I recently read a thoughtful opinion piece ("LETTER: It's time to change the Enid High School mascot," July 7, Enid News & Eagle) by a fellow Enid High School alumnus, Kelsey Huse, that called for Enid High School to cease using the “Plainsmen” as a mascot. Ms. Huse raised many good points, but ultimately, I am unpersuaded in the wisdom of such an action.
It seems like society has lost its ability to apply any nuance whatsoever. That is, that people seem very much unable to make distinctions. Even though poll after poll has consistently demonstrated that the majority of Native Americans are not, in fact, offended by the team name, “Redskins,” I can still understand why this mascot could be perceived as offensive. It directly invokes the race of a people nearly driven from existence by the United States government. However, to draw the conclusion that because the Redskins are retreating from a problematic name (in great part because of financial pressures) that any other mascots that have anything to do with Native Americans must also be done away with is intellectually lazy and destructive.
Like Ms. Huse, I also went to Taft Elementary and can vividly recall participating in the mock-Land Run as a youngster. And I confess that we generally tell ourselves a whitewashed version of this period in history. There was a young man in my class at Taft that I haven’t spoken to or even thought about in over decade. But he and his family were very proud of their native lineage to the point that it was actively embraced. The boy and his older brother had very long hair and often wore what I assume was tribal jewelry. Ms. Huse is right — that that little boy had to participate in a mock-Land Run was not right. It was something seemingly benign to everyone else, no doubt conceived of in good faith. But I wonder how the little boy felt? How is parents felt?
I live in the New York City area now and when I meet new people it often comes up in conversation that I am an Oklahoman. Inevitably the question is asked: so what exactly is Oklahoma? Are you a Midwesterner? Or a Southerner? Or from the Southwest? The truth is that all of these are a little bit right but none are especially accurate as a wholesale application. So I answer the complicated question about what exactly Oklahoma is with a very straightforward answer — we are of the southern Great Plains. We’re Plainsmen.
Make no mistake, there are no greater stains on the history of the United States of America than that of slavery and its treatment of Native Americans. I certainly wouldn’t want any Confederate statues anywhere near where I lived. But at this time of racial reckoning we must be very careful not to throw out the baby with the bath water. Not all mascots that play on some degree of native heritage are the same.
Oklahoma is Indian Territory. Many of us have native ancestry. The mascot of the Enid Plainsmen is not a caricature. It isn’t Chief Wahoo. It isn’t about race. It stands for a place — the Plains — and honors a great and proud people of that land. We’re not in a position to right all of the wrongs of history. But what we can do is cultivate a updated narrative of our own history that doesn’t look away from past injustices committed in our name.
Ms. Huse’s piece asserted that “Indigenous people are humans, not mascots.” To that I contend, are Irish (as in Notre Dame) human beings? Is a Yankee not a person from the U.S., and in particular, a Northerner? Is a Texas Ranger not a real thing? Lots of mascots are rooted in something human and the overwhelming majority of them are selected because they have a unique resonance to a particular people. The Cornhuskers would be a rather bizarre mascot for San Diego State University.
Various tribes of Plains Indians roamed Enid, Garfield County and Oklahoma for thousands of years before their way of life came to a tragic end. By keeping the name Plainsmen not only does Enid High School honor a great people, but it also holds on to a much better conduit to having hard conversations about America than would the Enid High Wildcats.
Jon Ryan Blankenship, an Enid High School 2005, lives in South Orange, New Jersey.