An Erasure of Native Presence

This past week the University of Oregon announced their new uniforms, based on the discovery and colonization of Oregon by Americans. UO athletics released their “Lewis and Clark” uniforms, as a collaborative project between NIKE, their manufacturer, and the UO Athletics Department.

Tuesday, 10/6/2015, when the news about the uniforms was released, the Native alumni of UO began communicating about the issues in the uniforms through the state. The UO had released a history of colonization, images of the uniforms and descriptions of what each element on the uniform meant. Nowhere in their history of Lewis and Clark explorations into Oregon was there any mention of the Native people they encountered. The mention of Jeffersonian peace medals only mentioned the explorers encountered “individuals”. Then other elements on the uniform symbolized the Oregon Trail, handshakes of peace and friendship, and the founding of the State of Oregon.

There were a number of issues present in the uniforms that cried out for a response from the Native community. Native people were present during all of the historic eras represented and felt the affects of the benevolent colonization of Oregon. The colonization of Oregon was not beneficial to the tribes, who lost millions of acres and ten of thousands of people. Then the tribes were placed on reservations where our cultures were further eroded for the next 150 years. The message in the uniforms as the creation of Oregon being a positive history, was clearly only appreciated by people not affected by loss of land, family and culture. Further discussion online suggested that this was only a PC issue and that we should leave the issues alone. We were clearly not going to be swayed by this.

After the first day of communications over Facebook, the Native alumni decided to write an editorial and present the letter to University administration through their advisory committee relationships. My contribution to the letter was to write the foundation of the historic critique based on what I knew of the time period. The Letter was completed by the morning of Wednesday and presented later that day.

Besides the native critique we questioned how it is that a university with academic departments of history, anthropology and native studies could have produced such a complete reversal of history. University academic departments have been broadening their perspectives over the years and including native and other perspectives in histories. Both positive and negative histories are normal parts of most histories produced today. Its common now for discussions of Native genocide to appear in Native studies and history classes, along with the settlement histories. So the history represented on the “lewis and Clark” uniforms was surprising for its lack of accessing multiple perspectives.

The University responded a day later through the advisory committee and we heard that there would be an appropriate response, that UO Athletics appeared to have not communicated with UO Administration about the history themed uniforms.

On Saturday, game day against Washington State University when the uniforms were to be worn, the UO announced the placement of an outline of Oregon, with nine stars for the 9 tribes on the back of the helmet. The decal was sandwiched between the commemoration of the UCC school shooting the previous  week, and a 33 star US flag, representing the fact the the state of Oregon is the 33rd state in the Union. This same morning a newspaper editorial appeared in Indian Country Today Newspaper online. The article was written by myself and was based on the letter I had helped write to the administration.

It was a grateful surprise that the UO responded so quickly. The native community though is still deeply upset in Online posts. Many wanted them to not wear the uniform at all for what it represented. For many that history of colonization is like that of the Holocaust, because for many tribes that period was a literal holocaust complete with the genocidal destruction of many villages, and the burning of plank houses and dance houses with hundreds of people killed. For a time the settlers to Oregon did try to exterminate all Indians. That is the history that is so close to so many Native people in the West.

The effort did have results, and for that the Native community are appreciative. It would have been much better for the university to consult with some experts  in the field, and the tribes, before this issue occurred. We all trust we all have learned something from this.

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