Although an Iowan through and true, my roots come through South Dakota (specifically Mitchell – my mom was a tour guide at the Corn Palace – and Salem for those in the know). Further, I have Jackrabbit blood with many family members graduating from SDSU (the cold one and not the warm one). It was therefore incredibly exciting to welcome John Little, a filmmaker from a West River background who also graduated from Brookings, to the Browning Cinema.
He has since kept on the academic track having completed a graduate degree in History from USD and currently working through a full plate of pre-lim essays for the Ph.D. he is currently pursuing at the University of Minnesota. Alongside that considerable load, he’s traveling across the nation with the film he directed with his brother, More Than a Word, that was screened at the Browning Cinema on November 14. The screening was a collaboration with Multicultural Student Programs and Services (MSPS) here at Notre Dame with giant thanks to Yvette Rodgriguez, a good friend of the Browning and general rockstar, who did the heavy lifting to bring John to campus.
More Than a Word examines the cultural appropriation of Native American names and iconography, specifically by corporations (e.g., Washington R*dskins) and educational institutions. The efforts to remove these mascots and brand images stems, in part, from the National Congress of American Indians, which in the 1940s started organized efforts to improve depictions of Native Americans in the media. That effort moved through the American Indian Movement, which saw many of its key figures advocating against the use of Native American names and images in athletics (i.e., mascots).
The effort has been a successful if hard-fought one with the number of Native American mascots dropping precipitously during the last four decades; however, a quick survey of K-12 schools in Indiana indicates the issue is far from settled: There are Braves (32 schools), Chiefs (5), Indians (58), Warriors (62), and R*dskins (8) in our home state alone. (As John pointed out in his post-film discussion, there is a large clustering of Native American mascots in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan.) That’s alongside the Cleveland Indians, Chicago Blackhawks, and Atlanta Braves, among other professional teams.
By having Native American experts frame the critiques of this cultural appropriation and respond to common defenses for the continued use of Native American mascots, More Than a Word presents the case for removing these from our schools and teams. It also allows those experts, who often were plaintiffs as the advocacy campaign appealed in federal courts as well as the courts of public opinion, opportunities to reflect on their own stories of struggling to fight various systems they find oppressive.
Himself a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, John spoke after his film to explain how interrelated issues in the Native American community make topics like sports mascots difficult to unpack, especially for potential allies. He also was very careful to focus on the topic at hand; by centering his talk on the core issue of mascots with ties to historical systems of oppression, he kept his portion of the talkback focused allowing it to grow into local concerns (e.g., the audience discussed murals found in Notre Dame’s Main Building that many members of Notre Dame’s Native American Student Group (NASAND) and the Pokgaon Band of Potawatomi—as well as allies—find objectionable and painfully outmoded). It was an excellent example of the positive outcomes that discussions surrounding documentary films often produce: audience members affected by issues onscreen can have their literal voice heard, people who object to objections can raise questions to be debated, and business cards of people working on similar advocacy campaigns can be shared. As a student of history, that transfer of knowledge and organizing is something John recognizes as incredibly important, which was a main reason for creating the film (to focus the conversation and share it widely, quickly), and an excellent gift to offer our campuses and communities at the Browning Cinema.