Native American Heritage Month and the Need to Make the Invisible Appropriately Visible

"Proud to Be" - National Congress of American Indians


About Native American Heritage Month

Information courtesy of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Department of the Interior

What started at the turn of the century as an effort to gain a day of recognition for the significant contributions the first Americans made to the establishment and growth of the U.S., has resulted in a whole month being designated for that purpose.

One of the very proponents of an American Indian Day was Dr. Arthur C. Parker, a Seneca Indian, who was the director of the Museum of Arts and Science in Rochester, N.Y. He persuaded the Boy Scouts of America to set aside a day for the “First Americans” and for three years they adopted such a day. In 1915, the annual Congress of the American Indian Association meeting in Lawrence, Kans., formally approved a plan concerning American Indian Day. It directed its president, Rev. Sherman Coolidge, an Arapahoe, to call upon the country to observe such a day. Coolidge issued a proclamation on Sept. 28, 1915, which declared the second Saturday of each May as an American Indian Day and contained the first formal appeal for recognition of Indians as citizens.

The year before this proclamation was issued, Red Fox James, a Blackfoot Indian, rode horseback from state to state seeking approval for a day to honor Indians. On December 14, 1915, he presented the endorsements of 24 state governments at the White House. There is no record, however, of such a national day being proclaimed.

The first American Indian Day in a state was declared on the second Saturday in May 1916 by the governor of New York. Several states celebrate the fourth Friday in September. In Illinois, for example, legislators enacted such a day in 1919. Presently, several states have designated Columbus Day as Native American Day, but it continues to be a day we observe without any recognition as a national legal holiday.

In 1990 President George H. W. Bush approved a joint resolution designating November 1990 “National American Indian Heritage Month.” Similar proclamations, under variants on the name (including “Native American Heritage Month” and “National American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month”) have been issued each year since 1994.


NCAI’s Long Standing Opposition to Harmful “Indian” Sports Mascots

As the nation’s oldest, largest, and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native advocacy organization, NCAI has long held a clear position against derogatory and harmful stereotypes of Native people—including sports mascots—in media and popular culture. In 1968 NCAI launched a campaign to address stereotypes of Native people in popular culture and media, as well as in sports. Since this effort began, there has been a great deal of progress made and support to end the era of harmful “Indian” mascots in sports.

NCAI’s position is clear, longstanding, and deeply rooted in our seventy years as a leading voice for Indian Country – we advocate for and protect the civil rights, social justice, and racial equity of all Native people in all parts of American society.

About “Indian” Sports Mascots & Harm
Born in an era when racism and bigotry were accepted by the dominant culture, “Indian” sports brands have grown to become multi-million dollar franchises.

The intolerance and harm promoted by these “Indian” sports mascots, logos, or symbols, have very real consequences for Native people.

Specifically, rather than honoring Native peoples, these caricatures and stereotypes are harmful, perpetuate negative stereotypes of America’s first peoples, and contribute to a disregard for the personhood of Native peoples.

As documented in a comprehensive review of decades of social science research, derogatory “Indian” sports mascots have serious psychological, social and cultural consequences for Native Americans, especially Native youth. Of today’s American Indian and Alaska Native population, those under the age of 18 make up 32 percent, and Native youth under the age of 24 represent nearly half, or 42 percent, of the entire Native population.

Most concerning in considering negative stereotypes of Native people, are the alarmingly high rates of hate crimes against Native people.  According to Department of Justice analysis, “American Indians are more likely than people of other races to experience violence at the hands of someone of a different race.”

These factors together indicate a very real need to take immediate action in a number of areas, including the removal of harmful images as well as the education of the general public, to diffuse additional hateful activity against Native peoples.

Widespread Support in Indian Country & Beyond

Over the last fifty years, a ground swell of support has mounted to end the era of racist and harmful “Indian” mascots in sports and popular culture. Today, that support is stronger than ever.

Hundreds of tribal nations, national and regional tribal organizations, civil rights organizations, school boards, sports teams, sports and media personalities, and individuals have called for the end to harmful “Indian” mascots.

Rooted in the civil rights movement, the quest for racial equality among American Indian and Alaska Native people began well before NCAI established a campaign in 1968 to bring an end to negative and harmful stereotypes in the media and popular culture, including in sports.

As a result there has been significant progress at the professional, collegiate, and highschool levels to change once accepted race based marketing practices.

Since 1963, no professional teams have established new mascots that use racial stereotypes in their names and imagery.  In 2005, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) established an extensive policy to remove harmful “Indian” mascots.

As a result of ongoing education and advocacy, in total, two-thirds or over 2,000 “Indian” references in sports have been eliminated during the past 35 years. Nearly 1,000 still remain today

The Origins of the NFL’s Washington Football Team Name
& Culture – A Legacy of Racism

The NFL’s Washington football team name “Redsk*ns” is a dictionary defined racial slur. The slur’s origin is rooted in government bounty announcements calling for the bloody scalps of Native Americans in the 1800’s. From the early 1900’s up until today, the term has been carried on as a racial slur in popular culture. For much of the 20th century the term was used interchangeably in movies and books with the word “savage” to portray a misleading and denigrating image of the Native American.

This derogatory term was selected by team owner George Preston Marshall for use by the team in 1932 at a time when Native people were continuing to experience government and social policies to terminate tribes, assimilate Native people, and erase Native human and civil rights.  In 1932, the federal “Civilization Regulations” were still in place, confining Native people to reservations, banning all Native dances and ceremonies, confiscating Native cultural property and outlawing much of what was traditional in Native life.

Marshall’s reputation as a segregationist and racist was only just beginning to make a mark on society and sports. In 1933, Marshall was the self appointed leader amongst NFL owners to institute what would become a 13-year league-wide ban on African-American players from the NFL. The Washington football team did not integrate until 30 years later, when Marshall was forced to do so. While the team has moved on from Marshall’s segregationist policies, it has refused to close the chapter on Marshall’s ugly use of race-based marketing at the expense of Native people and communities.

At the local community level, 28 high schools in 18 states that have dropped the “R” word as their mascot’s name in the last 25 years.

Contrary to calls for name changes by tribal nations, Native peoples, former players, civil rights organizations, media outlets, and a sea change at the youth, amateur, collegiate, and professional sports levels, the Washington football team has opted to retain its harmful “Indian” brand. Rather than truly honoring Native peoples, the organization has carried on its legacy of racism and stubbornly holds on to its ugly past.

Read more about the team’s history – download NCAI’s comprehensive report for more background information.

Nearly 50 Years of Calling for a Change to the NFL’s Washington Football Team Name

NCAI and Native rights advocates have been working for nearly fifty years to change the name of the NFL’s Washington team.

In 1972, following the launch of the organization’s campaign againts “Indian” stereotypes, representatives of NCAI, the American Indian Press Association, the American Indian Movement, and others reached out directly to the team owner to request that the franchise change its name. Since that moment in time there have been substantial efforts to call for the name change.

MYTH: NCAI or an NCAI President gave the football team their current mascot/logo.

Historian Michael Richman reports in his book The Redsk*ns Encyclopedia, based on a 2002 Washington Post interview, that, “In the early-1970s, Walter “Blackie” Wetzel, president of the National Congress of American Indians and chairman of the Blackfoot tribe, urged the Redsk*ns to replace the “R” logo on their helmets with the head of an Indian chief.”

FACT: Mr. Wetzel was not President of NCAI at the time he took these reported actions and these actions were not taken on behalf of NCAI’s members.

Mr. Wetzel served honorably as President of NCAI from 1960 to 1964 – however he was not President of NCAI when he reportedly contacted the football team. In 1965 the team changed the logo from an “Indian” mascot to a spear and in 1970 to an “R”. In 1972 the team’s logo was reverted to a newer version of the original “Indian” mascot logo dating back to the original Boston Braves logo.

In 1993, NCAI membership passed a resolution against the team name: “Resolution in Support of the Petition for Cancellation of the Registered Service Marks of the Washington Redsk*ns AKA Pro-Football, Inc.”

In 1999 and 2014 the U.S. Patent Office ruled that the R-word is “disparaging to Native Americans” and therefore not entitled to taxpayer-financed copyright protections.  In 2009, NCAI filed an amicus brief along with four tribal governments (Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Comanche Nation of Oklahoma, Oneida Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, and Seminole Nation of Oklahoma – all federally recognized Indian tribes that have adopted resolutions condemning the use of Indian names and mascots by sports teams), as well as over 20 national Indian organizations, requesting that the US Supreme Court hear an appeal to the lower court rulings and uphold the PTO’s decision.

In recent years, NCAI has continued to educate the public about the issue as a new and successful legal challenge to the team name by Native youth – Blackhorse et al v. Pro-Football Inc. – has brought hightened attention to the issue.

While Native opposition to the name has not waivered, public concern about the Washington football team’s name has grown. Indian Country and NCAI has continued to educate the public and advocate for a name change along with Native and non-Native allies through the campaign Change The Mascot.