lucas) counties date from a time long before EuroAmericans arrived when native peoples actually did live along creeks and in the woodlands here. But these early residents cannot be definitively linked to any modern tribe, although it is likely that the Ioway/Iowa --- after whom Iowa was named --- were their descendants. 

Clarke and Lucas counties opened to EuroAmerican settlement only after the Sauk and Fox (Meskwaki) --- who originated elsewhere --- had been driven father west during the 1840s. And the bands of natives encountered by the earliest EuroAmerican settlers here were hunting parties of Pottawatomi, relocated to southwest Iowa by the U.S. government before being forced farther west, too. The Ioways, the Sauk and the Meskwaki certainly had home villages in Iowa, but these were along the Des Moines and Iowa rivers --- not out here on the prairies, which were hunting grounds.


Mascots and athletic symbolism that incorporate native themes are just plain peculiar, unless the schools and teams involved actually involve native people. Having dispossessed, killed and attempted to christianize and/or destroy native culture, white folks now claim romanticized versions as their own. 

Education and training in cultural sensitivity could go a long way here. If you're going to claim and celebrate "native heritage," you really should learn something about it. And also appreciate the fact that there still are hundreds of thousands of native people out there, and not that many of them are going to appreciate insensitive appropriation.

A good place to begin is Lance M. Foster's 2009 "The Indians of Iowa," published by University of Iowa Press. It is available from the publisher and other sources.

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