We are asked if the issue about the use of offensive Native-themed images and names for sports teams is really that important. Many suggest that Indian people and tribal governments are surely confronted with matters that are much more important than the name of a professional football team.
In fact, there are many unmet needs on our reservations and in our urban communities. Tragic disparities exist on numerous social measures. Diabetes and resulting health problems impact Native Americans more than non-Indians. Even with tribal gaming, unemployment rates in tribal communities are higher than statewide rates. The incidence of suicide in our communities, especially among teenagers, is difficult to mention because one suicide is too many and we have experienced the heartache of these tragedies too often.
As tribal leaders, we are faced with this reality. Our tribal governments work at providing education and resources to our members so they may improve their lives. We act pursuant to our tribal sovereignty in this effort. We strive for self-determination and self-governance. These are our inherent rights. As we work to protect and strengthen our rights, we deal with the very real issues that impact Indian Country.
We will not shy away from the fact that anti-Indian sentiment continues to exist. Racism and misunderstanding of Indians and Indian tribes are roadblocks in our efforts to improve our communities and the lives of our children. One glaring example of anti-Indian sentiment is the use of caricature Indian images or sports team names.
The tribes in Minnesota stand together and oppose the use of offensive Indian images and names. One of the more disgusting and disrespectful uses is the name of the Washington NFL franchise. Its retirement is long overdue.
We are confident that most Native Americans are not honored by these caricatures. They are demeaning, and they reduce the rich and wonderful complexity of who we are to mere cartoons. The negative impact on the self-image of our children is real.
If the owners of professional sports teams want to honor Native people, they should understand and respect tribal sovereignty — understand and support tribal self-governance and self-determination. They should join our tribal governments in removing the roadblocks that debilitate efforts to improve the lives of the people they say they honor.
In a long list of things they can do to honor us, they can start by stopping the use of that painful slur — the name of the football team from our nation’s capital.
Change the name.
Melanie Benjamin is chief executive, Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe; Norman Deschampe is chairman, Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa; Karen Diver is chairwoman, Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa; Kevin Leecy is chairman, Bois Forte Band of Chippewa; Denny Prescott is president, Lower Sioux Indian Community; Darrell Seki Sr., is tribal chairman, Red Lake Nation; Charlie Vig is chairman, Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, and Erma Vizenor is chairwoman, White Earth Nation.