we must choose our battles

When I was small, they called me Itchybum. It was my part of our favourite neighbourhood game called Cowboys and Itchybums.

When I was small, they called me Itchybum.

It was my part of our favourite neighbourhood game called Cowboys and Itchybums.

We chased each other endlessly through the long purple summer evenings of my boyhood, armed with wild cucumbers and pine cones and the occasional stone buried in balls of mud.

It was play, all wild and reckless and free and far beyond any judgment, invective or skewed notions.

As an Itchbybum I was fearless, fast and a strategic wizard. I took pride in being considered a difficult quarry. I dodged and ran and raided with aplomb and verve and swagger born of what I considered to be the erstwhile qualities of the name.

I was actually kind of proud to be an Itchybum.

I thought of those days recently.

A federal judge in Washington sided with the NFL’s Washington Redskins in their ongoing battle with a Native American group, which claimed the name was defamatory.

The group sought to have the franchise trademark canceled so the team could no longer market it. While the judge cited that she could not deem the appropriateness of native imagery for team names, she ruled in the team’s favour.

This, of course, has been a long simmering argument.

For decades now Native groups have been calling for the changing of sports team monikers that cheapened the image of their people. Besmirched, even.

They wanted the Braves, Indians, Warriors, Redskins, Blackhawks and Chiefs to change their names.

Certainly, there’s been just cause through the years for change in how Native people were represented in sporting venues.

I remember Chief Noc-A-Homa, the war bonnet-wearing, face-painted Indian who lived in a tipi in the bleachers at Milwaukee’s County Stadium and then at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium until the early 1980s.

Whenever a Braves player hit a home run Noc-A-Homa would burst out of the tipi and do a war dance.

Then there was Willie Wampum. He was the mascot of Marquette University’s Warriors basketball team. Willie carried a huge tomahawk with a leering, cartoonish grin and devilish eyes.

He’d cavort around in a mock War Dance to the delight of the Marquette faithful.

Thankfully, Willie was retired in 1971 and the Warriors became the Golden Eagles soon after.

The NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs used to have a horse mascot called Warpaint who would gallop along the sidelines to celebrate a touchdown.

Everyone, of course, is familiar with the loopy Chief Wahoo emblem of the Cleveland Indians.

As a First Nation person I was glad to see those irksome caricatures replaced and I still wait for the day when Cleveland sees fit to retire Chief Wahoo.

No one needs those kinds of images and the games and the crowds they are paraded in front of are the less for them.

But the issue of the names themselves strikes me as a tad shortsighted.

I’ve been a sports fan all of my life.

The reason I have come to cheer for the teams I have is because of what they represent to me.

I cheer because of the qualities of the team.

As a Red Sox fan since May of 1965, I suffered constantly until 2004 when they finally won a championship but I stuck with them because they always stood for perseverance and working-man fortitude to me.

A sports team does not incorporate a name that doesn’t reflect a winner. The team chooses names that reflect nobility, steadfastness, courage, leadership and a relentless commitment to winning.

The teams name themselves so, in the super-superstitious nature of sports, they might become imbued with the admirable qualities of their namesakes.

When they chose native-oriented names for themselves it was because they saw honourable traits in the people that they wanted to emulate.

Sure, we can probably do without the Tomahawk Chop at Atlanta Braves games, but the Florida State Seminoles were named for the strength, nobility and power inherent in the tribe.

There are no Welfare Bums, Good-for-Nothings, Land Grabbers or Low Lifes out there. Only teams with native-oriented names that evoke endurance, grace, power, nobility and a winning attitude.

In that, there’s no insult for me.

Besides, there are far bigger causes that deserve our attention. Whether the Kansas City football team is called the Chiefs or the Mud Stumpers doesn’t change a whit in the real world.

Advocacy groups among Native people would do far better work focused on the elimination of harder images like poverty, suicide, gang violence and addictions.

These days it’s really rather satisfying to recall that at one time I was an Itchybum — satisfying because five decades later I’ve transcended that image and it’s given me the grace to realize that name calling only hurts when you pay attention.

Me, I’m too busy focused on life-changing matters to hear them. 

Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, arrives in August from Doubleday.