Native Americans speak on sports imagery

As the debate over the use of Native American imagery by sports teams continues to heat up, the discussion is particularly intense in our nation's capital, where there's a growing movement to change the local NFL team's name from a racial slur to something more palatable. Several Washington Post columnists have called for a name change; the Washington Redskins blog Hogs Haven also supports the name change; the weekly Washington City Paper has already begun calling the team by a different name; and just last week, Washington mayor Vincent Gray pointedly avoided using the team's name in his State of the District address.

But as the arguments continue to pour in on both sides, one fact is inescapable: Most of the voices that have been heard in this debate, including mine, have not come from American Indians. That has led many readers to ask me, "Why do you, as a white person, think you get to speak for Indians on this topic? If this is an issue that affects Native Americans, why can't they speak for themselves?"

That's exactly what happened in Washington this past Thursday at the National Museum of the American Indian, which held a day-long symposium on the use of Native American imagery in sports. Most of the panelists were American Indians, as were many of the audience members who spoke during discussion segments. I'm going to devote most of this column to their words.

One of the day's recurring themes was a strong rejection of the notion that American Indian mascots and team names somehow "honor" Native Americans. Here's a sampling of thoughts that were offered on that idea:

From E. Newton Jackson, professor of sports management at the University of North Florida and a member of the Cherokee Tribes of South Carolina: "How does one person tell another that they honor them best? How do we do that when I'm telling you that what you're saying and doing does not honor me?"

From Lois Risling, land specialist for the Hoopa Valley Tribes, who attended Stanford University in the early 1970s, when the school's teams were known as the Indians and were cheered on to "scalp the [Cal] bear": "We were told it was an honor to have an Indian mascot chosen as the symbol as a great university. When 55 of us presented a petition to have the name and symbol changed, we were told we were all taking it too personal and should just get over it. When we said Prince Lightfoot [the school's live mascot at the time] was wearing clothing that was wrong, and that his dance was wrong, we were told, 'Stanford Indians dress like this, and anyone who goes to Stanford is a Stanford Indian, so that makes it OK.'"

From John Orendorff, a U.S. Army colonel and Native American: "I often feel that the underlying point of these 'honors' is that my Indian heritage is owned by others. The message I'm constantly getting is: 'We own you. We will define how we honor you. Don't tell us whether you like it or not, because we own you. When we hunt down Osama bin Laden, we can refer to him as Geronimo -- which happens to be my son's name -- because we own you. You don't control how you're perceived. We control that. Because we own you.'"

From Robert Holden, deputy director of the National Congress of American Indians: "I'm a sports junkie, but I don't think the [team] owners understand that they're not honoring us. Honors like that we don't need. Please, take it back."

From an audience member who identified himself as Native American: "If [team owner] Dan Snyder truly thinks the word 'Redskins' is honorific, I challenge him to attend the next meeting of the National Congress of American Indians and try using that word to people's faces."

Of course, as dozens of readers have expressed to me via email, many sports fans genuinely admire what they perceive to be Indians' "fighting spirit" or "battlefield bravery" or "heart of a warrior." But the symposium panelists weren't having any of that either.

"It's just like the way Indians have always been depicted in the movies -- stupid and violent, although oddly noble in their savagery," said Kevin Gover, the museum's director and a Pawnee Indian. "Why is it that Native peoples aren't chosen to represent qualities like intelligence, piety, generosity, and love of family?"

N. Bruce Duthu, chair of the Native American Studies program at Dartmouth College and a member of the United Houma Nation of Louisiana, explained that limiting American Indian depictions to warlike caricatures has had ramifications that go beyond cultural stereotypes. "Indian savagery has long been used as an excuse to take away Indian property," he said. "Actual court cases have stated that Indians couldn't retain certain lands because they were too uncivilized, too savage, to be entrusted with those lands." In other words, the whole "battlefield warrior" caricature does more harm than good.

This segued into another recurring point, namely that Indian mascots give the false impression that Indian culture is something that has been relegated to the mists of history. Several panelists spoke about this:

From Gover, the museum director: "The practice of using Native mascots emerged at the same time the government was trying to destroy Native culture, Native language and Native traditions. The mascots therefore served the government's purpose of relegating Native culture to the past."

From Duthu, the Dartmouth professor: "It's part of viewing Indians as a dead culture, as a plaything that's essentially become part of the public domain. Because if something is dead, you can use it however you want."

From Risling, the former Stanford student: "Indian people are living, breathing people. And having someone reduced to a mascot or a symbol so a whole other group of people can 'become Indian' and negate all those living, breathing Indian people, that's unacceptable. Any time we say non-Indians can become Indian by becoming a mascot, we say real Indians don't exist."

The common thread running through all of this, as you've probably noticed, is that Indians should get to control how they're depicted. An interesting take on that was offered by former U.S. senator and former Olympic athlete Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Tribe, who said, "Maybe part of it is our fault, because we don't have a written language, and so we're a culture that in large part has been defined by others. We didn't get to tell our own story. Fortunately, that's now changing."

According to information presented at the symposium, there were about 3,000 high school, college and professional teams in America using American Indian mascots and imagery in 1971. That was the year that the University of Oklahoma, responding to student requests, agreed to retire the school's live American Indian mascot, who was dubbed "Little Red." It was the first time a school had moved away from using such imagery. In the four decades since then, the number of schools using Indian names and imagery has gone down to about 900 (and there are legal maneuverings afoot that may significantly reduce that number).

I understand how hard those decisions may have been, because I understand how intense the bond between a fan and his team can be. That's why I started writing about uniforms and logos back in 1999 -- because I'm fascinated by that bond. So I realize it's no small thing for a fan to be told "Your team should change its name" or "Your team should change its logo."

The panelists at the symposium understood this, too. "Americans are kind of trained from childhood to be loyal to the team," said Ben Nighthorse Campbell. "So whenever someone tinkers with your team, people are ready for a fight."

Campbell, like the other panelists, doesn't think most teams using Native American imagery are intentionally trying to be offensive. "I don't believe anyone begins using any of these mascots with evil in their heart," said Lee Hester, an Indian studies professor at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and a member of the Choctaw Nation. "But I think if they really understood, they would change their minds." Many other panelists echoed that theme, with several of them saying "Try putting yourself in our shoes."

That sentiment loomed particularly large after the comments of Manley Begay, senior lecturer in the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Arizona and a member of the Navajo Nation. "I've been called a 'dirty redskin' and a 'stinking red n-----,'" he said. "So believe me when I say those words are still very hurtful, including when you see them being celebrated in a sports context."

Once you hear something like that, a team name or a logo seems pretty insignificant by comparison. It would have been interesting to hear a response from someone from the Redskins' front office, but they declined an invitation to attend the symposium.

Paul Lukas believes Washington's football team will have a new name within 15 years -- and possibly much sooner. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his daily Uni Watch website, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.