When the Washington Redskins begin their season Sunday, their name is likely to attract as much attention as their on-field performance. After a year in which prominent sportswriters stopped using the nickname, the US Patent Office canceled the team’s trademark, and President Obama suggested he favors a new name, it’s clear that the Redskins cannot simply wait out the latest round of criticism.
This is good news. There is no place in America for epithets like “redskin” or caricatures like the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo.
But it would be wrong to presume that eliminating offensive names and mascots from sports would end the larger problem that gave rise to them in the first place: Americans’ indifference to and ignorance of Native Americans. Most Americans imagine Indians as belonging to the nation’s past, but, at 6 million strong, they are a vibrant part of its present, deserving of the same respect due to all Americans.
Banning offensive mascots is certainly a step toward extending that respect, but there are more substantive actions our leaders can take that would help accomplish the dual purpose of elevating Native Americans’ presence in our national life and easing the challenges they have confronted for too long.
Not all Native Americans face those challenges, but they are real, particularly for the nearly 3 million who live on reservations. By many measures of social well-being, Native Americans trail the rest of the nation. According to the most recent data, the poverty rate among American Indians and Alaskan Natives is 28 percent, compared to about 15 percent for the rest of the nation. Native Americans graduate high school at a rate 14 percent lower than the general population, and Native American youths are twice as likely to die before age 24 as any other race.
These problems have not received sufficient national attention. Few Americans live near reservations, making it easy for our representatives to ignore the pain that affects so many Native American communities. Last year, for instance, when Congress failed to pass legislation to avert the budget sequester, lawmakers scrambled to exempt programs like Medicaid and food stamps. But their eleventh-hour effort excluded many programs crucial to American Indians.
Our national indifference to Native Americans is unacceptable, and it has lasted for too long. Throughout his career, my father, Robert Kennedy, was deeply interested in the rights of Native Americans. Speaking in 1963, he said, “That these conditions can be allowed to prevail among a people uniquely entitled to call themselves the first Americans . . . is nothing less than a national disgrace.” More than half a century later, we have made little progress.
One solution that many Native American leaders endorse is giving tribes more sovereignty over their land and peoples. The United States recognizes most tribes as so-called “sovereign dependent” nations — autonomous, but with many strings attached. President Obama has been more engaged on this issue than his recent predecessors, restoring land to tribes and giving them broader powers to prosecute crimes in Indian country. These are encouraging developments, but Native Americans deserve an even larger role in governing their land.
In addition to recognizing Native Americans’ authority over their own territories, the United States should encourage the preservation and fostering of tribal cultures. Not only are Native American arts and languages a crucial (if overlooked) part of America’s broader cultural mosaic, but they are also a powerful tool for change — teaching young Native Americans about their rich heritage has been shown to improve their self-esteem and academic performance. By contrast, several studies have found that racist nicknames, which flatten that richness into a crude stereotype, harm their self-esteem.
Banning offensive mascots would be a powerful gesture, a signal to Native Americans that as a nation, we regard them as more than symbols.
But recognizing their authority over their own land and working with them to preserve their culture would be an even more significant step: a demonstration that we regard them not only as the first Americans, but as fellow Americans.
Kerry Kennedy is president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights and a member of the Council of Advisors to the Association on American Indian Affairs.