This Holiday Season Let's Replace Disparaging Slurs

We call on sports teams with Native American names and mascots to consult with contemporary tribes and follow their guidance. Abandon negative characterizations and where it is mutually desired embrace positive identities so that we may preserve our Native American heritage.
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Written by Netta Avineri, Ph.D. and Bernard Perley, Ph.D.

'Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.' Not true. Words have power.

We've all been on the receiving end of name-calling by insensitive childhood classmates. Some of us, however, have endured decades -- and some cultures centuries -- of disparaging slurs directed to our ethnic, racial, and even religious heritage.

In this holiday season, it's time to stop.

Start here in our nation's capital with the sports identity of Washington D.C.'s NFL football team: the Redskins.

As social scientists, we members of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), founded in 1902 and incorporated in Washington, D.C., have several observations.

Anthropologists conduct research to understand the diversity of human experience, cultures, beliefs, values, and social structures through a focus on local knowledge and practices. We understand that for many people sports play an important cultural role for audiences of all ages. Teams choose names, mascots, and logos that embody the vigor and grit that athletics provide and should reflect positive associations, identities, and role models, especially for young people.

Favorite animal mascots include: the Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears, and the Carolina Panthers. Some mascots are chosen to celebrate regional heritage: San Francisco 49ers, New England Patriots, Minnesota Vikings, and Florida State Seminoles.

In our professional opinion, while some sports identities depict Native Americans with respect and sensitivity, many do not.

The Florida State Seminoles offer a worthy model. University authorities consulted with local tribal authorities to develop mutually acceptable practices. Tribal members open games in person, in traditional regalia, sometimes by throwing down a spear - a display of challenge appropriate for a sports environment.

The Chicago Blackhawks offers a complex history. In 1926, Frederick McLaughlin purchased the Portland "Rose Buds," vowing to change the hockey club's moniker. In World War I, he commanded a battalion of the 86th Division of the U.S. Army. The division named themselves the Black Hawks in honor of the Sauk Indian leader Black Hawk who had resisted encroaching settlers. In doing so, the division abandoned its previous name: the Custer Division. It would have been better if McLaughlin had consulted with tribal leaders first, but in 1926 that was unlikely. The logo doesn't look like Black Hawk, but the name is not offensive. Today, Shawnee tribal veterans open games carrying the Eagle Feather Staff.

Moreover, the NHL team created a long-term partnership with the American Indian Center. The team's community fund assists the Native Americans in Chicago and throughout Illinois.

Contemporary America can and should promote positive images of and healthy relationships with Native Americans.

President Barack Obama has proclaimed November National Native American Month. "The first stewards of our environment, early voices for the values that define our Nation, and models of government to our Founding Fathers - American Indians and Alaska Natives helped build the very fabric of America," he said. But for centuries, they have suffered deprivation, violence, and discrimination.

We as anthropologists have documented the personal pain, ostracism, and societal hardship that racism creates for Native Americans.

We call on Dan Snyder to retire the name -- it is a racial slur that must be abandoned.

Nationwide, many agree with us. In June 2014, the U.S. Patent Office canceled six registered team trademarks. Their reason: the term is "disparaging."

How do slurs hurt? They create a climate that degrades a whole segment of the population, rather than fostering an inclusive, respectful environment. Most Native Americans are tired of public habits that take advantage of their distinctiveness only to exclude them personally from real dialogue on fair and appropriate public representation.

Anthropology is committed to promoting and protecting of the right of all peoples to the full realization of their humanity: their capacity for culture, self-determination, and sovereignty.

Native American organizations have stated publicly that these names are offensive. Thus, we commend those who take exception to inappropriate sports names and mascots. We respect the University of Minnesota, which on Nov. 2, 2014, refused to allow the Washington team to use its moniker during the football match. Between 3,500 and 5,000 people supported this protest.

The United States is a nation built on fundamental principles of independence, freedom, and justice - for all. It is vital that we honor and respect the desires of Native Americans as to how they want to represent themselves.

When Native Americans asked Stanford University to retire its mascot and moniker, the university did so - 42 years ago. Athletes of Miami University in Ohio were also once known as the Redskins. In the 1970s, they became the Redhawks.

We call on sports teams with Native American names and mascots to consult with contemporary tribes and follow their guidance. Abandon negative characterizations and where it is mutually desired embrace positive identities so that we may, together, preserve our Native American heritage for the good of our American culture.

Netta Avineri, Ph.D. is the Chair of the AAA Task Force on Language and Social Justice, Subcommittee on Mascots; Core Member, Task Force on Language and Social Justice; and, Visiting Professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, A Graduate School of Middlebury College.

Bernard Perley, Ph.D. is a member, AAA Task Force on Language and Social Justice Subcommittee on Mascots; Member, AAA Executive Board; Member, Tobique First Nation; and Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

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