We might think we fully understand the mascot controversy sweeping the country right now. And we might assume that every Native American on every reservation in the United States feels the same way about it.
But that’s just not true.
Here in North Carolina, where the Cherokee live on the Qualla Boundary on land they’ve always owned, they don’t see themselves as living on a reservation. They have their own nation.
And they have their own opinions about things we can never fully understand. One of those is the mascot controversy.
It might shock you to learn that on the banks of the Oconaluftee, below the Boundary Tree Ridge, there are a lot of Washington Redskins fans. There are Cleveland Indians fans. There are a ton of Atlanta Braves fans.
And while they don’t all agree on everything about the movement to end mascots associated with Native Americans, they do have some strong opinions. Just maybe not the opinions you would think they’d have.
“First and foremost, in no way shape or form do I represent the entire community of Cherokee, but I have always felt that most Native American mascots are very prideful,” said Skooter McCoy, the former football coach at Cherokee High School. “I can’t imagine someone picking a nickname or a mascot that they aren’t proud of. I see them as being bold, strong, fierce, brave and tough, and a lot of school systems and schools want to be represented by something strong.”
McCoy was the first full-blooded Cherokee to coach the football team, and he has experiences that he carries with him through the years. Some good and some bad.
Like many who live on the boundary, he’s a little uncomfortable about where this all could lead. But make no mistake about it, he’s ready for the name “Redskins” to go away forever.
Many in Cherokee, some of them lifelong fans of the Washington football franchise, want it gone because of the history associated with it.
“It’s an interesting conversation,” Jonah Lossiah said.
He’s a reporter for the Cherokee One Feather, the newspaper for the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians.
“Personally I’m opposed to the name Redskins,” he said. “It comes from some pretty horrendous origins. But once you change it, everybody else is going to want other teams, like the Chiefs or the Braves or the Indians, to change. I’ve never really been a huge advocate for those other teams to change.”
Nationally, the argument has begun. From the Cherokee boundary, they look at it not with wild-eyed zeal but with curiosity. And they’re mostly interested in those outside the culture understand where the term came from.
“The term red skin isn’t what people think,” McCoy said. “A lot of people make the assumption that redskin refers to skin color. That term was used differently throughout different times. But our history taught us that there was a bounty-hunting term that referred to us as red skins. The bodies were brought in covered in blood. That’s why it’s so derogatory to native people.”
The story in the One Feather this week about the controversy in Washington and nationally began with a history lesson:
“A notice in the Daily Republican newspaper, in Winona, Minn., on Sept. 24, 1863, reads, ‘The state reward for dead Indians has been increased to $200 for every red-skin sent to Purgatory. This sum is more than the dead bodies of all the Indians east of the Red River are worth.’”
Gregg McGaha, a history teacher at the high school in Cherokee, said his students know their history well, some to the point of getting tired of hearing it over and over.
“They’re teenagers,” McGaha said. “They’re opinionated and it’s a mixed bag. Some are deeply offended by the stereotypes that are out there. Some just want to be represented. Native Americans are the forgotten minority, and they want to be remembered.”
He said there are those who see the removal of statues across the country and worry that history is being erased. Cherokee students want their history to be taught and recognized.
He said most of his students are more keenly aware of the debate over what’s going on in Atlanta instead of Washington. The high school mascot in Cherokee is the Braves.
“They see the tomahawk chop, and they don’t like it,” McGaha said. “That’s the conversation that comes up a lot here.”
The argument rages outside of the boundary. Indian groups and support groups and anti-mascot groups across the country know there’s blood in the water now. Nothing is sacred, from the troubling traditions of war paint and headdresses at Florida State and in Kansas City and D.C. to the war chants and fight songs and the flaming spears in college football stadiums.
It’s a black-and-white argument across the nation. You’re either for it or against it.
On the Qualla Boundary, where the waters run clear and cold, it’s neither black nor white, but red. Proud red.
You won’t get a consensus in Cherokee.
McCoy said the people there are like people everywhere. They're different, and yet they’re the same.
“We have a huge following of the Redskins fans in Cherokee,” he said. “It’s a huge fan base. Ironically I’m a Dallas Cowboys fan. Personally, I feel that Native American mascots are something to be very proud of, if all the intentions are good. It’s a tough topic, but we’re a tough people. We’re the Cherokee Braves.”