|Native American leader shares pain over mascots|
By John Coleman*
March 7, 2007 | WASHINGTON (UMNS)
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
“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 firstname.lastname@example.org.