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07/22/2014 07:36 am ET Updated Jul 22, 2014

How Washington's Football Team Creates A Hostile Environment For Native American Students

WASHINGTON -- Much of the debate over whether to keep the Washington football team's name has centered around whether it's actually offensive to Native Americans. Owner Dan Snyder has searched high and low to find American Indians who aren't put off by the term "Redskins" as justification for keeping it.

But according to Erik Stegman, an author of a new report on Native mascots and team names, that discussion misses the point.

"This entire debate is being spun in the wrong direction, and it doesn't really matter whether or not one Native person you talk to supports or doesn't," Stegman said in an interview with The Huffington Post. "When you have kids in schools who are getting harassed, who are feeling a lack of self-worth because they themselves have become a mascot for someone else, I think that's really what the point is all about. We need to stop having this debate over which Native people are offended because it's a ridiculous debate."

Stegman is associate director of the Half in Ten Education Fund at the progressive Center for American Progress. Previously, he served as majority staff counsel for the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. He and Victoria Phillips, a professor at American University Washington College of Law, argue in a report published Tuesday that derogatory team names create an "unwelcome and hostile learning environment" for Native students that "directly results in lower self-esteem and mental health" for these adolescents and young adults.

The report was shared in advance with The Huffington Post.

Stegman and Phillips argue that the problem with team names goes far beyond the Washington football team, but many states and school districts have already made changes. There once were more than 3,000 American Indian mascots and names used in school K-12 athletic programs, but more than two-thirds of those have been changed. State agencies have also taken action. For example, in 2012, the Oregon State Board of Education banned all Native American team names, mascots and logos from its schools.

Native students face more challenges starting out than non-Native individuals. For Native young adults ages 15 to 34, for example, the suicide rate is 2.5 times higher than the national average. These communities also have some of the country's highest rates of poverty and poor health and lowest educational outcomes.

"So they're starting from a really challenging place," said Stegman. "And when they have to go to school every day and see their culture and their communities boiled down to a logo or a mascot, and when ... those are actually used against them in negative ways, it's pretty hard to understand how that contributes to their ability to learn successfully."

Several medical groups, including the American Psychological Association, have called for the immediate retirement of American Indian mascots and symbols. The association's website outlines the harm that these representations have on students:

  • Undermining the educational experiences of members of all communities -- especially those who have had little or no contact with Indigenous peoples. The symbols, images and mascots teach non-Indian children that it's acceptable to participate in culturally abusive behavior and perpetuate inaccurate misconceptions about American Indian culture.
  • Establishes an unwelcome and often times hostile learning environment for American Indians students that affirms negative images/stereotypes that are promoted in mainstream society.

Stegman and Phillips talked with more than a dozen American Indian students who explained what such mascots and team names mean to them. Some highlights:

  • "One of our school's biggest rivals is the Calaveras Redskins. ... Worst of all, the most offensive stuff doesn't even come from the Redskins. It comes from their rival schools, mine included. I have heard my own friends yelling around me, 'Kill the Redskins!' or 'Send them on the Trail of Tears!'" -- Dahkota Kicking Bear Brown, Miwok student and football player
  • "The issue impacts me because as long as the Washington football team and others retain perjoratives as names, mascots, and are allowed to do so, it says that it is ok to marginalize me, my family, and Indian country -- that it is ok for Native peoples to remain on the periphery of American consciousness." -- Joaquin Gallegos, Jicarilla Apache Nation and Pueblo of Santa Ana
  • "I distinctly remember listening to a radio talk show one morning discussing changing the mascot of a local northern Michigan school because it poorly depicted Native American people. Non-Native people defending the mascot seemed to populate the airtime. They all spoke about school and community pride, or fond high school memories. A Native American mascot seemed to have nothing to do with actual Native American people to them. A white person's school pride was put above a Native American person's sense of identity. A white person's fond memories were more important than a Native American youth attending a school they felt still wore the mascot of oppression." -- Sarah Schilling, Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians

When shown the summary and introduction to the report, Tony Wyllie, the team's senior vice president, replied, "We look forward to reviewing the research ... and gaining another perspective on the use of these terms. These findings seem incongruous to the many Native American logos and mascots used on and near Indian tribal lands, and hopefully the report will address those issues specifically."

The backlash against the team keeping its name has been growing. A majority of the Senate has spoken out against the name, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) particularly critical. Several journalism outlets have stopped printing the team's name.

In a particularly stinging blow, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceled the team's trademark registration last month, concluding that its name and logo are disparaging.

Stegman said he would like to see Snyder change the Washington football team's name. But he also would like the federal government to take a more active role in supporting Native students. Stegman and Phillips recommend that the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education use its full authority to enforce protections for Native students and work with the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education to seek input from tribal communities.

"Obviously there are a lot of these mascots still out there," said Stegman. "In fact, in a lot of cases, we don't really know, and we're hoping that a process where the Department of Education can step in and issue guidance to administrators will help some of these administrators look at how these logos and mascots are actually impacting their student body."

The Education Department did not return a request for comment.

Despite the prevalence of Native mascots around the country, Stegman argued that changing the name of the Washington football team would be a huge step.

"When students grow up for years and years dealing with these mascots and the impressions they make on them, then they come to places like Washington, D.C., the nation's capital, and have to see one of the most lucrative football franchises in the country making money off of it at the same time," he said. "It's really part of a much broader issue that native people, their time as students and at schools and all through adulthood, have to constantly be told that they're boiled down to this one logo or this one mascot."

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