On the opening day for the National Football League’s 2014 regular season, Native American youth across the country have one message for the NFL: it is time for Native and race-based mascots to go away. Native American youth see the offensive name “Red***” plastered on t-shirts, hats, and national stadiums — a word that was defined in the dictionary long ago as a racial slur.
Don’t we all wish to live in a community — in a country — where our identities are respected? So why are we failing to listen?
There are 2.1 million Native American children living in this country today. Native American children are considered our most vulnerable population in the United States. One-third of them will grow up in poverty; tragically they experience the highest rates of suicide; and they are the only racial group for which high school graduation rates decreased in the last decade.
These same youth experience the additional challenges of racism and ignorance and they are speaking up about the impact on their lives. Youth are sharing stories of how racist mascots negatively impact their lives and are asking for Washington, DC’s NFL team to change its name. Leaders from the 566 tribes in this country — leaders of sovereign nations — are telling the NFL and the United States that the DC football team name is racist and discriminatory, and negatively depicts and misrepresents their people.
Last month, the Center for American Progress released a report titled “Missing the Point: The Real Impact of Mascots and Team Names on American Indian and Alaska Native Youth.” The report included the voices of young Native Americans, including several youth leaders from the Center for Native American Youth’s Champions for Change program. Fifteen-year-old Wilton Miwok tribal member Dahkota Brown spoke passionately at the report’s companion event, highlighting how mascots and team names have negatively impacted him and his Native American peers. His message and the findings of the report only reinforce what we’re hearing from Native American youth across the country: the name needs to change.
The richness of Native American culture, tradition, and history is too often invisible to the general US population. Our country lacks an education system that teaches our children an accurate history of the interactions between the US government and tribal nations, let alone the rich histories and cultures of the original inhabitants of this land. Our media celebrates simplicity and generalizations, not humility. And when we do see images about Native Americans — in film, TV, fashion, and sports — they are too often stereotypical and derogatory depictions that simply cause more harm.
In communities around the country, Native Americans are used as mascots in schools, with non-Natives typically donning headdresses and war paint as they dance around stadiums like fictional characters from old westerns. Dahkota described scenes at school football games with “hundreds of students yelling, ‘Scalp ’em!’ and the announcer shouting remarks like, ‘A war party of wild redskins on their way to sack the quarterback!’” These racist comments create school environments and communities where Native American youth do not feel welcome.
During the Center for Native American Youth’s conversations with more than 3,500 youth across the country, we have heard over and over again how racist mascots and images have negatively impacted them. We hear stories of the discriminatory statements students and teachers make to Natives at school similar to the quotes above. We also hear about the comments they grow up hearing from their neighbors and the constant education they have to deliver explaining their culture and history to peers, community leaders, and even their own teachers.
With a new understanding of how racist mascots and team names negatively impact Native American youth and opposition from tribal governments, what is the argument for keeping the name?
As we get ready for the 2014 season of the NFL franchise, let’s demand that the Washington, DC franchise change its name.
Erin Bailey is director of the Aspen Institute Center for Native American Youth.