By ROBERT JUMPER
ONE FEATHER EDITOR
A reader and tribal member sent a commentary to the One Feather. She wanted to report what she felt was a racial discrimination against her during a negotiation for a vehicle at an Asheville dealership. A salesperson, through tone, language, and text conversations, seemed to confirm that the person did, indeed, have a racial bias in dealing with the tribal member.
Through her commentary and subsequent posts on social media, one of the owners of the dealership found out about the situation, apparently did some investigation, and has reported that she fired the offending employee. She also expressed her regrets that the tribal member experienced this and assured the tribal member that racism is not tolerated by the dealership.
Because of the commentary of this reader, other Eastern Band people shared their similar stories of being treated “less than” others and people trying to take advantage of them. It is a confirmation that there are still those in our society that do not believe in racial equality.
The reaction of the dealership was swift and decisive. They made the choice to not tolerate that behavior in their organization. In addition, they made a public apology on behalf of the dealership.
But, the regional media focus has been on another decision made by the dealership, to remove a fiberglass statue of “Chief Pontiac” from the dealership’s lot. While one report provided a brief history of the man Pontiac, the fiberglass representation of him, according to a Smoky Mountain News report, stated, “The fiberglass statue was originally installed back when Harry’s sold the now-defunct Pontiac brand. Much like the cigar-store Indians that are still used in some shops today, the Indian image was used for commerce; to sell a product. We have discussed the very negative message that society sends when it reduces a culture to a mascot for commerce or sport.”
Something that is equally concerning is the weight of concern that the local media is giving this statue. A person, a Cherokee tribal member, was the object of discrimination based on race and the headlines and leads of many media outlets around the region focused on a community’s beloved icon. And their love was not for Chief Pontiac or the Ottawa people. Remember, the statue was put in place to sell Pontiac automobiles. The status to them was just another cool piece of Americana that has been around for half a century. If anything, it was an affront to Indian peoples, reducing cultural identity to a sales gimmick.
It is doubtful that Chief Pontiac would have agreed to have his image used for the upbuilding of non-Indian ventures.
One historical reference quotes the Chief regarding the immigrating Europeans of the day. He said, “It is important for us, my brothers, that we exterminate from our lands this nation which seeks only to destroy us. You see as well as I that we can no longer supply our needs, as we have done from our brothers, the French….Therefore, my brothers, we must all swear their destruction and wait no longer. Nothing prevents us; they are few in numbers, and we can accomplish it.”
It is the folly of journalists who believe in the “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality. There was a big negative reaction when the dealership decided that it was time to remove Chief Pontiac. Some of my colleagues saw that as negative news that would sell. But, journalists are supposed to rise above that mindset. Writing is as much about truth-telling as it is about storying telling. We are documenting history and need, to the best of our ability, to hold neutral ground in our presentation of fact.
Personally, I could care less if the statue stays or goes. Because removing the statue will not change hearts that are full of apathy, bias, and, in some cases, hate. I think it is ironic that some in the regional community want to maintain a likeness of a man who would likely just as soon see all of them dead, and keep it because it is a landmark of old America and they would miss him.
I commend the reader who wrote the commentary and those who shared their similar experiences online. All of us, regardless of race, deserve to be respected and treated fairly. The real story, in my opinion, is that a person spoke up for the themselves when they experience a wrong and it resulted in a company making changes that will benefit their workers, customers, and make for a better community to live in. Both the reader and the company did the right thing. That story doesn’t bleed, but it should lead.