Open Letter to University of Oregon Athletics and Nike: Pioneer Uniforms Celebrate Violence and Alienate Oregon Tribes
October 13, 2015
An Open Letter to the University of Oregon Athletics Department and Nike:
As a coalition of Native faculty, staff, students, alumni, community members, and allies from the campus community and across the state, we write to express our disappointment in the October 10th debut of Nike’s pioneer-themed uniforms for the University of Oregon home game against Washington State.
According to Nike’s press release, the new uniforms are intended to “emphasize Oregon state history” and honor the “Maverick heritage … embodied by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark,” “trailblazers” of innovation, free-thinking and risk-taking that defines Oregon state history. The westward expansion of the United States, however, was rooted not in transcendent, universal values but in White supremacy, a sense of divine obligation of free White men to take—by force if necessary—the land belonging to the non-White nations west of the Mississippi. The history of genocidal violence, ethnic cleansing, and exclusion of non-Whites that followed in Oregon is well documented. But instead of condemning this process, the celebration of Lewis and Clark valorizes it, papering over the ongoing consequences of colonization and Indigenous traditions of “exploration,” “innovation,” “free-thinking” and “risk-taking” that existed in this place long before the expedition arrived at the Pacific coast.
As UO alum and Grand Ronde tribal member David Lewis notes, the celebration of U.S. expansionism as an unmitigated historical and moral good is at odds not only with history but also with recent efforts by the University to strengthen relations to Oregon’s Nine Federally Recognized Tribes and to better support Indigenous faculty, staff, and students on campus. They also undermine the considerable time and effort Nike has expended over the past few years developing the Native-inspired N7 product line. Upon public dissent from tribal peoples following Nike’s announcement, the University initiated steps in the lead-up to Saturday’s game to address these disconnects, including the addition of a helmet decal meant to represent Indigenous peoples in the Oregon and the nine sovereign tribal governments, as well as public address and television copy that explicitly acknowledged the ongoing presence of tribal peoples in the state. Such efforts, however, give the impression that the Nine Tribes endorse the pioneer theme, or that a simple acknowledgment of Native presence as an afterthought adequately addresses the more substantive issue of the public face of the flagship institution in the state celebrating the violent, at times genocidal, practices of conquest in the region.
We would like to reframe this event as a teaching moment that might productively acknowledge the monumental significance of the expedition/invasion by embracing and representing all of the communities which were and continue to be impacted by it. We thus encourage the Athletics Department and Nike to act swiftly to remove the uniforms from future use and recall all “special edition” paraphernalia from retail stores. We further suggest that the Athletics Department and Nike refrain from any future celebrations of what remains a contested history, and conduct meaningful consultation with tribes and administrative and academic officials earlier in project development in order to avoid future missteps. By openly and critically acknowledging how words, actions, thoughts, representations, and policies affect one another, we can begin to bring our communities together around shared histories of experience that draw us all into relationship.
On behalf of Native Strategic Initiatives, University of Oregon,
Kirby Brown, English (Cherokee Nation)
Brian Klopotek, Ethnic Studies (Choctaw)
Jennifer O’Neal, University of Oregon Libraries (Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde)
Melina Pastos, Office of Academic Advising (Flathead Descendant)
Leilani Sabzalian, PhD Candidate, College of Education (Alutiiq)
Angie Morrill, Alum (Klamath Tribes)
Scott Pratt, Philosophy