One of Obama’s signature policy triumphs has been preventing Washington from defeating Oregon on the gridiron during his presidency. I was worried that in this time of crisis, he would fail in this task yesterday and if so, he might as well hand the keys to the country to ISIS. But I should not have underestimated the president, as Oregon defeated Washington for the 12th straight season, meaning that most of next year’s 7th graders will have never witnessed a country facing such a horrible event.
On the other hand, Oregon’s Lewis and Clark uniforms from last week were still offensive because they are celebrations of white conquest. I am not the only one who immediately recoiled from this pioneer iconography. The Native American Studies department at the University of Oregon have an open letter to the university and Nike.
As UO alum and Grand Ronde tribal member David Lewis notes, the celebration of U.S. expansionism as an unmitigated historical and moral good is at odds not only with history but also with recent efforts by the University to strengthen relations to Oregon’s Nine Federally Recognized Tribes and to better support Indigenous faculty, staff, and students on campus. They also undermine the considerable time and effort Nike has expended over the past few years developing the Native-inspired N7 product line. Upon public dissent from tribal peoples following Nike’s announcement, the University initiated steps in the lead-up to Saturday’s game to address these disconnects, including the addition of a helmet decal meant to represent Indigenous peoples in the Oregon and the nine sovereign tribal governments, as well as public address and television copy that explicitly acknowledged the ongoing presence of tribal peoples in the state. Such efforts, however, give the impression that the Nine Tribes endorse the pioneer theme, or that a simple acknowledgment of Native presence as an afterthought adequately addresses the more substantive issue of the public face of the flagship institution in the state celebrating the violent, at times genocidal, practices of conquest in the region.
We would like to reframe this event as a teaching moment that might productively acknowledge the monumental significance of the expedition/invasion by embracing and representing all of the communities which were and continue to be impacted by it. We thus encourage the Athletics Department and Nike to act swiftly to remove the uniforms from future use and recall all “special edition” paraphernalia from retail stores. We further suggest that the Athletics Department and Nike refrain from any future celebrations of what remains a contested history, and conduct meaningful consultation with tribes and administrative and academic officials earlier in project development in order to avoid future missteps. By openly and critically acknowledging how words, actions, thoughts, representations, and policies affect one another, we can begin to bring our communities together around shared histories of experience that draw us all into relationship.
These things actually do matter, as we are remembering with the battle over the Confederate flag. As Americans, and especially Oregonians, really forget about Native Americans in broader remembrances of our history, not that we don’t recognize that history as sad but because we see it strictly as something of the past without much in the way of policy implications in the present. Native Americans are around today and when we celebrate white conquest of the continent, we are actually reminding real people who exist today that we are erasing their people and their histories from the national memory.