For local Native Americans, a reckoning over hurtful images goes way beyond one South Philadelphia statue
The Black Lives Matter protests have also ignited new discussions and demands over the use of Native American images, symbols and mascots.
When Stephanie Mach leaves her Center City home, she often passes the Swann Memorial Fountain, with its three bronze Native American figures, in the heart of Logan Square.
What many people don’t know — but she does, as a scholar and activist of Diné, or Navajo, descent — is that the square’s namesake, James Logan, was not just a colonial statesman and Philadelphia mayor. He was an architect of the infamous “Walking Purchase,” a scheme in which he and others swindled the original Lenape inhabitants out of perhaps a million acres of land in 1737.
“You see these things every single day,” said Mach, 33, a University of Pennsylvania doctoral student who studies how Native Americans are represented in museums. “This stuff is just everywhere.”
Across the United States, the Black Lives Matter protests against racism and police violence have also ignited new discussions and demands over the use of Native images, symbols and mascots, and the future of monuments to men who harmed and killed indigenous people.
Mayor Jim Kenney wants the Art Commission to approve the removal of the Christopher Columbus statue from Marconi Park. But local Native Americans say the departure of one statue is only a beginning, the start of a long-overdue reckoning over the ways Indians are portrayed and regarded — and what should happen next to address the past and future.
Across the Philadelphia region, images of Native people are literally embedded in the walls, and reminders of their mistreatment literally in the stolen ground underfoot.
In Wissahickon Park stands a giant, stereotypical statue of Lenape leader Tedyuscung, complete with a Western Plains headdress not generally worn in the East. His statue is among scores across the country, Native people say, that have been created “under the white gaze” — Indians as imagined by white people.
The Philadelphia Cricket Club uses an Indian head as its logo. In North Philadelphia, Siani’s Towing signs feature a sexualized Native woman. The big Lenape-and-William-Penn seals from the old Strawbridge & Clothier department store are all over, casting Native Americans as important only when paired with a white colonist.
In South Jersey, high schools are named Lenape (home to teams called Indians), Shawnee (Renegades), Cherokee (Chiefs), and Senaca (Golden Eagles). The Neshaminy School District has spent at least $435,000 on its fight to keep its team name.
“You go shopping and the girl in front of you is wearing a Neshaminy Redskins shirt,” said Donna Fann-Boyle, a parent of Choctaw and Cherokee heritage who is battling for change at Neshaminy. “You just want to say to those people, ‘What is wrong with you? Let me explain this to you.’ But when you say something, you’re the bad guy. You’re the snowflake.”
The local Native populations are small, less than 1% of Philadelphia residents and about .5% in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. That means Native people need allies to help generate support for causes. Ultimately, the power to act on the wide use of Indian imagery rests with local governments, art commissions, and review boards, and the fact that none has done so, Mach said, shows it’s not a priority.
“The Columbus statute, the Rizzo statue, the team names — they’re all part of the same conversation,” said Morgan Ridgway, who is of Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape and African American descent and grew up in West Philadelphia. “We have these stories we tell each other about how the city came to be … But what we’re seeing now in Philadelphia and across the nation is a rethinking of all of that. These people didn’t create the city — they took the land.”
One early and egregious example was the Walking Purchase.
In 1737, under pressures that included a purportedly newly discovered deed, the Lenape agreed to relinquish lands starting near present-day Wrightstown and heading northwest to the interior “as far as a man could walk in a day and a half.”
Logan hired three men to “walk off” the area. Aided by scouting parties that cleared the route, they sped nearly to what is now Jim Thorpe — almost twice the typical “day and a half” distance, at a cost to the Lenape of an estimated one million acres.
When tourists stroll through Philadelphia, Ridgway noted, they practically trip over historical markers. But few mention the the original inhabitants, whose descendants continue to live here. Native Americans are seen as useful in the popular narratives of the city’s founding, he said, but not as contemporary people who deserve economic and community support.
Ridgway, a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was a Mellon Native American Scholars fellow at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. His work focuses on the Philadelphia Urban Indian Center, for years a hub of Native life, learning and education located four blocks from the Liberty Bell, but gone since 2004.
“We have to ask ourselves, ‘Why are we not referencing Lenape people in their own territory? How do we as a city acknowledge that?’” Ridgway said. “This is a place of a lot of Native resilience and power. We’re not teaching people those things.”
The U.S. is home to 573 federally recognized tribes, each with its own language, art, and spirituality, Native people point out, yet the dominant culture has reduced that diversity to typecasts.
It’s not new. The white use of Native iconography goes back to the earliest European colonization, write Arlene Hirschfelder and Paulette Molin of the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University in Michigan. Even as America was being created, they noted, Indians appeared on political prints, maps, coins, medals, and weather vanes.
That helped drive the modern, often unspoken belief that “everyone has a right to use Indians as they see fit; everyone owns them,” wrote Columbia College Chicago scholar C. Richard King in his 2016 book, Redskins: Insult and Brand.
Today, Indian images are used to sell American Spirit cigarettes, Calumet baking powder, Sioux detergents, Red Man chewing tobacco, Indian motorcycles, Big Chief sugar, and until the “Indian Maiden” was removed from the package in April, Land O’Lakes butter.
“It’s not going to be a short fix, an easy fix,” said Ramona Ioronhiaa Woods, an activist of Mohawk descent who lives in Reading. “We don’t want to be ‘honored.’ We want to be respected and heard.”
In Fairmount Park stands “The Medicine Man,” another Western Plains statue, inspired by the artist’s experience with Wild West shows. On Kelly Drive is “Stone Age in America,” showing a Native woman with a stone axe, clutching her children, standing over a dead bear cub.
“We are trained to look to these statues themselves as though they record the truth. ‘Here is this monument to people who were here, and now they’re gone, and isn’t that sad,’” said Margaret Bruchac, coordinator of the Native American and Indigenous Studies program at Penn. “These statues are not made to represent or talk to living Native people, they’re made to talk to tourists and visitors.”
One of the finest statues may be the most inaccessible: Tamanend, the Lenape chief instrumental in negotiating with William Penn. He faces Penn’s statue some 14 blocks away atop City Hall. Visitors seeking a closer look at him must cross speeding traffic near the entrance to Interstate 95 at Front and Market streets.
Moving that statue to a place where people could pause and reflect seems logical, an easy way to recognize that the city stands on Lenape land. Yet, Bruchac said, there’s been no groundswell, partly because no Native people hold positions of power in city government.
Now, though, change seems possible.
“This is a moment for Black Lives Matter to take center stage. At the same time, dramatic changes are starting to happen that have been in the works for decades for Native people,” said Bruchac, who is of Abenaki descent. “The heat of the Black Lives Matter movement has made it both possible and acceptable to stand up to racism in other forms, in public. Native issues are no longer seen as unimportant. We can gather allies.”
In this region, the Lenape name has been stamped on everything from campgrounds to steel mills to pizza shops. The Columbus statue in South Philadelphia has been the target of protests — and counter-threats by armed vigilantes — but another, less-noticed shrine to the explorer stands on the Delaware River shore of Bristol Borough.
Ann Remy, a Neshaminy graduate of Lenape descent, recalled bumping into the monument while on an outing with her children. The same happens with statues and tributes to white settlers.
“Sometimes you’re having a nice day, and whoop, there it is,” she said.
Coatesville Area Senior High School — motto, “Rich in diversity, committed to excellence” — uses an Indian head logo and Red Raiders nickname. Photos on social media show students wearing headdresses and “war paint.”
But in some local school districts, young people are pushing for change, driven by demands for reform that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
In June, a group of Radnor students launched the “Radnor for Reform” social-media campaign, collecting 470 signatures to eliminate the Raiders nickname and ban the “Tomahawk Chop” at school events. They also want an area inside the school dedicated to explaining Raider mascot memorabilia, and instruction on Lenape culture included in the curriculum.
Though Radnor retired its mascot in 2013, the high school still features a Native American head on the building. Students say that imagery, like the Raider name, is wrong for a community where mostly white students are taught little about indigenous people.
“I’m not Native American, but I understand how that’s incredibly offensive,” said rising senior Audrey Margolies.
The school board plans an Aug. 4 meeting to discuss the students’ wishes.
At Archbishop Ryan High School in Northeast Philadelphia, alumni gathered 380 signatures on a petition to excise their Raiders name. A counter-petition has drawn 2,600, with opponents claiming, as one signer wrote, that “this has nothing to do with racism and oppression.”
The Unionville-Chadds Ford School District in Chester County banned Native iconography, songs, and chants in 2017, but kept the “American Indian” nickname for its sports teams. Now, the school board is reviewing that.
“There are students, staff members, community members and alumni who clearly support a change” — and others who do not, district athletics supervisor Patrick Crater told the board this month. “Perhaps most importantly, there is a voice that we must listen to from the indigenous racial groups in our community and all around.”
Last year, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission ruled that Neshaminy could keep its teams’ name — but must educate students on Native American history and eliminate iconography “that negatively stereotype Native Americans.”
The school district has appealed. In a statement, it said the community “has overwhelmingly supported the Neshaminy Redskins moniker in the past” and “whether this support has changed given the recent events in our nation is yet to be determined.”
Fann-Boyle said too many school boards, parents, and alumni maintain a deep emotional investment in Indian names and mascots. The only way to end it, she said, is to tie change to funding, to write anti-racism regulations into the agreements and contracts through which schools receive taxpayer money.
“They’re just teaching kids that this behavior, that these stereotypes and this racism, is OK,” she said. “It’s bizarre because there are so many communities now that have woken up because of George Floyd, but they just can’t see when it comes to this issue.”