The American Indian Mascot Issue: A Threat to Tribal Gaming

Article Author Valerie Red-Horse

Publish Date September 2, 2014

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On June 18, the United States Patent and Trademark Office canceled six federal trademark registrations for the name of the Washington Redskins, ruling that the name is “disparaging to Native Americans.” This decision and the broader American Indian mascot controversy have Americans divided, angry and outraged on both sides of the issue. Choosing to cover this topic in my column typically focused on tribal gaming was a cognitive and purposeful decision as I believe our image in the media directly affects our overall identity and can ultimately influence economic development and, yes, impact tribal gaming. Before I weigh in with my personal opinion, I would encourage and direct my readership to Dr. Gavin Clarkson, an associate professor in the Finance Department of the College of Business at New Mexico State University and interim director of the Indian Resource Development Program. He also teaches intellectual property strategy in the MBA program at Rice University, Clarkson is an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and in my opinion one of, if not the, leading authority on the American Indian mascot issue. The NCAA used a chapter of his doctoral thesis at Harvard Business School titled, “Racial Imagery and Native Americans: A First Look at the Empirical Evidence Behind the Indian Mascot Controversy” in crafting its current policy. When the June 18 decision was announced, Clarkson wrote a commentary titled, “Cowboys Fans Rejoice—Washington’s Trademarks Just Got Sacked.”  “Indian Country is fully capable of participating in 21st century society, but as my own research shows, racist Indian imagery and mascots are significant impediments because they affect the way dominant society thinks of Indians,” Clarkson noted in his piece. “Indian Country has enough challenges, like grinding poverty, without the NFL piling on. The time has come to change the name.” For myself, my strong and vehement reaction is based on life experiences. As someone of American Indian heritage (Cherokee) who is married to a former professional football player, I bring a unique set of personal perspectives to the issue. I met my husband, Curt Mohl, when we were both attending UCLA—I was a cheerleader and he was on a full athletic scholarship as the starting left tackle of the offensive line for the Bruins. In 1981 he was drafted by the Oakland Raiders and over the next several years played in the NFL, USFL and CFL. Additionally as an investment banker and filmmaker, I tend to approach everything both analytically and emotionally. Therefore whenever I am asked about my reaction to the topic (which is frequent and often in large public venues), I try to provide well-thought-out answers that can help those wrestling with the matter reach their own conclusions. The following are the most common questions frequently posed to me related to this issue and my humble responses:

What is wrong with using American Indian mascots if they are depicted respectfully?
I spent approximately 11 years of my life as a cheerleader and as Curt’s life partner and greatest fan for eight of those years. Later, our eldest daughter played 10 years of basketball, our son 14 years of football and our youngest daughter is currently playing elite level volleyball (see my August 2013 CEM article about her gold medal win at Junior Olympics in 2013); all this to say I have experienced sports events in hundreds, if not thousands, of football stadiums, training complexes, gymnasiums and sports arenas. I am that crazy cheerleader, girlfriend, wife or mom painted in the team colors and screaming at the refs about any bad calls! However, through firsthand experience I can vouch for the fact that one cannot demand or ensure respect within the ranks of sports rivals and the treatment of mascots. Even if a team depicts their own mascot respectfully, it is open season as to what the other teams or their fans will do. As an embarrassing example, I am mortified to admit that while attending UCLA, prior to the big game against arch rival USC, I wore a T-shirt depicting a superb specimen of a ferocious UCLA Bear committing an unspeakable act upon a USC Trojan. As someone now in Christian ministry, I am horrified to think I wore that shirt; however, I do not believe any bears or prophylactics were offended. On a more serious note, a recent Twitter post revealed a despicable photo showing a team playing against their rivals the “Indians” holding a sign saying, “You will experience another Trail of Tears tonight.” This is akin to referencing the Jewish Holocaust or the massacres in Kosovo during a football game. No one can control how disrespectful, lewd, insensitive and immature other teams will handle rival mascot images.

So even if there are a few caricatures, stereotypes or disparaging images bantered about with American Indian mascots, what’s the big deal? You don’t hear the Vikings or Fighting Irish communities complaining…
As a professional in the entertainment industry, I watch with great interest the various annual diversity studies offered by union guilds such as the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guilds (I am a member of both). Year after year, we are happy to typically see some minor improvements in the number of depictions of African Americans, Latinos and Asians, but sadly American Indian roles rarely increase, usually decline or stay the same and are so low in aggregate numbers that they even fall below the “other” category. What this translates to relative to the mascot question is the simple fact that while caricatures of Irishmen and Norwegian mascots may be disrespectful, they go largely unnoticed since the media is filled with proper and numerous accurate images of Caucasians (the Screen Actors Guild Study showed 72.5 percent of all roles were Caucasian, yet only 0.3 percent Native American); audiences have a broad scope of accurate and abundant depictions of Norwegians and Irish characters to balance any negative images. However, for Native Americans the nasty caricature of a redskin or buck-toothed Indian on a football field may be the only image many people see of us. We are absent in the media in any significant way, and those of us that choose the challenging professions in film and television try desperately to make a difference with accurate American Indian portrayals and content. But we still have a long way to go, and while our depictions remain sparse and limited we cannot afford to have any of them disrespectful and disparaging. The reason it is a “big deal” translates to how we view our identity, our youth, our self-esteem and pride in cultural heritage. I will not embark on a lengthy history lesson of federal Indian policies, but tribes and tribal members experienced a period of extreme hardship and termination from European contact until the mid-1900s. Love him or hate him, most Indian people credit President Nixon and his administration for ending that dark period by launching several policy changes for tribal governments that  helped them on the road to self-sufficiency and strengthening of sovereignty. The battles are not over; the road is challenging. Tribes continue to struggle and face obstacles but are working hard to recapture language, identity and pride in heritage. The younger generations are being recaptured culturally due to increased economic development and social programs funded primarily by gaming dollars. But when our youth witness how the world at large views us and the popular depictions are caricatures and disparaging images, our entire community takes a hit. A good example of our cultural message was seen in the 60-second spot “Proud To Be,” produced by the National Congress of American Indians and  aired during the NBA playoffs. The short answer to this question… It is a very big deal.

Sports franchises are private sector commercial business ventures—the Redskins and other teams will lose a lot of money if they have to change their names. Native Americans don’t have any actual money at stake.
The premise that tribal entities don’t have money at stake couldn’t be more wrong. American Indian tribal governments depend heavily on both federal and state legislation (i.e. gaming compact approvals) for certain rights that allow or disallow their ability to move forward with gaming, housing, land rights, water rights, infrastructure, educational, healthcare and economic development. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (“IGRA”) is federal legislation that recognizes tribes’ sovereign rights to operate gaming. However, in order to launch the most profitable form of gaming (Class III) each tribe has to enter into a state approved compact. In many states this requires not only approval by the governor but also by the legislative body as well. In some states such as California, when there is an expansion of tribal gaming the issue may even become a popular vote ballot measure. Typically, voters and legislators do not have complete and accurate information about tribal governments and contemporary business plans. They don’t realize how the gaming proceeds predominantly provide for essential services. Many Americans still think we don’t pay taxes and are all getting individually rich from gaming proceeds. So if our images that are already tainted with inaccuracies and stereotypes are then augmented with cartoon images and disparaging mascot names this only continues to hurt us at the ballot box and in the legislative chambers. This also hits us hard in the pocketbooks—we stand more to lose than any one franchise. There are many examples of how American Indian tribes can be affected financially, but I offer two glaring ones: The Navajo Housing Authority has identified more than $9 billion of housing needs on its 17 million-plus acre reservation (the largest in the country)—the tribe depends heavily on the continuation of federal dollars to meet its housing needs; it is experiencing a severe housing crises. One or two negative decisions from legislators results in homeless tribal elders, veterans, families and children. Another example is tribal gaming directly generated $28.1 billion in 2012. In aggregate, Indian gaming facilities, including non-gaming operations, directly and indirectly generated approximately $91 billion in output, 679,000 jobs, $30 billion in wages and $9 billion in taxes and revenue sharing payments to federal, state, and local governments (Source: Meister, Casino City Report 2012). Tribal gaming depends heavily on legislation and votes to continue and thrive. The Redskin franchise reportedly earned $381 million in 2012; which industry has more at stake financially?

Is there any example of a compromise to the Indian mascot issue that has worked?
Yes! I applaud the relationship between The Seminole Indian Tribe and the Florida State Seminoles. When mascots based on Native Americans became very controversial, Florida State consulted directly with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Although terms are not publicly available, reportedly the university and the tribe have an intellectual property agreement whereby the tribe allows the use of its name and image but retains editorial content approval of its use. It is absolutely a tribe’s individual sovereign right to negotiate and determine the usage of its name and image. This obviously doesn’t work with generic names such as Indians or Warriors (and or course disparaging names such as Redskins are completely off the table in my opinion), but is a good and rare example of a possible solution. In the Seminoles’ example, the NCAA gave FSU an exemption from sanctions, citing the university’s relationship with the Seminole Tribe of Florida as a major factor. As the video from NCAI strongly concludes, we are diverse in Indian country, and we have many names that we call ourselves… Redskins is not one of them. I would ask that opponents to the June 18 decision and the Redskins name change, further educate themselves about who we are in Indian country and why our image is so very important to our culture, heritage, economic development and future generations.