It’s an Issue of Human Rights and Dignity
Almost 10 years ago, while at the NCAA, I was integrally involved in the development and implementation of the NCAA’s policy precluding Native American mascots, nicknames and imagery at its championship events. At the time, the policy created a firestorm of public and media attention with some pundits decrying the NCAA yet again for meddling, unnecessary and unwanted regulation, and just plain stupidity. During the early months after the policy was implemented in 2005, we screened the documentary “In Whose Honor,” a powerful piece that laid bare the hypocrisy of those holding on to stereotypical nicknames and images while asserting that Native Americans should feel honored. The documentary featured a young Spokane Indian Charlene Teters, whose campaign against Chief Illiniwek, the University of Illinois’ beloved team mascot, turned a college town upside down and made many people rethink the larger issues of culture and identity. I was in law school at the time, and I also used that documentary in my law and social justice class to generate discussion on ongoing discrimination in sports.
Last evening, I joined Charlene Teters on a perspectives panel discussion on the impact of Native American mascots in sports. Other panelists included Congresswoman Betty McCollum (MN 4th District); Michael Taylor, professor of sociology and anthropology, Ithaca College; and Clyde Bellecourt, co-founder of the American Indian Movement; coordinator, National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media. The panel was organized by the University of Minnesota’s office for equity and diversity and culminated a week long educational effort raising awareness on this issue, in response to the upcoming NFL game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Washington team to be played on the campus of UM. Noticeably absent were representatives of the NFL and the Washington team who had been contacted to participate in the event but did not respond. The University organized various activities with input from students, faculty, staff, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media, the state’s other tribes and additional community partners.
UM Vice president for equity and diversity Dr. Katrice Albert began by formally indicating that the University of Minnesota joined with others across the country calling on the Washington football team to change its name, noting that the University considers the name offensive and in appropriate. Each panelist offered a perspective on the issue of Native American mascots in sports. Charlene, shared her experiences in the late 1980s on the campus of the University of Illinois, and the events that led her to take that initial solitary stand with a placard that read “American Indians are HUMAN BEINGS NOT MASCOTS” Congresswoman McCollum recounted times in our history when bounty prices were placed on the heads of Native Americans with dollars paid out to those who brought in red**** scalps. I spoke of the development and evolution of the NCAA policy, the research that showed overwhelming evidence of the potential harm created by the continued use of Native American nicknames and mascots, and the many negative reactions we got from a culture still unwilling to change. Dr. Michael Taylor, spoke of the depiction of Native people in popular culture as two sides of a coin. On one hand, there is the benevolent Indian as portrayed by characters like Tonto, and on the other hand murderous savages as in the Last of the Mohicans. He noted that real representations of native people were missing from our culture, and sport mascots continue to perpetuate those one dimensional images. The most passionate speech was given by Clyde Bellecourt, he took to the podium and blasted a culture that continues to hide evidence of a genocide of Native people, removal from their lands, stripping of their culture, while depicting them as uneducated savages. He shared personal stories of language lost through generations because their ancestors were forbidden to speak those words, of mission schools where his culture was slowly eradicated, of books in mainstream educational curriculum that portrayed Native American people in ways that would dehumanize them, and incite fear and anger in the general population.
Equally passionate voices arose from the audience, stories of modern day discrimination, and marginalization. A gentleman choked back tears as he recounted his experience as a Native American student in high school in the 1970s where he was harassed by students and teachers as a dirty red****, and wished as a child that he wasn’t born an Indian. Another man visibly shaking from the effects of Parkinson’s disease or another neurological condition nonetheless made his way to the mic to echo many of the points that had been raised before. But maybe the most powerful voices were those of the young Native Americans in the audience. The final question came from a young woman, a current student at UM who asked what was next, what more could be done to reverse centuries of discrimination and to tell the stories of the native people. Charlene Teters turned to her with a gracious smile and told her that she was the future of their people, that by educating herself and speaking out on the issues she, and others like her would ensure that future generations would be aware of the history and promise of the American Indians
When the NCAA policy was implemented in August, 2005, initially the loudest voices were primarily negative. We were accused of venturing into social justice issues beyond the scope of our authority, “Political Correctness run Amok,” Don’t you have other things to worry about? You don’t belong in the social change arena. Some argued that this was an issue that should be dealt with at the campus or local level and did not require national policy. Others called, sent letters or emails to inform us that the way they used the symbols and imagery was not negative… “we are honoring Native Americans” they said “and we don’t think any of it is offensive. In fact if you get rid of “Indians” what are you going to do next, eliminate tigers and bears when the ASPCA or PETA contacts you?” Not recognizing, or perhaps not caring, that they were likening a race of people to animals. But eventually a chorus of voices started to grow, voices that were offering positive comments, saying you did the right thing, this will have a positive impact on our lives. One of the quotes that stuck with me was from a young student, who wrote us to say…”You have made the right decision and when it comes to an issue as divisive as this, the right decision is always the hardest decision to uphold. The people of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe would like to offer their sincerest thanks…”
Today, I am proud to serve as the Executive Director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sports. At NCAS we are committed to peace and justice by raising awareness and developing strategies for dealing with social justice issues worldwide. We challenge sports leaders and athletes to embrace leadership roles by supporting everyone’s basic human rights and confronting all forms of discrimination, hate, and violence, while advocating for those who are underrepresented. This is after all at its most basic level, an issue of human rights and dignity.
Delise O’Meally (FB), @domeally (Twitter)
NCAS, Executive Director