November 19, 2021

Not All Fun and Games: James T. Meggesto Shares How Native American Culture Becomes Caricature

Holland & Knight Native American Heritage Month Spotlight Series

At Holland & Knight, we strive to develop an organization where all individuals, especially those from underrepresented communities, can have and see a path to success. In celebration of Native American Heritage Month, we hosted conversations with employees from across the firm to listen to their stories about their Native American heritage, upbringing and experience. These conversations highlighted the rich and diverse cultures, traditions and histories of Native American and Alaska Native people as well as recognized their important contributions. We hope that these stories help educate others about Native American Heritage Month and honor our Native American friends, family and colleagues.

The third episode in this series highlights how Native American culture is often stereotyped and caricaturized, both in the media and in areas like sports. James Meggesto, the leader of our Native American Law Team and a member of the Onondaga Nation, shares some of his experiences encountering discrimination growing up, such as being asked whether he lived in a tepee or why he didn't have a mohawk. He also touches on the importance of using Native American Heritage Month to combat the negative connotations associated with sports mascots and other portrayals of Native Americas.

More Videos in this Series

Episode 1: Native American Affinity Group Chair John Haney Share the Role of Art in his Family's Culture

Episode 2: Jessica Laughlin Dispels Common Misconceptions of What it Means to be Native American

Episode 3: Not All Fun and Games: James T. Meggesto Shares How Native American Culture Becomes Caricature (You are currently viewing Episode 3)

Episode 4: Kayla Gebeck Carroll Discusses the Importance of Representation in Literature

James Meggesto: I went to a parochial school that was kindergarten through eighth grade in a suburb of Syracuse, and I was certainly the only Native American in the class. And I would always, you know, around Columbus Day — which was certainly always celebrated as Columbus, there wasn't even a notion that I can remember that had anything to do with indigenous peoples or anything like that — I just remember always feeling like people would ask, you know, did I live in a teepee, did my parents speak English, they would ask why I don't have a ponytail or why I didn't have a mohawk. From a kid's perspective, they certainly weren't intending to be hurtful. But you know, that sort of ignorance that was there kind of expanded through the teachers, too. There was never any, I never felt any sort of sensitivity to like, "Hey, let's not put this person on the spot" or things like that.

Man sitting in black chair in room with white walls

So what does Native American Heritage Month mean to me? I'm glad you asked that because I think it changes year to year. Some years it's about stereotypes and combatting some of the negative connotations that are associated with, say, sports mascots. Last year, for instance, was the first year that the Washington Football Team didn't continue to use their nickname, which was a dictionary-defined slur that traced its origins back to bounties that were put on the heads of Indians and were paid to settlers in Minnesota for basically committing murder. So there's a reason why it's been a big issue now. It's because I think the generation of folks that have led that fight understand what it feels like to be marginalized or caricaturized, in that your culture is trivialized in the nation. That it could be that people can go to sporting events and dress in a stereotypical way and that should be all right. And so to me, that stems from experiences like I had where you can feel different without being overtly told you can't do something because of your skin color. Certainly, my parents all experienced that growing up in the '50s and being told they couldn't go to certain pools because they were native. So I think for my generation, it wasn't necessarily outright discrimination in that context, but it was a feeling of inferiority based on being made to feel like your culture wasn't really something other than past tense caricature of what was portrayed in Old West movies or other kind of stereotypical notions of what Indian person was or is.

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