I appreciate how football brings communities together. We’re excited in Minnesota for our undefeated Gophers and surging Vikings.
But those who lead football’s efforts to bill it as the national pastime need to take a hard look at who they’re leaving out.
I’m thinking foremost of my 6-year-old daughter.
She’s a little Ojibwe girl who is proud of her Native identity. Recently, images of the Washington Redsk*ns flashed across the television as she got ready for school.
I saw the confusion as she took in this distorted caricature of her people. Deep red complexion. Long, black hair. Big caveman-like nose. And a feather, like the one we use in prayer, attached to the logo.
She turned to me and said, “Mommy, that’s not okay. We’re people, not mascots.”
She’s right. And the painful, historical context around the image and the label “Redsk*n” makes it even worse.
Defining a racial slur isn’t exactly the conversation a mom wants to have while trying to get her kid to school. But it’s one that was forced upon me because the image is plastered onto NFL football helmets as casually as the Broncos or the Lions.
Today, the Washington football team will travel to Minnesota to play the Vikings. As the Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota, I am honored and humbled to be the highest-ranking Native woman elected to executive office in the history of the United States. In this role ― and in my role as a mom ― I will march with fellow Minnesotans who are making clear that our state does not tolerate a racist mascot.
Dating back to American colonialism, there are different origin stories for the term “Redsk*n.” They are all deeply painful for Native people. At best, the term was a reference to the reddish tone of Native peoples’ skin and was commonly used to dehumanize them. At worst, it refers to the bloody scalp of a Native American. Colonies, trade companies and states would advertise paying settlers for scalps as proof that an Indigenous person had been killed. The scalps were sold for cash.
By celebrating this term, we celebrate the attempted erasure of Indian people.
The Washington football team has argued that the term is used in a way that honors Native people. Tell that to my 6-year-old daughter.
Multiple studies have shown that American Indian sports mascots and other negative stereotypes are detrimental to the self-esteem and development of Native American youth, and exacerbate racial inequities. There is no “honor” in reminding my daughter of the displacement and violence experienced by her relatives.
The mascot not only raises a painful past, it dismisses the present. It perpetuates the stereotype that Indigenous people exist solely in history books. It conjures images of Indians with their faces painted riding horseback and battling cowboys.
But we are still here. We exist in a present-day context. We are teachers. We are doctors. We are elected officials. And we are little kids, watching football for the first time.
When you deny people their humanity, it is easier to disrespect them and their culture. On a cold November evening in 2013, I marched with hundreds of American Indians and allies outside the Metrodome when the Washington football team was in Minneapolis. While much of the march and rally was empowering, we were met with protestors shouting racist remarks, making war whoops and threatening physical violence. It was scary. It was tense. It brought hot tears to my eyes. But I drew upon the resilience of the generations before me and kept marching forward.
However, I know these fans’ behavior does not reflect the majority of Americans. Most Americans can see why using Native people as a mascot would cause pain and anguish. In fact, many teams, from youth sports to college, have stopped using Native American symbols and names. They did this because they know sports are supposed to bring people together. They want a name fans from all backgrounds can cheer proudly from the stands.
The Washington football team must follow suit. Their self-funded surveys that magically garner the results they want are a farce. None of the Native people I’ve worked with for years think this racist mascot honors them. And when they come to town today, Minnesotans will make their values clear. And if there’s one voice the team listens to, let it be that of a 6-year-old Native girl. Her message is clear: We are people, not mascots.
Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan is a mom, an organizer and member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe. On November 6, 2018, she was elected the 50th Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota. She has dedicated her life to giving back, particularly to children, families, communities of color, Native Americans and low-income and working people.
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