Home 2018 Collegiate Magazine Finding common ground

Finding common ground

Drewyn Talley (left) and Matthew Scheidel (right) discussing issues on GRCC's campus. (Najd Ayari/The Collegiate)

By Matthew Scheidel

In our current political climate, we sometimes struggle to get along. It seems like anything we say can be offensive to someone and it’s often hard to discuss certain issues without things getting heated.

As a 20-year-old white male, there aren’t a lot of things that offend me. I have had the luxury of not facing much discrimination throughout the course of my life up to this point. But there are millions of people in the world who face some sort of discrimination that some of us, including myself, may never understand. We may never understand why something that is not offensive to us, is offensive to someone else if we haven’t been faced with such discrimination. But we can still attempt to do so.

In an attempt to better understand other people’s perspectives, The Collegiate hosted a forum and invited students to share their experiences and talk openly about controversial issues.     

Drewyn Talley, president of the Native American Student Organization at Grand Rapids Community College, mentioned one of the issues plaguing the Native American community and his attempt to raise awareness and tolerance among all GRCC’s diverse student population. Talley’s attempt to raise awareness on Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day at GRCC is a topic he’s passionate about.  

“This is an issue that is very close to my heart,” Talley said. “The first time we tried to get it passed, it didn’t take off because it excluded the dominant culture. The proposal soley wanted to focus on indigenous people, without taking into consideration that there are people that do celebrate Columbus Day, and it matters to them on some level. Now, with this proposal, we are trying to accomodate all viewpoints. We want to acknowledge that Columbus Day might have significance to some people, so we want to celebrate both holidays alongside each other.”

Talley said that he personally doesn’t care for Columbus Day, being a Native American himself, and that he’s taken some heat for celebrating both holidays.

“If I had my druthers, it would just be Indigenous People’s Day,” Talley said. “But I understand that our values here at GRCC include diversity, inclusion and equity. So for me, I just view this as a stepping stone to getting people talking.”  

Talley also highlighted the issue of racial stereotypes among sports mascots, specifically the Washington Redskins.

“To me, that word (Redskins) is flagrantly painful,” said Talley. “Something like the Atlanta Braves or the Chicago Blackhawks, those aren’t so bad. But something like the Redskins, it’s just in the word. You’re calling someone out by the characteristic of the skin. You know, we’re people. I think each of us has value dignity and worth. We’re more than just flesh. I think there are much better epithets to use than something based on a physical feature.”

Washington’s football team has been called the Redskins since 1933. They were founded a year before that in Boston, where they were first known as the Braves. They relocated to Washington D.C. in 1937.

Talley said that he doesn’t mind some of the names, and that he doesn’t wish that there were no team names or mascots based off of Native Americans in sports.

“Names of tribes aren’t problematic to me,” Talley said. “It’s a proper name, right? It’s neutral territory. But I mean it’s when you get into things like Braves and Redskins, that’s when it becomes a problem. As far as Indians, me, as a Native American, I don’t ever identify as Indian because it’s incorrect. I’m not Indian. I guess you could say if anything I could pass as an American Indian, but I thought Indian is someone from India. So to me, that’s a misrepresentation.”

One week following the forum, I attended the “More Than A Word,” event Talley hosted with his student organization at the GRCC Applied Technology Center auditorium. The screening featured “More Than A Word,” a documentary about the aforementioned Washington Redskins and the controversy surrounding their team name and logo. This was followed by a panel discussion about the impact of using Native Americans’ likenesses and tribe names as team logos, as well as other issues.

The panelists included Community/Cultural Consultant for the Michigan Department of Education Lynn LaPointe, GRCC Anthropology Professor Dillon Carr, Grand Valley State University Native American Council member Belinda Bardwell and GRCC Instructor and Counselor Andre Fields. Both Bardwell and LaPointe are of Native American decent.

Bardwell said that she still finds it hard to believe that there are people that think the Redskins’ name and logo is not offensive.

“I totally get having a personal and emotional connection to a team, to a school, to a figure,” said Bardwell. “I grew up in Grand Rapids. I grew up in my safe little bubble. College is the place to step out of that bubble and just start to see things from different perspectives and start to have conversations with people who think differently than you. So I get the emotional connection, but at the same time, you still have to evolve as a human being to understand that other people across the table from you (have) as much right to be humanized as anyone else.”

LaPointe spoke about the resiliency of Native Americans, as well as their ability to be multifaceted problem solvers.  

“I once heard a phrase that went, ‘traditionally, we are a contemporary people,’” LaPointe said. “That phrase is about resiliency. It’s about our ability to be contemporary no matter what year, no matter what generation, our ability to roll with the punches, our ability to take the most evil things done to our people and survive them. When I think about all the advocates in the video tonight, they are demonstrating that. They are demonstrating their ability to have that cultural resilience, even in the face of defeat.

“A phrase people always say to us is ‘get over it,’” LaPointe continued. “We hear that all the time. This is usually followed by something along the lines of ‘don’t you have something more important to do? Isn’t there something more important that you Indians should be focused on other than a mascot?’ That goes back to being a multifaceted problem solver, as an indigenous person. You can’t focus solely on being a water protector. You can’t focus solely on being an advocate against the use of racist mascots. You can’t focus solely on being an expert in culture. You can’t focus solely on just on one of those. You have to be an expert at all of those. That’s what makes you a multifaceted indigenous problem solver.”

Following the event, Talley, who hosted the event, offered some insight as to what he wishes people knew about what the term “redskin” meant to Native Americans before making any judgments.

“It’s a racial slur,” said Talley. “People just don’t see it that way. It’s on par with some of the words that the panelists mentioned, such as the n-word. I see it as being synonymous with those kinds of words. But the popular belief is that it’s harmless, at worst. Maybe a little culturally insensitive. But it’s damaging. I think I’ve mentioned before that words have the power to either build us up or tear us down. I am all for stuff that builds us up.”

At the end of the day, we are all human. We may not always see eye to eye on everything. It may seem kind of petty when someone gets upset about something that at first glance, doesn’t seem like their issue. But it’s quite possible that person has spoken to someone who is directly affected by that issue, and they know their perspective. We have to talk to each other. The more we talk, the more we can learn about different perspectives, and the happier we can become. I was one of those people. Whenever I saw people getting riled up about something like the Redskins, I would wonder why people would go through all that trouble over an issue that has nothing to do with them. Now after hearing different perspectives from people like Drewyn, I now see where they are coming from. So I encourage you to do the same. If there is an issue that bothers someone but you aren’t sure why, talk to them. It may not be easy. But we have to try.