#BBCtrending: Native Americans reject 'super drunk' label
- 20 May 2014
No to mascots with feathered headdresses and "Red Indian" references - Native Americans are using social media to change the way US culture represents them.
Who would want to be called "super-drunk"? Or how about Sioux per drunk? Sioux is the name sometimes used for the Native American Lakota and Dakota tribes. And these were the words on a T-shirt worn by some students at the University of North Dakota at a gathering earlier this month.
The T-shirt shows a logo of the Fighting Sioux - which used to be the mascot for the university - with a "beer bong" funnel in his mouth and two large glasses of overflowing drink. Students posted smiling pictures of themselves wearing the T-shirts to Twitter and Facebook, and it wasn't long before the images came across the timelines of Native Americans in the area.
"The images spread like wildfire over social media," says Ruth Hopkins a former student at the university from the Dakota and Lakota tribe, and a founding writer of the Native American website LastRealIndians. "Native Americans wanted answers," she says. Hopkins wrote a blog condemning the students, and started the hashtag #Siouxperdrunk. It went on to be used thousands of times, mostly by Native Americans, who - like her - were angered by the affair.
Some students apologised on social media. Others said the T-shirts were just a joke, and not meant to be "mean or hurtful". Some cited free speech in defence of their actions, or said people need to "get a thicker skin". The company that printed the T-shirts apologised, and - in a Facebook post - the president of the University of North Dakota, said he was "appalled".
"It was highly offensive," says Native American hip hop artist Jordan Brien, aka Mic Jordan, who was one of those who tweeted about the story. For him, the depiction of a Native American drinking alcohol had a personal resonance. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, chronic liver disease and cirrhosis is the fifth most common cause of death among Native Americans - significantly higher than among the general US public. And Brien has seen this first hand. His uncle died of liver cirrhosis, and his stepfather has recently been diagnosed too. "My stepdad is that siouxperdrunk," he says. "He's dying." It's just plain wrong, says Brien, to make a joke out of this.
The backlash against the T-shirts is the latest in a series of social media campaigns by Native Americans, unhappy at the way they are often represented in wider US society. Sports teams, Hollywood films, and major fashion companies have all been singled out for criticism, often with specially-created hashtags.
"We are supposedly 'post-race', so there's a lot of hesitation to talk about these things in person," says Adrienne Keene, who writes the Native Appropriations blog. "But online, these conversations are are happening constantly."
"Now Native people have a voice on social media," she says. "It really has amplified these voices and given us a platform to stand on."
Keene and others complain that Native Americans are hardly represented in mainstream media, and say journalists often turn to non-Native experts when they do write stories. At the same time, she argues, stereotypical images of Native Americans are widespread across popular culture - with cartoon-like mascots for sports teams, or "ethnic" clothing lines by big brands.
"We go from being this vibrant 557 tribes in the US, to being reduced down to this one-sided image," she says. "We don't get to exist fully as human beings in the eyes of most people."
One of the biggest campaigns in recent months was the #NotYourMascot hashtag - which trended during the Super Bowl in February, and was a criticism of the name and mascot used by the American football team the Washington Redskins. Supporters say the name honours the strength and force of Native Americans - and it's popular with fans. Critics say the term "redskins" is as offensive as using the n-word to refer to African-Americans.
Native Americans make up only around 2% of the US population, and are widely spread across the country, making it hard for them to get a story trending - unless they get support from the wider population. Alliance-building with other minority groups is an important part of their strategy. As we've reported on this blog before, race is a particularly hot topic on social media in the US.
In the case of the #NotYourMascot, the well-known and influential Asian-American Twitter campaigner Suey Park - who started the hashtag #NotYourAsianSideKick - offered advice, says Jacqueline Keeler, a founding member of the group Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry, which led the social media campaign.
The group told their supporters about the hashtag ahead of time, and agreed to start using it the night before so as to gain momentum for the big night.
A series of similar hashtags have trended since. #NotYourTonto came soon after, and was timed to coincide with the Oscars where the film The Lone Ranger was up for an award for makeup and hairstyling. Many Native Americans were unhappy that a white actor - Johnny Depp - was selected for the role of Comanche Tonto and then dressed up and heavily made-up to look the part.
Nike has also come in for criticism on social media in recent weeks for selling clothing with the Chief Wahoo logo on it - the mascot for the Cleveland Indians baseball team, which many Native Americans want to see retired. Thousands have complained using the hashtag #Dechief.
Native American mascots have been controversial for decades, and many schools and colleges have recently retired them - including the University of North Dakota. Keeler says her parents campaigned against the Chief Wahoo mascot back in the 1960s, and now their grandchildren are continuing that fight, with social media playing an ever-greater role.
"We are a force to be reckoned with," agrees Ruth Hopkins from LastRealIndians. "Social media seems to be an excellent fit for Native people."
"We've always been very good at carrying messages quickly by word of mouth," she says. "Centuries ago we used runners. Now we use wi-fi."
Reporting by Cordelia Hebblethwaite
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