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Native American leader shares pain over mascots

By John Coleman*
March 7, 2007 | WASHINGTON (UMNS)

Suanne Ware-Diaz

Suanne Ware-Diaz lifts a box of letters from United Methodists that sits behind her desk.

Most of them express anger at the United Methodist Commission on Race and Religion for supporting efforts to retire Chief Illiniwek, the Native American mascot of the University of Illinois.

She inherited the box from the late Rev. Kenneth Deere, her predecessor at the commission, who in 2001 helped fund an Illinois organization of Native Americans advocating against the chief’s dancing performances during home games.

“This box reminds me, from time to time, of why I’m here,” said Ware-Diaz, a staff executive who oversees Native American issues for the commission. “I’m here to confront the sin of racism throughout our church.

“Native people struggle every day to be recognized and respected in this culture, even among church folks,” she explains. “And this mascot issue is one of life and death in some cases, especially for those who face hateful threats and violence because of their advocacy or simply because of their race.”

Ware-Diaz, who is half Kiowa, half white, grew up in Los Angeles, although her family’s home, and her heart, is in Oklahoma. She remembers painful early encounters with mascots as a youth.

“I was always ashamed and felt terrible at my high school whenever I saw the Indian mascot and white people wearing lipstick, face paint and feathers. I hated it.”

She was thankful when the University High School Warriors in Los Angeles finally became the Wildcats. But she knows how Indian students today feel when they witness similar exploitation and misrepresentation of their cultures on campus.

Ware-Diaz says Chief Illiniwek’s imitation garb is reminiscent of what may have been worn by Plains Indians in the Midwest, but not by the Illini Indians that the mascot claims to portray.

“I was always ashamed and felt terrible at my high school whenever I saw the Indian mascot and white people wearing lipstick, face paint and feathers. I hated it.”

— Suanne Ware-Diaz

She received a lot of negative mail when she responded publicly last October to the decision by United Methodist-related McMurry University in Abilene, Texas, to retire its sports teams’ nickname, “The Indians.”

The mascot issue is important because “it is about dehumanizing a once-defeated people who today don’t always have the numbers or the power to fight back,” she said.

“As Christians, we’re called to walk with one another on this life journey,” she adds. “But we must speak and act with truth and respect toward one another. That’s why I do this work. I believe that’s why God put me here.”

*Coleman is a communications specialist for the General Commission on Religion and Race in Washington, D.C.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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