NIGA's Stevens on Navajo President, ‘Slams,’ Respect and Redskins

In an interview with ICTMN, NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens talked about the press, his relationship with Navajo and the ongoing opposition to Redskins.

In mid-April the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) withdrew its name – but not its donation – from a golf tournament to raise scholarship funds for Navajo college students after learning that the primary sponsor of the Navajo Nation-hosted event was the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation (OAF) – Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s new Indian country charity.

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In the media blitz that followed, the Navajo Post had a story headlinedNavajo President slams the National Indian Gaming Association” The story quoted Navajo President Ben Shelly’s response to NIGA’s withdrawal. “We’d like to say thank you to the sponsors. I believe we lost one sponsor, which is National Indian Gaming Association. I’m very disappointed in them,” Shelly said at a public speech he gave at the tournament. In an exclusive interview with ICTMN, NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. talked about the press, his relationship with Navajo and the ongoing opposition to the racist slur.

What is your response to the headline of a story about the National Indian Gaming Association withdrawing its sponsorship of a golf tournament to raise scholarship funds for Navajo college students?

I don’t believe that President Ben Shelly slammed me. I think the press is trying to start a fight between us and I won’t go for it. Since I was a young boy my father told me about the Navajo Nation. I have a sister who was born there at Window Rock. So my family has a long standing relationship from then right up to now with my respect for President Ben Shelly and former President Joe Shirley Jr., who’s a close friend of mine.

How did that relationship come about?

It goes two generations back to my father in the late ’60s. My father worked for and with the Navajo Nation all the way into the early ’80s. One of the things my father taught me was that the Navajo president is someone with a special status and somebody who has a lot of responsibility and is to be respected to the utmost and so I’ve always maintained that approach and I continue that despite this press statement that indicates that he may have slammed me. I don’t see that being the case and I will continue my high road approach not just to the Navajo president but to the Navajo Nation as a whole because that’s the way I was taught. Starting with President Joe Shirley Jr. when he came into office, I began a strong bond with the Navajo Nation in the work that I do with NIGA. I’ve visited the reservation a couple of times and most importantly I’ve continued to fund youth and children’s organizations throughout my entire tenure [as NIGA chairman]. Over the last 13 years, again starting with my bond with President Shirley, we’ve made significant contributions to youth and children’s’ organizations in the Navajo community. And we continue to do so.

When you withdrew from the sponsorship of the tournament did you also withdraw your donation to the scholarship fund?

We pulled our name from that event because of our long-standing position [against the football team’s racist name] consistent with that of the National Congress of American Indians and with Indian country’s wishes. We continue to take that position, we’re strong in that position and that won’t change. However, we didn’t pull the money we contributed; we left it intact in the education fund.

Is opposing the Redskins name a moral issue?

Absolutely! It’s based on the moral principal that mandates opposition to any names or actions that encourage or support discrimination against anybody. When we worked with Congress and the U.S. president to establish Native American Heritage Day our high road approach was to try to educate America about the true history of Native American people. In spite of the tremendous genocide that our people have suffered over the years, we want America to know who we are as a proud people and as sovereign governments and why our unique status as sovereign governments is not something that was given to us because of the struggle; it’s something that we have always had and something we retained as America’s First People in the United States Constitution particularly we as Haudenosaunee or Iroquois people who helped to draft. So our approach is in trying to educate people why these things are inappropriate. In no way, shape or form could there be any justification for ridiculing or looking down on any people, race or ethnic group.

On such a heated topic as the Redskins name, do you think it’s possible to have a difference of opinion and still maintain the respectful relationship with the office of the Navajo president that both you and your father have had?

Absolutely, absolutely. I’m not shaken by the present attempt [in the media] to have myself and President Shelly at odds. President Shelly said what he wanted to say, he has a right to say it, and I respect that and I respectfully disagree with him. And, clearly, his council supports our position because they voted [on a resolution opposing the use of the Redskins name] in the same week [as the golf tournament]. When the press put that statement out that President Shelly ‘slammed’ me – he may not even agree with that, certainly I don’t agree with it. I don’t see any quotes where he slammed me.

He said he was ‘disappointed.’

Yeah, clearly a clarification would have been useful. I’m sure that if he knew we didn’t pull out our donation to the scholarship fund he wouldn’t be disappointed. And certainly if he’s disappointed with my position then he’s disappointed not just with myself but with NCAI and his own council.

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Are you disappointed by President Shelly’s support of the Redskins name?

Anybody who supports the name Redskins in any way, shape or form is a strong disappointment not just to myself but to the majority of Native American people. Redskins is derogatory. It’s very disheartening and painful in my heart that anybody is using the term Redskins at this day and time. I’m more hurt than I am angry – but then once I get over the hurt, I get angry. [laughs] That’s why I always go back to education and understanding. America has grown up – the majority of people understand that Redskins is as derogatory as the other terms used against other peoples.

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