A humbling (foundation) admission about Indian mascots … and a glimmer of hope for the future

Written by: Raymond Foxworth

Date: May 17, 2018

In a May 7 op-ed in USA Today, Dr. Richard Besser, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), publicly acknowledged changes to the foundation’s annual Sports Award. This annual competitive award is intended to recognize “sports teams, athletes and community-based organizations that use sports to catalyze and sustain changes to make communities healthier places to live, learn, work and play.”

Besser said the foundation would no longer consider award applications from sports teams that denigrate American Indian people. He humbly noted that the foundation – whose mission targets health equity – never considered “the fact that the team names, mascots and misappropriation and mocking of sacred symbols like headdresses do real damage to the health of people across the country.”

Among numerous efforts, First Nations Development Institute and various partners are involved in a “Supporting Community Intellectuals in Native Communities” project. Included in the photo are Shelly Fryant, Rene Dubay and Michael Munson of Salish Kootenai College, Carnell Chosa and Regis Pecos of the Leadership Institute at Santa Fe Indian School, and Darren Kipp of The Piegan Institute. From First Nations are Michael Roberts, Raymond Foxworth, Catherine Bryan and Marsha Whiting. Photo by First Nations Development Institute.

Among numerous efforts, First Nations Development Institute and various partners are involved in a “Supporting Community Intellectuals in Native Communities” project. Included in the photo are Shelly Fryant, Rene Dubay and Michael Munson of Salish Kootenai College, Carnell Chosa and Regis Pecos of the Leadership Institute at Santa Fe Indian School, and Darren Kipp of The Piegan Institute. From First Nations are Michael Roberts, Raymond Foxworth, Catherine Bryan and Marsha Whiting. Photo by First Nations Development Institute.

This remarkable admission and the change in policy serve as a clear example of how Native American communities and their allies can influence philanthropy to change practices that may (unknowingly) harm Native people and communities. Besser and RWJF should be applauded for their willingness to listen to Native communities and act on their feedback and concerns to make change. Notwithstanding, we need to understand that this recent admission, while laudable, illustrates a symptom of a larger illness in philanthropy: patchy bids and willful reluctance to learn more about Native communities, their issues and community-led solutions.

What’s in a Name?

Besser’s op-ed came after months of organizing by Native American organizations and tribes, including the National Congress of American Indians, Center for Native American Youth, First Nations Development Institute, the Oneida Nation of New York, and with the support of other partners like Dr. Howard Stevenson, director of RWJF’s Forward Promise National Program Office at the University of Pennsylvania, Kathy Ko Chin, president and chief executive officer of the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum, and many others.

These groups authored letters and attended learning sessions that helped compel RWJF to stop allowing sports teams that use racist stereotypes to apply for RWJF’s prestigious award.

Research has documented that mascots depicting Native Americans are harmful to Native people, especially children. Imagine being largely invisible in all forms of media and popular culture except for those instances in which you are depicted in stereotypical, comical or historical imagery. This is the reality for Native American children.

Research has found that this leads to all sorts of negative outcomes, including damaged self-esteem and identity, and overall diminished well-being. This growing body of research has also documented that these limited and racist representations of Native people curtail self-understanding and how Native youth see themselves fitting into contemporary society.

Similarly, scholars have found that the use of Native American mascots exacerbates cross-community conflict, creates limited understanding of Native people by the larger society and also creates hostile spaces of learning for Native children. Even professional associations like the American Psychological Association have publicly objected to the use of Native mascots for the reasons cited above (and they did this in 2005). 

Proponents of Native American mascots have cited public opinion polls showing support for their continued use, including purported surveys of Native Americans themselves. But these surveys were created in a feeble attempt to justify the continued use of these racist images, and to lamely try to refute the scientific research that demonstrates the detrimental effects these mascots have on Native children.

Ultimately, however, these efforts in no way contradict or negate the scholarly research noted above.

Understanding a Larger Illness

A recent nationally-representative survey launched under the Reclaiming Native Truth project, which is co-led by First Nations Development Institute and Echo Hawk Consulting, found that most Americans rank themselves high on their own individual familiarity of Native American history and culture, yet a majority of Americans cannot correctly answer basic true-or-false questions about Native American people.

Similarly, while most Americans professed generalized support that more should be done to help Native Americans, when it came to talking about specific kinds of support, including banning the use of Native American mascots, support significantly declined. In fact, only 39 percent of Americans said they would support such a ban.

Moreover, our survey data revealed that a majority of Americans still see Native people in stereotypical ways, including seeing them as more spiritual and closer to nature, while also holding other negative stereotypes. This includes a majority thinking that Native people get access to government benefits such as free education, or other “Indian Money” that is not available to other U.S. citizens. Alarmingly, more than half of Americans hold these opinions. These are, of course, just not true.

But it is not just the broader public that has limited (or completely wrong) knowledge about Native people and communities. In an ongoing research project funded by the Fund for Shared Insight, First Nations is working to understand how philanthropy perceives Native people and communities.

Data collected thus far (which will be detailed in a forthcoming report) highlight that philanthropy does not have much knowledge of or connections to Native people or communities. Moreover, the data highlight that many of the stereotypes the general public hold about Native people are also held by individuals who work in philanthropy.

This should not be terribly surprising given that the inputs of knowledge about Native Americans at all levels (including media, school systems, etc.) fail Native American people and communities.

Though the lack of knowledge and connection to Native people is not surprising, what has surprised us in both of these projects is that individuals are fairly open in discussing their racist, discriminatory and/or uninformed opinions of Native people (things that would not generally be tolerated when it comes to other marginalized groups).

This suggests that people are so far removed from understanding Native people, and Native people are so invisible (or irrelevant) in the lives of most Americans, we have generally become desensitized to understanding Native people and communities in contemporary society.

Moving Forward

In Besser’s op-ed, he pondered how a philanthropic institution that is focused on health equity could get something so wrong. “It’s worth asking ourselves what else we as a society are missing,” he noted.

This, indeed, is a fundamental question we must ask ourselves. And a corollary to this is the following: How is it that in 2018, we are still complacent in subjecting Native people to deliberate mistruths and falsehoods and rendering them invisible in American society, including in philanthropy? How is it that now, when information is more readily available than at any other time in history, we continue to be content in our ignorance of Native people and communities?

While we are only beginning to unpack the mistruths and falsehoods that individuals have about Native people, invisibility of Native Americans in philanthropy is rampant. Not only is it reflected in the declining levels of annual investment going to Native communities, but it shows in the lack of representation of Native people in the philanthropic sector and the dismissal of Native people and communities in philanthropic reports often relegating them to an asterisk that often notes “not enough data” (to matter).

How do we begin to change? Naturally, this is the quintessential question and a much larger topic than this article can address. Widely-discussed practices by diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) authors and scholars – including increasing diversity among staff and boards, being willing and open to listen and learn from the communities served by foundations, and being deliberate about including DEI frameworks in organizational mission and giving policies – all serve as a starting point for change. But these practices alone will not move us beyond willful ignorance or ambivalence when it comes to Native people.

Nevertheless, this RWJF incident does provide a bright spot highlighting the power of how communities can organize across communities of color to push for change. As NCRP and others have documented, developing tools and methods to hold philanthropy accountable has been difficult.

But this single instance demonstrates that organizing and mobilizing multiple communities can be a mechanism to leverage relationships to push for change. Would RWJF have changed its practice if only Indian Country mobilized around this issue? We do not know, but we do know that leveraging other communities to support Native children did provide a broader base to effect change.  

It is my hope that Besser’s op-ed serves as a call to action to philanthropy and other sectors of society to learn more about Native people and communities. First Nations has released recommended reading lists, other Native organizations have released fact sheets, and these are all at the tip of our Googling fingertips.

Moreover, there are more Native American nonprofits than at any other point in history, and these organizations can serve as resources of knowledge if people are willing to ask, listen and learn. 

Raymond Foxworth serves as vice president of grantmaking, development and communications at First Nations Development Institute, a Native American-controlled national intermediary that supports Native American communities in reclaiming direct control of their assets. He is a citizen of the Navajo Nation and his family is from Tuba City, Arizona.

Image by Fibonacci Blue. Used under Creative Commons license.