The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) wrapped up its 13th session this week. Thousands of representatives of UN member states, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and Indigenous Peoples Organizations (IPOs) as well as approved participants from academia and the media. The latter was how I got in. For two weeks hundreds of speakers offered statements and interventions, many of them coming from the Native people of Turtle Island.
These interventions offered a full range of complaints against Canada and the US on issues including murdered and missing women, environmental crimes, land claims, land use, poverty and prominent racist policies very much still in full effect, including the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and the wholesale whitewashing of our children through the adoption agencies and policies of both countries. There was plenty of recounting of the past but for the most part all the issues were contemporary.
UN member states, such as the US, Canada and many more, had representatives present. Those representatives had names you will never know, offering statements not worth repeating that amounted to little more than lip service to a UN event and focus that some countries wish didn’t exist. No elected officials showed in New York; no senators or members of Congress, no ambassadors and certainly no one who really needed to hear directly from Native voices in an international forum.
Now this is not to say that members of, perhaps, the most dysfunctional Congress in the history of the United States weren’t making news on the big issues. No, in fact, as participants at the UNPFII were hammering out strategies on how to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) – essentially how to hold nation states to this minimum international standard – 50 United States senators decided to cut a page out of the New York Oneida Ray Halbritter’s playbook.
These 50 senators – who I am sure were absolutely oblivious to the UNDRIP, the Permanent Forum and, most certainly, the Doctrine of Christian Discovery – decided to pull a publicity stunt to distract from their own failings. In about as partisan an act as possible, 50 Democratic senators decided to lend their names to a letter that attempts to correct what they view as “a matter of tribal sovereignty.” I know, this sounds serious, right? And if I stop right here, you have got to be thinking, alright, they’re scolding the states for violating our sovereignty or the tax department for unlawfully trying to fleece our people and businesses or even the State Department over passports or IDs. You might even be thinking they are admitting their failure to address land claims or correct any number of the other racist policies being addressed right then at the United Nations. But you’d be wrong.
No, these 50 elite politicians sent a letter to the NFL. And unlike Mr. Halbritter who bought his way into this 30-year debate over the Washington D.C. football team name, these guys just had a staffer stamp their name on a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. But again unlike Mr. Halbritter, who quite successfully deflected all attention from his “leadership”, including his destruction of the Oneida land claim and selling out to New York State on gaming, tobacco, fuel and taxes by transforming himself into the “Washington R-word” slayer, these guys not only hurt the cause with lending their dismal approval rating to it, but they also come across as somewhere between hypocritical and just plain silly.
First of all, why only 50? Why would the Democrats not ask a single Republican to sign? This just lends itself to the notion that it was a political stunt. Next, of course, is the timing. How could they ignore all that was happening and being discussed in New York at the UNPFII only to join in on what to call a bunch of men in tights? Another issue is the letter itself and the complete lack of responsibility these senators have for the US having to tip toe around the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Step up. Read the damn thing! And stop violating it!
The letter also seems to ignore the fact that the team’s name has always been a racial slur. It was as racist 80 years ago as it is today. This gang of 50 suggests that because a racist NBA team owner recently got taken to the woodshed for being caught on tape saying very disturbing comments about black people, that it is now time for the Washington football team to abandon its racial slur moniker. It’s almost as though the team name has just gotten noticed. Must be all that Oneida money. They could have at least been a little more honest and said that in light of the L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s crime and punishment that they can no longer continue to ignore the team name for the nation’s capital.
The letter states, “This is a matter of tribal sovereignty.” No, it’s not! This name and all use of Native mascots and images are racist. It is not a violation of sovereignty. The state and federal governments do that – not sports teams. It is insulting and perhaps even a crime. If someone carries a likeness of RGIII’s head in a noose into a football stadium, I could see someone catching a hate crime charge but the Philadelphia fan that takes an impaled “Indian head” to Washington football games and Chicago hockey games actually gets praised and put on TV. But even if it is a crime or a civil rights violation it is not a “matter of tribal sovereignty.” That just tells me, again, how clueless these 50 senators are.
This letter also attempts to cast the Congress in stark contrast to the NFL which supports this racist slur by listing the great protections that the Congress has legislated for us. They seem to forget that every law they cited was to counter racist governmental policy and actually continues it by creating federal regulations for this “protection” rather than ever really recognizing our sovereignty. That is, by the way, “a matter of tribal sovereignty.”
I agree with these senators that this team name should be changed and, in fact, all use of Native mascots should end. This all comes from the specific racism held against Native people and it is certainly emblematic of the racist policies of state and federal governments. But perhaps the Washington football team should keep the name, if only to demonstrate the blatant evidence of the racism that Washington D.C. – the nation’s capital – still holds toward Native people.
A lot more than just a football team name needs to change in Washington. Respect Native sovereignty and stop the policies of assimilation. Oh, yeah. And change the name.