Divisive Mascot Issue Should be Addressed

Feb 15th, 2009 | By | Category: 20-3: Tribal Athletes Fight for Their Place
By Carrie Billy

Carrie Billy (Diné), J.D.

Growing up, every Friday night during basketball season was a community event. People came for miles from every corner of the reservation – gathering the whole family or hitching a ride in the back of a pick-up – in the unifying spirit of athletic fun and competition. To us, those games were much more than running, shooting, and cheering.  They represented the best of kinship, community, and hope.

Surrounded by family and friends in the comfortable security of that old gym, important lessons were re-enforced and memories created that will last a lifetime or more. Winning the game was bonus. Conducting oneself responsibly and with respect, showing pride (but not too much), and building strength of body and mind, all for the good of the team and the community – those were the life lessons at the heart of every game we cheered for and played. And, boy, did we have fun running, shooting, and cheering.

It is no surprise that athletic programs and team competition are expanding and growing in prominence at tribal colleges and universities. TCUs are, after all, definitively community-based institutions. And as the average age of TCU students is dropping, with more and more high school students choosing to begin their college careers at a tribal college, the opportunities for impacting our youth’s physical, mental, and spiritual health and strengthening their sense of community are increasing dramatically.

I believe that any discussion of team sports and American Indians – no matter how positive — must address the divisive “mascot issue” and the impact that words and actions can have on a person, a people, and a nation.

It is almost incomprehensible that this issue has not been resolved in this country, more than four decades after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the American Psychological Association, the NAACP, hundreds of Indian tribal governments, and thousands of American Indian people and others have called for an end to the objectification of Native people and cultures through the use of team mascots, logos, and nicknames.

Native people are the only race of people that this nation actually allows to be used as mascots. This is demeaning and hurtful; it adversely impacts the self-esteem of many young American Indian children. The mascot issue divides communities, perpetuates stereotypes, and detracts from the fundamental goal of our nations education system: to educate our young people – all of our young people.

I believe that President Obama and the 111th Congress should work together to enact legislation barring federal funding to any non-American Indian school or institution that permits the use of American Indian names, mascots, and images in sanctioned team sports, athletics, and other activities. This is consistent with existing federal law barring discrimination based on race and gender, and it would allow us to move forward, focusing more energy and resources on educating our children.

It is time to put an end to this issue for good. It is time for change: bold, honest, affirming, forward-looking, and decent change.

Ahehee’!
Carrie Billy, J.D.

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