Native Americans, Others Insist Mascots Must Go

David M. Whettstone | 2/16/2013, 10:10 a.m.

A huge gathering of scholars, journalists, activists joined a group of Native Americans grecently at a museum in Southwest to discuss controversial monikers and mascots that, over the years, have led to heated debates among university officials, sports enthusiasts, coaches, parents and students.

More than 350 people packed the Rasmuson Theater at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) on Feb. 7 to weigh in during a symposium on the use of negative caricatures regarding Native Americans. The daylong conference entitled, "Racist Stereotypes and Cultural Appropriation in American Sports," prompted many in attendance to vow to change the name of a popular football team - The Washington Redskins - and eliminate the use of Native American mascots in sports.

NMAI Director Kevin Gover urged attendees to look at the myths and histories associated with mascots.

"The practice of using Native people as mascots largely emerged at the very time government policy was to deliberately destroy Native language, Native religion, and Native identity," said Gover, 57, of the Pawnee Nation. " ... Government policy and the popular culture assumed that, certainly by the end of the 20th century, there would be no more Indians."

Panelist Robert Holden, deputy director of the National Congress of American Indians, referred to an historical example. "If the Kansas City Chiefs were named after a mayor, why not have an image of a middle-aged white guy for a mascot," he asked.

Throughout the day, questions were posed to the 17 panelists to shore up their understanding of the issues so that they can stage boycotts, use social media and urge family and friends to rally the cause.

One District pastor sees this particular plight for Native Americans as being inextricably tied to the activism in the District.

"We are truly a reservation in Washington, D.C., but without sovereignty," said the Rev. Graylan Hagler of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Northeast. Hagler said he was grateful that Mayor Vincent Gray avoided the use of the franchise name when he referred to "our Washington football team" in his State of the District address on Feb. 5.

"Somehow people of color are the dominant culture's treasure, the dominant culture's collection. We are to be defined by somebody else, and manipulated by somebody else. All these things seek to take away our humanity," Hagler, 59, said to thunderous applause.

Hagler along with Holden, several local sports reporters, and Judith Bartnoff, deputy presiding judge of the District of Columbia Superior Court, served on the afternoon panel. Each made a case to replace the Redskins' name.

Washington Post sports columnist Mike Wise said he's concerned about the harm mascots and negative images inflict upon Native American children.

"I've been told that there are bigger issues for Native American communities," he said. "What can be more important than a child's self image," he asked.

Pointing to the logo of the Washington football team on a jumbo screen behind him, Wise said, "I believe in my lifetime that symbol will disappear from this town." At that point, the crowd gave the writer a rousing round of applause.

Ward 5 resident Cyndi Harsley, 69, and of black and Seminole heritage, said she was glad the day ended on a high note. She was pleased to hear about a list of actions that can be taken and participants' willingness to stay in touch.

"This is the time to make black communities aware of this struggle," Harsley said.