The depiction of Native American culture in North American sports, both collegiate and professional, has been a hot debate topic for the past several years. On Sept. 8, the Robert Zicklin Center for Corporate Integrity hosted a seminar to allow experts to share their views with the Baruch community.
David Rosenberg, associate director of the Robert Zicklin Center for Corporate Integrity, welcomed reporters and the public alike with a pointed reminder of how although athletics play a minor role in one’s everyday life, the social, political and economic impact of sports cannot be denied. After his introduction, the six members of the panel introduced themselves and their stance on the representation of Native American culture by collegiate and professional sports teams.
Simon Moya-Smith, culture editor for Indian Country Today and citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation, opened his remarks in his native dialect. Moya-Smith was firmly opposed to the depiction of Native people as mascots and demanded the removal of all forms of misappropriated Native cultures, emphasizing the Washington Redskins name and logo as the most egregious.
Marc Edelman, Esq., a professor of law at Baruch College, expressed his desire to approach the topic from an objective stance. He cited an instance when, in 2014, Roger Goodell, National Football League commissioner, fined the San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick $11,025 for allegedly yelling the N-word at Chicago Bears defensive end Lamarr Houston. Upon appeal, the fine was reduced to $5,512 for “general profane language,” rather than for the use of the N-word in particular. Under the league’s personal conduct policy with regards to “racial slurs or abusive language,” Goodell has the authority to levy penalties against clubs. Edelman concluded Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder can be subjected to punitive action based on the dictionary-defined slur his team boasts.
Next was Paul Lukas, a columnist for ESPN.com who specializes in commentary on uniform design and team identity. He argued against the use of Native American imagery unless the team came to an agreement with the associating tribe, preferably including a licensing fee. William Brotherton is a principal and founder of his Dallas-based law firm and a member of the Sokokie, St. Francis band of the Abenaki Nation in Swanton, Vermont. Brotherton attributes this connection to his grandmother, Nellie Bourgeois Lamphere, who, according to his website, was born in Quebec. Unlike the previous speakers, Brotherton, an alumnus of the University of North Dakota, fought against the name change of the school’s team after the NCAA instituted a policy that banned displays of “hostile and abusive racial/ethnic/national origin mascots.” In 2015, the Fighting Sioux became the Fighting Hawks. The crux of his argument was that sports teams can keep various Native American cultures in the public eye and preserve positive Native imagery.
Rounding out the table was Andre Billeaudeaux, a retired military officer who currently serves as executive director of the Native American Guardians Association. His message of outreach to communities is best summarized by the motto “Educate, not Eradicate.” Instead of removing Native American images from schools and professional teams, he emphasized raising awareness for the poor conditions around reservations, noting how many tribes are lumped together unknowingly by non-Natives. Billeaudeaux wanted the Redskins to promote their logo via educational seminars and outreach programs. Director Rosenberg then advanced the conversation.
Regarding the UND name change, Lukas pointed out that NCAA membership is not an inherent right and the university could have changed the mascot without coercion. Brotherton, in his Texas drawl, retorted that losing membership would cost the school funding and diminish morale around campus as the Fighting Sioux’s identity was an integral part of the community. Moya-Smith then began an impassioned diatribe on the nature of mascots, pointing out that they are made to be belittled and mocked by opposing crowds which inflames negative stereotypes about Native Americans through chants, caricatures and racial epithets.
“Headdresses were meant to be reserved for honorable tribe member, not boozy college students,” declared Moya-Smith. Moya-Smith continued by saying that while some schools may have sought to improve the visibility of a tribe’s culture, “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” He ended his speech by equating the R-word, which Professor Edelman refused to repeat as it is an “ethnic slur,” to the N-word.
Billeaudeaux attempted to present the positive aspect of the Redskins logo. He commented that in many tribes, a Redskin meant one who was painted head-to-toe in red mud to signify that they were ready for battle. It displayed courage, commanded respect and was commonly used amongst indigenous people. Much like Brotherton argued, Billeaudeaux believed the Redskins mascot helped maintain Native American culture and educated fans. Billeaudeaux concluded that if more people were aware of the history behind the word, they could move on from fighting and concentrate their efforts on allocating resources to improving health care and education on reservations.
Edelman questioned the validity of Billeaudeaux’s claim and asked for an example of charity work done by professional or collegiate teams for Native American tribes. Although the outreach program done by the Kansas City Chiefs celebrating American Indian Heritage Month was mentioned, it was a drop in the bucket compared to the systematic killing of millions of indigenous people and current conditions endured across the continent.
Brotherton addressed Moya-Smith’s tone and expressed his belief that Moya-Smith views Native Americans as victims and fragile people when, in fact, they are warriors. Moya-Smith, visibly disturbed by this claim, demanded an acknowledgement of the genocides conducted on Native Americans by the United States, along with the shift in rhetoric from “this land was not stolen,” as a form of decolonization. The problem is in the education system; children are taught to celebrate Christopher Columbus and dress like “Indians” in school plays around Thanksgiving.
As time ran down, Rosenberg thanked the panelists for unearthing various interpretations of “redskin” and presenting their side of the debate as clearly as they did. Audience members continued the discussion amongst themselves and with the panelists.