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When October in Chicago Meant Revisiting a Racist Cartoon

We didn’t inherit this land. We drive through small towns and big cities named after tribes forced out long before any of our grandparents immigrated here, and cheer on high-school sports teams whose insignias are the silhouettes of Native American chiefs. Where I grew up, small streams have names in the language of the people who came before us; the water flows into the big lake people say looks more like an ocean, where Native Americans once watched with curiosity as French fur traders pulled their canoes ashore. It’s all a result of one of our nation’s greatest shames: the mistreatment of the native people who lived here long before Europeans decided America was the new world. But on TV, Atlanta Braves baseball games still show fans doing “The Chop” and Sunday football features the Washington Redskins dragging their legacy of racial insensitivity onto the field — they haven’t yet changed their team name.

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Washington Redskins owner George Marshall (middle), 1954 (Via Washington Post)

But I wasn’t made aware that any of this was wrong, growing up. A failing of the adults and the education system in my town means it never occurred to me to connect the Blackhawks hockey team — though named for a WWI military unit — to its indirect Sauk namesake, cut down trying to protect his homeland from the invading British. Nobody explained that the place where I grew up was settled by a people that was systematically taken out or pushed aside in the name of progress, or that the manner in which we celebrate their cultures is, frankly, insensitive and terrible. To a kid like me, it was just all part of growing up.

Another holdover of a time before what passed for an education in American history better represented history itself was “Injun Summer,” a 1907 cartoon first printed in the Chicago Tribune, created by the “Dean of American Cartoonists,” John T. McCutcheon.

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The cartoon was actually an annual tradition for loyal readers of the Chicago paper. It ran every year around this time until 1992, when apparently enough readers had complained about the fact that its name is offensive to Native Americans. It was such a big deal to some people that once a year, my elementary school principal would gather all the students into the gymnasium for an assembly, where he would read the old-timey story narrated by a man — presumably a father or grandpa — and addressed to a little boy. Written in voice-y vernacular, it relates the tale of Native Americans who once lived in the US, but now are just a distant memory, revived only by the last gasps of summer heat during the early parts of autumn:

Yep, sonny this is sure enough Injun summer. Don’t know what that is, I reckon, do you? Well, that’s when all the homesick Injuns come back to play; You know, a long time ago, long afore yer granddaddy was born even, there used to be heaps of Injuns around here — thousands — millions, I reckon, far as that’s concerned. Reg’lar sure ‘nough Injuns — none o’ yer cigar store Injuns, not much. They wuz all around here — right here where you’re standin’.

The old man goes on to talk about how the corn shocks are actually teepees, how the smoky autumnal air is “the campfires a-burnin’ and their pipes a-goin’,” and “how the leaves turn red ’bout this time o’ year? That’s jest another sign o’ redskins.” The story is an artifact of a folksy and condescending attitude that has long since been revealed as racially insensitive and blind to the particulars of the relationship between Native Americans and European colonialists. And yet, even the revered Roger Ebert once said that “Injun Summer” was “a victim of political correctness.”

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I look at “Injun Summer” today, and I’m filled with this awkward mix of wistfulness and unease. I recall Midwestern Octobers from my youth, memories glossy and unmarked by the texture of self-awareness. The image of my principal reading the comic to us is an almost Rockwellian portrait, making “Injun Summer” seem almost innocent. But there’s a lot more wrong with it than right — not that everyone has seen the light about that, even now. Ebert isn’t the only one who defended the comic into the 21st century; here are few comments from his 2011 post:

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Others raised good points as to why “Injun Summer” doesn’t belong in the newspapers:

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It’s the last one that I agree with, but I am also struck by how hard it is for me to refocus my memories without that rosy glow. It is insensitive towards Native Americans, but I can’t deny that it’s also something I was raised on, and something I was taught was part of where I came from. My memory of “Injun Summer” is colored by my nostalgia, and no matter how hard I try to see it in terms of right and wrong, it remains in shades of gray.

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