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A Fall Panel: Mascots, Costumes, and Cranberry Sauce

October 22—At the University of Massachusetts Boston, on the third floor of the Integrated Science Complex in Room 3300, Dr. Ping-Ann Addo, a professor in the anthropology department and co-director of the Center for Innovative Teaching (CIT), led the “Mascots, Costumes, and Cranberry Sauce: Undressing Fall Holidays from a Native Perspective” event. Part of their Fall 2018 Forum Series, the CIT sponsored a four-person panel to talk about Native Americans and their ties to modern day commercialized United States of America’s holidays. The title of the event puts insight into the problematic themes seen in Halloween costumes and what really happened at the “original” Thanksgiving.

Before the panel promptly started at 1 p.m., people were able to get refreshments and settle into their seats. Although most of the professors and students were present from the start, as the event went on more and more people joined the room.

The need to open dialogue on these issues were shown at the very beginning with Dr. Addo introducing the topics and the initial two present panelists, Dr. Cedric Woods and undergraduate student, Jawan Knight.

Dr. Cedric Woods, a citizen of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, started off the event talking about historical erasure of indigenous people in the USA. Woods spoke on the history of the Boston Harbor Island, Deer Island, and how many don’t know it’s past of being a concentration camp during King Philip’s War. Along with the history of Boston and lack of history involving Native Americans, Woods told the room about the National Public Radio (NPR) broadcast he had heard on his way into UMass Boston that morning. “This morning I’m particularly fired up. I was listening to some commentary on a station I love, NPR, poking jabs at local senator, like her, love her, it’s irrelevant to me. One I took great exception to was them joking about Senator Warren’s wounded knee. Wounded Knee is the site of a massacre of indigenous peoples. I don’t find it funny. I don’t find it amusing. I’m not entertained by it. This is where we’re at in 2018.” The 1890 Wounded knee massacre of 300 Lakota Indians on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota is an important example of historical erasure and quick rewriting of the history of Native Amercians in the United States.

Up next was undergraduate Jawan Knight. A citizen of the Wampanoag Nation, Knight stated, “For today, for the ‘Mascots, Costumes, and Cranberry Sauce [Panel]’, I’m just going to briefly touch on quickly about Native mascots and key terms that were socially constructed through the colonial society such as a full-blooded Indian.” From there Knight told the audience, “One thing you don’t realize is that if someone goes to you, ‘Oh hi, I’m Irish and like Swedish’, you’re not going to ask them ‘How much are you?’ But, the term of, when someone says, ‘I’m Native American’, you’re like, ‘Oh how much are you?’ Which, in fact, is not the correct thing to say, and is actually offensive to Natives, all due to the whole quotation of blood quantum which was socially constructed.”

Woods had to leave for other responsibilities and Knight had a class at 2 pm but another panelist, Dr. Maria John, dropped in around ten minutes in. An assistant professor in the Department of History, her expertise is in Native American history. During her part of the panel she handed out an article titled“Which Thanksgiving?” by Karl Jacoby and showed different clips such as one about Columbus vs Indigenous People Day and a small video from Teen Vogue called, “Native American Girls Describe What Really Happened on Thanksgiving.”

John engaged the audience and moved her talk onto what a holiday actually is and what it means. She asked the audience, “What are national holidays about? What are they for? Why are these [Thanksgiving and Columbus Day] holidays celebrated? What is it all about? Anyone?” A young woman in the audience answered, “To commemorate historic moments in United States history.”  

As the Q&A section went on, the last panelist came in. A PhD student in the College of Education and Human Development, Savitha Rajamani, read her portion out loud where she talked about her experiences as an indigenous, Dalit, woman from India, “During this time, [coming to the US and getting a teaching job] I had come across several derogatory representations of indigenous people in the US. I could make connections with indigenous people in the US and in India. The derogatory representations of indigenous people in school curriculums, school mascots, and games that children play. These connections were quite alarming for me in the initial journey in the US as a student, an educator, and a student again.” She then told the room what it was like being the only woman of color teacher in a predominately white school and the instances of discrimination she encountered. She first thing she noticed was the school’s tradition for the awards they gave outstanding students every month. “The award was named as, ‘Feather Awards.And students who won the outstanding student award would get artificial feathers; which they would place it in the back of their head, sticking it in their hair.” After she found this out, she went to the principal and tried to explain why it wasn’t okay to do.

The very end of the event covered final questions and comments. Each member of the room engaged in a full discussion about being vs acting woke, suggestions of different anthropologists and historians, further going into the why of not wearing Native American Halloween costumes, and questioning why UMass Boston doesn’t have any options for Native languages.