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Historically speaking

To the Journal editor:

I work at a local historical society. I deal with local history research every day. I’m familiar with the kind of information it is possible to find about people and events in Marquette County after its establishment in 1843.

There is a strange paucity of evidence about native local history. It’s hard to find real information about actual local Native American people. We do have some excellent material, but it is noticeably scarcer and less robust than information about other people. Past historians simply did not treat Native American individuals the same as others.

There is another problem. Much of the material that is in our collection comes from pageants, scripted performances featuring idealized, costumed Native people. These pageants, popular in Marquette County around 1920, were literally plays with inauthentic costumes and props. We have some beautiful photos of Native Americans. Unfortunately, many are based on plains-influenced imaginings of what Native people should look like. Some performers are not Native at all. It leaves us with a confusing photographic record.

We are a serious historical society and it looks like someone erased our understanding of local Native history and drew cartoons instead. It’s a real problem for researchers.

On the surface, sports mascots might seem trivial. When you consider the Native American mascot started around the same time local Native life was being distorted in the historical record, it seems like part of a more serious assault on our local memory.

When you contextualize this with what was happening with boarding schools, it is part of something much more dangerous. Young Native children were taken from their families and sent far away to reeducation institutions. Discipline was severe. Many children survived abuse. Some died. Kids were forced to stop speaking their language and give up their names. Thomas Thomas was a common new name. You try to find genealogical information about Thomas Thomas. It’s like his past is just gone.

I support local history. The use of Native American mascots is part of something bigger that has significantly damaged our understanding of local Native American history. I support improving the historical record for future researchers. Caricatures have robbed us of knowledge.

My views may not reflect those of everyone in our organization, but I invite people who care about Marquette’s past to consider the nickname issue in this historical context.