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Thursday, February 9, 2023

Let’s talk about the ‘R word’

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You’ve been hearing a lot lately about the controversy surrounding the use of Native American people as sports mascots and team names. Why should you care? Because these careless misconceptions demean and degrade an entire race of people. Some common questions:

“Why is this suddenly a big deal?” Well, it isn’t “suddenly” at all. The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) created a campaign to eliminate negative native stereotyping in the media in the 1940s’. Native American activists and allies have long asked for the Washington NFL team to be renamed, yet the league (and its sponsors) do nothing while team owner, Daniel Snyder, refuses to drop the team’s racist and offensive “Redskins” name and mascot. In 1972, John Parker, a Choctaw from Oklahoma who worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, stated “They should change the name. It is the white people’s way of making a mockery, like they used to do to Blacks in the South.”

“It’s tradition. Get over it.” It’s unacceptable to tell someone else what is and is not offensive; especially when it comes to their ethnicity, race or culture. Yes, it IS offensive when someone’s culture is reduced to drunken debauchery at a tailgate party in our nation’s capitol. When shirtless, caucasian men cavort in “war paint” and toy headdresses, mocking sacred war bonnets, usually only worn by chiefs. In a nutshell, if you would be horrified to see someone in blackface, the same should be true with redface.

“It honors native culture.” Mocking Native Americans through dress or actions does not honor them. Want to honor native culture? Support their businesses, charities, volunteer, or educate yourself on their culture and history. American Indians are not mythical creatures who live in the past and eat buffalo in tipis – they are real people who exist and live among us today. If you feel that it honors natives to refer to them using a racial slur, I invite you to visit one of the 310 reservations in the country and greet their Chief by addressing him as that name.  

What is a Redskin? According to many native historians and historical accounts, the term “Redskin” meant money paid toward the extermination of Native Americans.

Who else is opposed to the use of the name and mascot? For one, President Barack Obama. He told the Associated Press in October, “If I were the owner of a team and I knew there was a name of my team – even if it had a storied history – that was offending a sizable group of people, I’d think about changing it.”  

The NCAA, ruling authority on college athletics, required teams to change their hostile or abusive names in order to participate in tournament play. In 2013, there were 28 high schools in 18 states that had changed the “Redskins” name over a 25-year period as a result of a combination of state legal action, protests from Native American groups, or voluntarily, while 60 schools continue to use the name, including our very own Emmerich Manual High School on Indy’s Southside.

According to the school’s Principal, Kerry Von Behren, who I contacted about changing the school’s name in July, “I understand your concern. I have no control over this issue. IPS owns this school and therefore is the only entity that has the power to change the mascot. I am sorry that I cannot help you with your concern.”  

Racist stereotypes in sports and as mascots shows that society feels racism is still acceptable, so long as the people being stereotyped are poor and marginalized. The Indian Removal Act, the Trail of Tears and Trail of Death, none of these historical atrocities can be undone. What we can do, is show at least the slightest bit of respect, and not further demean and degrade our indigenous community by desecrating their culture with the “R-Word.”

Amy Foxworthy is an Indianapolis-based Native American writer and activist.

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