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I don’t know what to say right now. I feel like we’ve been having the same conversation for a long time. I’ve been on too many of these panels, been too diplomatic and polite, especially the past five years.
I wrote some notes down, but rather than read from them I’m just going to speak what’s in my heart today.
Three years ago, over just a four-month period, the federal Indian Health Service found that 103 young people between the ages of 12 and 24 tried to take their own life on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Pine Ridge is in South Dakota, on a swath of land bigger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined, with 40,000 residents.
Nine of these kids were tragically successful, according to the New York Times, including a 12-year-old girl named Santana Janis, who hung herself in an unheated shack next to the trailer she and her grandfather lived in. A 12-year-old girl hung herself.
And let’s be honest – most of America doesn’t give a shit.
But what’s even sadder is that most of you are more concerned with the fact that I just said the word “shit” than you are that nine kids found life on the reservation so unbearable, so hopeless, they had no desire to live.
Sadder still is every one of us that has used the cop-out, “But Native people have much bigger problems than being someone’s mascot,” fail to understand that these children who took their own life are the same ones whom the American Psychological Association has been telling us for almost 20 years suffer from real self-esteem issues when their people are caricatured by sports teams.
Every study done by unbiased mental health professionals used by the APA come to the same conclusion: these names, images and logos hurt us all.
This is still the best social science on this subject, not a phone poll by a newspaper.
What makes me sad and angry five decades after this fight began – because people forget the National Congress of American Indians has been waging this war on having their culture appropriated since the late 1960s – is we still don’t connect the dots.
That, if society only sees you as a memory of your ancestor – and they don’t see you as someone who might grow up one day to be something more than just a warrior on the Plains – how are you ever going to see yourself as an engineer, a Senator, a successful CEO; hell, a high school graduate?
How many bigger problems are there among Native peoples?
I mean, it’s one thing to steal a person’s land -- that’s awful enough. But now, not even letting them control their own identity?
How dare us. How dare us.
I have been an advocate for giving Native people back their dignity for about 25 years, the moment I met a Sioux father named Phil St. John, who told the story of his 5-year-old son being shamed at a high school game in Minnesota by a white kid who dressed up in war paint and patted his mouth, making the woo-woo sound.
I’ve met countless Native mothers, many at a protest of more than 5,000 in Minnesota before a Washington game in 2013, who have told me what these names, images and logos do to their kids. And I have spent many days and hours at Pine Ridge, researching a biography I’m writing on Billy Mills, the Oglala Lakota 10,000-meter gold medalist in Tokyo in 1964.
As someone who is white, I have no right to tell anyone of any color what they should and shouldn’t be offended by. But when those Native parents ask you to keep using your platform to let people know that a living people should not be someone’s logo or mascot, you don’t say no to them.
You know, I want to thank the great people of this museum. Lonnie Bunch, Damion Thomas and others, who agreed to co-sponsor this event and make this beautiful, historic space available for such an important symposium.
Because the truth is, most black people in Washington don’t care. Most people of color in Washington don’t care. Almost all people who look like me in the Washington area don’t care. They’re so desensitized, saying Washington’s team name is like saying “cup” or “bedspread” to them.
Like most everyone else, they’ve been brainwashed to believe this is okay. It’s part of their family’s history, their memories.
And this is partly where I use to feel real empathy for fans.
I remember in Minnesota four years ago, the site of a father and his two boys coming out of a restaurant as thousands of Native protesters marched down the street, carrying signs that read, “Change The Name,” and “Your Team Name Represents The Bloody Scalps of My Ancestors!” The father asked his sons to turn their burgundy-and-gold beanies inside-out, so the team’s logo couldn’t be shown. These kids who had nothing to do with this fight suddenly had this look of guilt and shame on their faces. I felt for them. I did.
Like most fans, this family seemed like good people, the kind who would send money to disaster victims or help a fallen person in the middle of the crosswalk. But inherent in their belief to remain seeing themselves as good people, they can’t let anything puncture their psyche that says otherwise. So when you tell them these names and these logos hurt people – or worse, call them racist – they don’t examine their unconscious bias. They become defensive, because if the team name that their grandfather loved is bad, what does it say about them? They can’t go there.
So they call people who want to change the name “PC pansies” or minimize their cause by calling them “name-changers.” Or they lean on a poll to make them feel okay about purchasing their next jersey or season tickets. Because that’s what we do now, poll human rights issues.
And that’s where I lose all empathy, where I’ve lost the ability to reason and have civil conversation over this issue. It’s when I begin to look at how callous and cold the people are who refuse to change the name.
The owner of the team, the commissioner of the NFL, the hardened fan, even the beat writers for the team -- some of whom had posters of their favorite Washington players as kids, some of whom buy jerseys for their own children now -- arrogantly still use “honor” and “respect” and “heritage,” as if they were the ones forced from their land 150 years ago.
They actually think they are the embodiment of the logo on the helmets -- the brave warriors who fought to keep what is theirs, what those damn, evil protesters tried to take: Their heritage. Their honor. Their dignity. How dare those non-resilient Native parents and children who can't get over it. How dare those liberal progressive social justice warriors (guilty as charged), fighting for mutual respect of a people that a poll told them doesn't even want it themselves. That name is their name. It's been their word since the racist segregationist who owned them gave that name to his team. If you had to sum up their misguided, warped feelings on the matter, it would kind of go like this:
How dare us? No, how dare you?
So I’m done.
I’m done caring about the feelings of those who want me to consider their history with the name, their childhood memories. I can no longer empathize with the fan and the owner and the commissioner who insists on keeping these names and logos because, the truth is, they’ve never empathized with our Native brothers and sisters.
And if they want a real fight, certainly a bigger one than their sorry team puts up every Sunday, let’s go. Let’s do this. This is only the beginning.