Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Native Teen Tells Her Side of the Story

I haven't done a teen activist spotlight in a while and I don't thinking I've discussed Native American teens much, at least not beyond Sacagawea. So today I'd like to talk about this girl:
Bella Cornell in traditional dress. Source: Facebook. 
Bella Aiukli Cornell, 14, is a Native American rights advocate of the Choctaw Nation. She's in the spotlight right now for speaking out against Capitol Hill High School, home of the Redskins.
Cornell hosts an online radio show "by and for Native youth" called, Indigenous Aiukli, where she shares music and discusses issues in the Native community. She says she started it because  "You always hear a lot from the adults, but you rarely get to hear anything from the teens." In an episode discussing Capitol Hill'ss and other Native mascots, she talked about her experience speaking out on the issue. Cornell does not attend Capitol Hil  herself but lives in nearby Oklahoma City. A group called Native American Student Services was the first to take issue with the mascot this fall, and then sought local students willing to discuss it at a school meeting. Cornell and her sister volunteered.
Capital Hill High School
The non-Native adults present at the meeting defended the mascot with two contradictory approaches: "Don't take it seriously, it's just a mascot" and "This isn't offensive-it honors you."
Cornell refuses to be honored by mascots that employ stereotypes. They " do not accurately reflect who we are as people," she said, and "We, as Native people, should be the only ones to determine how our image is put out there."
Despite their defenses, the mascot defenders don't seem to truly sympathize with Native students. As Cornell left the meeting, she saw a non-Native woman being interviewed about the controversy. Her interviewer asked what she would say to Native students who were offended. The woman replied, "Go back to the Indian schools on the reservation."
They want Native Americans on their football logos but not in real life. Just as Native people are devalued in a discussion centered around them, the concerns of teenagers are left by the wayside in school centered controversies.
There are Native mascots at the professional level, such as the Washington Redskins, who have received backlash for the name in recent years. College teams are also well versed in controversy. But high school Native mascots vastly outnumber college and professional teams simply because there are more high schools. Older teams play on ESPN for national audiences. High schools are small and obscure, their mascots affecting only the communities, but they still have a strong impact.
Native teens are already more likely to drop out of high school, not go to college, and commit suicide than any other race in America. They don't need to hear racial insults hollered when they go to a football game and fans cheer on the Redskins or Savages. Though we've made educational advancements in past decades and I (not a Native teen) always had teachers who discussed Native people respectfully, not all Native students are that fortunate. Cornell had classmates come up to her and ask if she ate people. What prompted such a question? Their eighth grade history teacher gave a lesson where he referred to her ancestors as "cannibals" and "viscous vermin."
92 percent of mascots shown here belong to high schools
Of the over 2,000 teams in the U.S. with Native mascots, 92% of them are at the high school level. This is primarily a teen issue. But when Cornell walked into the meeting at Capitol Hill High, it was full of adults. This is about schools but we rarely hear from schoolchildren themselves.
More recently, Cornell was called upon to again testify at a school board meeting at McLoud High School, also the home of the Redskins. Another non-Native woman who spoke in favor of the mascot broke down in tears, saying it was the hardest thing she'd ever had to do. But when Cornell stood up to talk, audience members shouted, "Get off the stage, squaw!"
Unlike the previous school, McLoud voted to keep their mascot. But Cornell isn't done. Her McLoud High story has been covered by Indian Country Today and mainstream sources, such as the Huffington Post. She's networked with other teen activists, such as Dahkota Brown, a seventeen year old of the Miwok nation. He has also spoken out against mascots, but more importantly is the founder of NERDS, Native Education Raising Dedication Students, a school group that helps Native students succeed.
While the story of Native people is one full of pain, and students continue to find themselves in dire circumstances today, Cornell is proud of her heritage. She loves participating in powwows and making new friends from different Native backgrounds. She's passionate about her cause and shows no signs of backing down anytime soon.

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