Respect for Native Americans: Sports Fans Should Heed Sly Stone's Advice

LANDOVER, MD - JANUARY 06:  A Washington Redskins flag is waved prior to the NFC Wild Card Playoff Game against the Seattle S
LANDOVER, MD - JANUARY 06: A Washington Redskins flag is waved prior to the NFC Wild Card Playoff Game against the Seattle Seahawks at FedExField on January 6, 2013 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

As a teen growing up in a white, working class suburban neighborhood during the 1970s, I distinctly recall that many of my high-school friends with older siblings inherited worn copies of Sly & the Family Stone's most popular album Stand! The chart-topping hits on that particular record were "I Want To Take You Higher" and "Everyday People," the latter track being the generational anthem with a thumping bass-line calling for racial tolerance, mutual respect, and celebration of diversity.

We who were too young to significantly participate in the 1960s civil rights movement clearly understood Sylvester Stewart's timely message on side two of that scratchy vinyl platter. I'm sure those of the hip-hop generation who are wise enough to trace their roots have stumbled upon this seminal recording, much to their good fortune. However there are still some sports teams and their loyal fans who just don't "get it" when it comes to the stark reality of blatantly racist sports mascots which depict Native Americans as tomahawk chopping savages, or cliché images of a cigar store Indian, or buffoonish old-Hollywood stereotypes with feathers sticking out of their heads, to cite a horrific few.

The landscape of college and professional sports is littered with team logos, chants and other cheerleading activities that have denigrated and grossly misrepresented a culture that oft practiced a greater reverence for the environment humanity, and the animal kingdom than did the European settlers who "discovered" America and the generations which have followed. Kudos to the universities who have respected the recommendations of indigenous rights organizations such as the National Congress of American Indians and the American Indian Movement. To my knowledge, college sports did not suffer any loss of popularity when the University of Stanford dropped "Indians" in favor of "Cardinal" or when St. John's University's "Redmen" became "Red Storm," or the Warriors of Marquette University were re-named "Golden Eagles."

The usual arguments in favor of Native American sports mascots and the subsequent "whoop-la" that supports these figures centers on the supposition that these practices honor Native American attributes including bravery, fighting skills, and rank. Nonsense! Which reminds me of the University of Illinois' Chief Illiniwek: his celebrated tribal dance was intended to honor the Illini Confederacy -- but was, in reality, a Lakota tribal ritual!

The status of "Chief" in Native American culture is one of great reverence -- it is the highest political and social position attainable. I could only imagine the confusion and embarrassment endured by young Native Americans who see such an important part of their culture and religion acting as a circus clown before millions of spectators. How must the elders of these young Native Americans feel? I doubt Catholic Americans would be too thrilled to root for a team named the "Pittsburgh Pontiffs" whose mascot, let's call him "Peter Pope," balanced a cross on his nose like a sea-lion whilst juggling over-sized copies of the New Testament on the grid-iron. I'll spare other fictional religious and racial analogies -- but the possibilities are endless. And don't get me started on the fans who paint their faces akin to Native American tribes -- would Catholic Americans appreciate fans in the stands chugging beer whilst adorned in nun habits or wearing clerical collars? I think not.

One of the many important character traits that sports should instill in us is that of "respect" -- for opponents, for teammates, for coaches, for the rules and rituals of the games, and for protocol on and off the playing field. Native Americans are sports fans; they are our teammates, our coaches, our neighbors, and our fellow citizens. Their spirituality and traditional beliefs should not be insulted by beating tom-toms, the wearing of a feather head-dress, nor ghastly attempts at singing Native American songs.

Unfortunately, Native American groups continue their losing streak in the courtroom as well as in the court of public opinion, likely due to the fact that such behavior has been part of the American sports fabric for so many years that we have fallen ignorant to its harmful effects. Maybe this is free speech - but it is hurtful speech. Witness a recent AP-GfK survey which reveals that 79 percent of those polled do not consider the name "Redskins" as offensive. As for validity of this aforementioned poll, Mark Twain noted that there are three kinds of lies: "lies, damned lies, and statistics..." Enough said. Noble attempts by Washington D.C. council members and Native Americans challenging the "Redskins" name before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board are either doomed to failure or will take years to resolve against their well-financed opponents.

What's a sports fan of conscious to do? Certainly we can opt not to purchase tickets when those teams come to town. Certainly we can opt to not buy the merchandise, nor support the sponsors with our discretionary dollars. As Bob Dylan taught us "money doesn't talk -- it swears!"

Another option is to appropriate the commendable modus operandi of the Portland Oregonian newspaper which refuses to acknowledge the names of sports teams that use Native American nicknames unless the tribe has given the paper permission. The next time you talk sports around the water cooler, online forum, talk radio, or local pub -- refer to "the NFL from Washington D.C., or the major league baseball team from Atlanta ... the major league baseball team from Cleveland," and "the NFL team from Kansas City," and so forth.

Keep repeating it over and over. Like Sly Stone & the Family Stone chanting "I dig everyday people!"