In the winter of 1968 I was a senior in high school. I was asked by the athletic director to be the school mascot and lead the basketball tam out of the dressing room at home games. The schools nickname was “Indians” and I am a Menominee, Stockbridge/Munsee Indian. I was raised on the Menominee Indian Reservation in northeastern Wisconsin and I went to Shawano Senior High School in Shawano, Wisconsin. The athletic director told me he thought it would be good for community relations and because I had been a dancer since I was two years old, he figured I was a logical choice to do this. By the way, I was also senior class president. I mention that because no Indian had held a class office position in almost twenty years. The Indian students were outnumbered by the non-Indian students by at least 15 to 1.
I told Mr. Ellis, the athletic director, that I wasn’t interested. I told him we didn’t do things like that, “for show,” and I wouldn’t feel right doing it as a, “cheerleader.” He told me I wouldn’t be a cheerleader and that he would ensure that everything would be in good taste and with the utmost respect. I told him I still didn’t care because I wouldn’t do it. He told me to take some time, think it over and get back to him in a few days. That night when I got home, I told my Mom and Dad what Mr. Ellis had asked since they both thought it was a good idea and that I’d do a great job. My Dad told me to go and talk with some of the elders on our rez and see what they thought. So I did. One of the men I respected in the highest regard told me, “sure, give ’em a good show. Dress up like one of those ‘Hollywood’ Indians and give them a little show, it’ll be OK. Just don’t wear anything sacred on your outfit, it’ll be OK.” Then I talked with some of my classmates and then I spoke with the Indians (Three of them) who were on the basketball team. Everyone said almost the same thing. I remember one of my friends told me something like,
“Go ahead, Plass, you can do it. Show all these white bastards we’re proud of who we are.”
So, here I am, not really wanting to do it, but everyone is giving me the impression that it would be a good thing and that I’d do a good job doing it. So, reluctantly, I agreed.
Here’s what happened.
I went back to Mr. Ellis and said, “Okay, I’ll do it, but only ‘ONE TIME’. I will not be a cheerleader, I will wear what I want to wear and that’s it.” He was really excited and told me he was glad I’d do it. So plans were put into place to have me at the next home game. My major objective was to get a “Hollywood” type outfit that would have that “Indian” look everyone could identify with. I got a double trailer headdress from a gentleman on our rez, bought some “store bought” moccasins, a vest and aprons, machine made necklace and I was set. Then came game night.
I was very nervous and scared getting ready in our locker room. I had no idea what to expect, but I suddenly felt okay. One big reason was my friends from the rez who were on the team (If I remember right, there were only three Indians on the team). When the time came to lead out the team, my best friend was right behind me and said, “Way to go, Plass, I’m right behind you.” With that the locker room doors were opened and away we went. As I ran out on the gym floor with the team behind me, everyone there rose to their feet and greeted us with a thunderous applause. After I had finished leading out the team, I looked around the gym. I had never seen that place have so many people there. And, I noticed there were a lot of people in the crowd from our reservation. That made me feel real good. At that point I actually felt that I had done the right thing. As they stood on their feet clapping, I walked over and hugged my Grandma and parents. At half time I did a small dance exhibition and then I was done. All in all everything went good.
The following Monday, Mr. Ellis came to me and said, “That was fantastic!
Now, for this Friday night’s game….”
I stopped him and said, “Mr. Ellis. I told you I’d do it one time and that’s it. No more.”
He said, “No, but wait. It went over so well last week, the newspaper wants to write about it, take some pictures and do it up good.” My mind went back to the previous Friday night, and then I thought, “What the hell … I can do this one more time.”
So I did. At the next game there were even more people. My picture was in the paper and things went real well. (As a matter of fact, I still have that picture from the newspaper!)
Well, the next week Mr. Ellis came to me and said, “Okay, Rich, we’re all set for Kimberly.”
I said, “Hey wait, there’s no way I’m going to an away game.”
He said, “No, you don’t understand. Their principal called the school and they can’t wait for us to be there this week and have you lead out our team on their court. They’ve assured us that they think its one of the best things to happen in our conference and they’re looking forward to having you there.”
Well, I talked it over with my Mom and Dad and then some of my friends again, everyone said to go out and do it and show everyone how proud we are.
So, off to Kimberly I went.
Now, if you think I was nervous at our gym, you have no clue how nervous and scared I was in their gym! As I was getting dressed, I kept telling myself that things would be okay. When the time came to lead out the team, my buddy got behind me again and said, “Don’t worry, Plass, I’m right behind you.”
So, the locker room doors were opened, and out I ran with the team behind me. As I ran out onto the floor, the first thing to hit me was how much bigger their gym was than ours, and that it was filled to capacity! As I ran out on the floor, everyone in that place rose to their feet and started … laughing. Then people started shouting things at me. Then they started throwing things at me. Little kids ran down from the bleachers and started trying to pull on the feathers I was wearing. All of a sudden I felt a tug on my back, and I spun around with my fists clinched ready to knock someone out, when one of the cheerleaders crabbed me and said, “NO, RICH! DON”T DO IT.” It was at that point I decided to go back to the locker room. As I was leaving the floor, some guys high up in the bleachers started spitting on me. I ran into the locker room, was taking off my outfit, was scared, angry, hurt, humiliated and had tears in my eyes.
Mr. Ellis and the coach came running in and I stood up and told them, “God damn it!! I told you this would happen!”
They both apologized to no end, but the damage had been done. I was through.
The following Monday or Tuesday, I was called to our principal’s office before our first class was to begin. This was somewhat normal, because being senior class president, many times I had to meet with our principal at the start of the day. On this particular day, when I walked in his office, he motioned for me to stand next to him. As he began reading the morning announcements over the schools sound system, he turned to me and then proceeded to read a letter from the principal from the school we had been at.
It was a letter of apology to me and the school for what had happened at the basketball game. I accepted it, but I told everyone I’d never do it again.
Here’s some history you should know. Our tribe, the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin were not even considered Indians at that time. The United States government had terminated our tribal status, so in June of 1961, we were no longer Indians! Think about this for a while. Congress passed a law, so literally, there was a piece of paper in Washington D.C. that said I was no longer an Indian, I had no rights that I had had as a child, and that I had no identity. Now, I didn’t change colors, my hair stayed the same and we still danced at pow wows and held our ceremonies, but according to our government, I was not an Indian. I equate this to Jim Thorpe. He won all of his medals at the Olympics I believe in 1912. The United States of America did not even grant US citizenship to the American Indian until 1926! Another words, Jim Thorpe was actually a ward of America. And then here I am, running around gymnasium floors, supposedly honoring myself and my people, and our government had terminated our tribe! Of course, the up side is that we were restored back to reservation status in 1973 when President Nixon signed into law “The Menominee Restoration Act,” but think of how these two examples I just gave shows how America has treated us. That is why ever sine that day, I have been fighting the mascot/logo issue. And that is why I take and hold it personal. I LIVED IT AND IT SUCKED!!
Now, in closing, I need to end on an ironical note. Later in the season, our basketball team made the play-offs. I was approached by my friends on the team and other Indians about leading the team out one more time. And you know what? I did. But this time I wanted to do it. This time I was asked by my friends. Plus, I didn’t want to live the rest of my life feeling like a, “Cigar Store Injun.” So, I can say with pride and honesty that the last time I did it was probably the best. We were at an away game, never told anyone at that school or town what I was going to do, and when I led the team out of the locker room, that gym rose in unison and gave us one of the best and warmest welcomes we ever got. People came down from the bleachers to shake my hand and tell me how honored they were to see me do this. By the way, these were all white people.
I now carry my message and story to any and everyone who will listen. Hell, I’ve given speeches to crowds that I know don’t like me our Indians, but I still tell my story. I will continue my story until all the mascots, logos and nicknames are gone. I don’t care if its peewee football or the Atlanta Braves, ITS WRONG!!
One more thing. My former high school is no longer named, “The Indians.” In the early 90’s they changed their name to, “The Hawks.”