Oneida Nation Representative and CEO of Oneida Nation Enterprises Ray Halbritter returned to Harvard Law School—where he earned his J.D. in 1990—on April 6 to talk to students and faculty about racial slurs promulgated by the names of mascots and sports teams in today’s America.
The Oneida Nation and the National Congress of American Indians launched the Change the Mascot campaign two years ago to pressure the National Football League’s Washington “Redskins” team to change its name.
It is not a trivial issue, said Halbritter. “The Change the Mascot campaign is at its core about self-determination…. Those who defend the use of ‘Redskins’ present themselves as the sole arbiters of what is and what is not acceptable in 21st century America.
“People like the Washington team’s owner, Dan Snyder, insist that their supposed right to target, intimidate and persecute people on the basis of their alleged skin color inherently negates the right of others to be free of such persecution.
“The recent words of the Washington team’s own Hall of Fame wide receiver Art Monk underscores this point. He said, ‘If Native Americans feel Redskins is offensive to them, who are we to say to them, No, it’s not?’”
The campaign is in fact about what kind of nation America will become, said Halbritter. “A nation that preferences the pathologies of bigots says that bigots and bigots alone get to decide that their slurs are acceptable and not offensive. By contrast, a nation that preferences mutual respect is one that says the targets of a slur get to make that determination for themselves.”
The use of derogatory terms to describe Indian people “is not just an issue for Native Americans,” Halbritter said. “Researchers at the University of Buffalo reported earlier this month that American Indian nicknames and mascots are not neutral symbols and that their continued use by schools, professional sports teams and other organizations has negative consequences for everyone, not just Native Americans. The researchers specifically noted that studies with mostly white samples have found that people exposed to American Indian mascots are more likely to negatively stereotype other ethnic groups.”
William Mendoza, executive director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education, has identified eliminating the use of Native American mascots in public schools as a priority. Asked if the use of such mascots in public schools attended by American Indian children was a civil rights issue that the federal government should be looking into, Halbritter said, “I do. I think that to have children in an educational environment that’s supported by allowing merchandise, or items, hats, memorabilia that has a dictionary-defined racial slur violates the environment and what this nation really wants their children to learn.”
The Change the Mascot campaign has made headway. “In the past two years of this campaign, we’ve seen some really astonishing signs of progress,” said Halbritter. “In a country that has so long marginalized and denigrated Native Americans we have seen sports icons, religious groups, civil rights organizations, governors, state legislatures, a majority of the United States Senate and the president of the United States support the campaign.
“Changes at the local level exemplify that shift. From Cooperstown, New York, to Buffalo, New York, Hartford, Connecticut, to Colorado, communities that have for decades been using derogatory Native American mascots have moved to end that tradition in the name of equality, civility and respect.”
“The movement to treat people of color as equals and stop treating us as mascots is growing every day. And those resisting that ethical march of history are sitting in Washington insisting that they are justified in promoting the ugliest kind of prejudice. [During the Civil Rights movement,] these forces of the status quo were sitting in the halls of Congress. Well, today they are sitting in an NFL team’s front office. The dynamics are eerily similar.”
There is yet a ways to go. Even though the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office ruled in 2014 that the word “redskins” was a derogatory and offensive term and canceled its protection, the team still holds adamantly to its position.
But Halbritter is a student of history and an expert negotiator. He sees the Change the Mascot campaign as a process of growth, and growth takes time.
“These names will change, and more broadly, Native Americans will achieve true equality not because of the benevolence of a team owner but because a critical mass of Americans will no longer tolerate, patronize and cheer on commodified bigotry. That critical mass is building right now and it will get here sooner rather than later,” Halbritter concluded.
The Oneida Indian Nation owns Oneida Nation Enterprises, parent company of Indian Country Today Media Network.
The Oneida Nation created the Oneida Indian Nation Professorship of Law at the Harvard Law School in 2003, the first endowed chair in American Indian studies at Harvard. At the time, it was the only professorship of its kind east of the Mississippi “Because Harvard is a place where many top legal minds convene, we wanted to make sure American Indian law assumed its rightful place of study for generations to come,” said Halbritter.