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Ray Halbritter Discusses Native Imagery in Sports at Carlisle Journeys

Ray Halbritter was one of many speakers at Carlisle Journeys, a forum to discuss Native American athletes and current issues in athletics.
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Operated from 1879 to 1918 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School was the first U.S. government-run off-reservation school for American Indian children. As noted by the Carlisle Journeys website, the school’s “legendary athletic teams and rigorous training programs influenced the complex legacies that used sports as a kind of propaganda tool and at the same time modeled the success of the track and football teams for other off-reservation boarding schools.”

The 2016 Carlisle Journeys: Celebrating the American Indian Sports Legacy conference provided a forum to explore those tensions and achievements of Native American athletes. It was held from October 7 to 9 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Ray Halbritter, Oneida Nation, representative and CEO of Nation Enterprises, parent company of ICTMN, was one of the many speakers at the event. Below are his remarks:

Shekóli. Greetings.

Thank you for that welcome and for having me here to speak to such an esteemed gathering.

The Cumberland County Historical Society does such a remarkable job of collecting, engaging and sharing stories. That is what we have all come together to do as we celebrate the American Indian sports legacy.

The list of speakers at this year’s event is a remarkable group, and it is such a pleasure to be included among them and to have the opportunity to speak with you today.

I am particularly delighted to be appearing this morning alongside Amanda Blackhorse. I consider it not only a pleasure, but also a distinct honor.

Amanda represents the absolute best that our people have to offer. For years she has been courageous, and absolutely relentless, in her efforts opposing harmful Native American imagery in sports.

Courtesy Jacqueline Fear-Segal

Ray Halbritter, Oneida Nation, representative and CEO of Nation Enterprises, parent company of ICTMN, is seen here with Amanda Blackhorse at the Carlisle Journeys Conference.

Alongside the legendary Suzan Shown Harjo, Amanda and her fellow petitioners have been unafraid to speak truth to power, challenging the federal registrations of the Washington NFL team. And despite the years of work, the lawsuits and the sheer magnitude of the challenge, she remains undaunted and continues to press forward.

Amanda—I commend you for all that you have done, and for all that you will continue to do in the years ahead. Thank you.

The topic that I have been asked to address today—Native American Imagery in Sports—is for me as important as it is personal.

Photo by Theresa Fox

Billy Mills right) is seen at the Carlisle Journeys event in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Growing up, I saw firsthand my people mired in years of poverty and despair. I saw men and women fighting with every breath to retain our dignity and self-respect while relying on the assistance of others to get through everyday life.

A tragedy on our Territory—a devastating fire that killed my aunt and uncle—taught me a painful lesson. It was not acceptable to rely on others for our existence. If we were to survive, both as individuals and as a people, we were going to have to do it ourselves through self-sufficiency and exercising our sovereign rights.

I learned the importance of education, of self-reliance, determination and responsibility. If you want to do what is right and protect your way of life and your identity then you need to do it yourself.

Despite the celebrated history and many accomplishments of Native American athletes, some of whom are speaking at this gathering, we continue to face challenges. The world of athletics has often turned Native Americans into cartoons, using our heritage and culture as mascots.

This in turn, shapes public opinion and how Native peoples are perceived in America and around the world. In fact, it even impacts how Native Americans view themselves. The result of this long-term impact on future generations is one of the primary drivers behind the Change the Mascot campaign.

In recent years, our people have gained national attention for our contribution to the campaign asking the National Football League to force the Washington professional football team to stop promoting a dictionary-defined racial slur. We are proud to have founded this Change the Mascot campaign, and we are proud to be one of the groups that have made this campaign such a success.

The road is long, the work is hard and much remains to be done, but our campaign has revealed some truly astonishing signs of progress. In a country that for so long has marginalized and denigrated Native Americans, we have seen sports icons, religious groups, civil rights organizations, governors, state legislators, a majority of the United States Senate and the President of the United States all support the campaign against the R-word.

Changes at the local level exemplify the shift. From Cooperstown to Buffalo, and Hartford, Connecticut to Colorado, communities that have for decades been using derogatory Native American mascots have moved to end that tradition in the name of equality, civility and respect.

In that local upsurge, we are hearing echoes of the early civil rights movement. That movement was a grassroots upsurge that started at local school boards and state legislatures before it built enough momentum for national change. Through it all, the forces of intolerance and the status quo sat in Washington, D.C. and resisted the march of progress until the very end.

It is the same thing today—the movement to treat people of color as equals and stop relegating us to mascots is growing every day, and those resisting that inevitable march of history are sitting in Washington insisting that they are justified in promoting the ugliest kind of prejudice. Back then, these forces of the status quo were sitting in the halls of Congress, while today they are sitting in an NFL team’s front office—but the dynamics are eerily similar.

As our campaign has built momentum, I have often been asked why this campaign is so important. Typically, these questions are framed as a negative—why are we focused on a sports team’s name when there are so many other pressing challenges for Native Americans?

The first answer to this question is to note that it is a false construct. The idea that opposing the NFL’s use of a racial slur means we are not fighting every day for better education, health care, infrastructure and social services for Native Americans is as absurd as it is insulting. It suggests Native Americans are somehow unable to fight for our civil rights and also at the same time fight for our own economic well-being. Newsflash: we are fully functioning human beings and, yes, we can multitask.

The second answer to the question about why we have fought so hard for the Change the Mascot campaign is about the connection between the portrayal of Native Americans and our ability to achieve the equality we deserve. Why is the campaign against the NFL’s use of the R-word so important? Because how we are portrayed and perceived—both by others and by ourselves—is integral to our larger aspirations for true equality.

Football may just be a game, but the NFL is a $9-billion-a-year business and arguably the single most powerful cultural force in America, which makes it one of the most powerful cultural forces on the globe. You may love that, you may hate that, but it is a fact.

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In light of that, it is fair to say that for many Americans, their most explicit and direct contact with the very idea of Native American culture is the Washington team’s bigoted name.

On billboards, on T-shirts, on hats, and on millions of TV screens every week, millions of people are told that we are not Americans. Instead, we are portrayed as subhuman mascots identifiable only by the supposed color of our skin.

The Change the Mascot campaign has repeatedly exposed how that name harms Native Americans’ self-image—and also how it teaches millions of Americans to see our people as cartoonish relics from the past rather than a vibrant community here in the present.

And it is not just an issue for Native Americans, either. Researchers at the University of Buffalo concluded the following: “American Indian nicknames and mascots are not neutral symbols, and that their continued use by schools, professional sports teams and other organizations has negative consequences for everyone, not just Native Americans.” The researchers have specifically noted that “studies with mostly white samples have found that people exposed to American Indian mascots are more likely to negatively stereotype other ethnic groups.”

Pretending that’s somehow not important is dishonest, especially when social science research has definitively proven that such mass persecution has destructive public health consequences for our families, our children and our people as a whole.

The Change the Mascot campaign is, at its core, about self-determination. Just like defenders of the Confederate flag, those who defend the use of the word “Redskins” present themselves as the sole arbiters of what is—and what is not—acceptable in 21st century America. They present themselves that way because those engineering the racial assaults—rather than the targets of such assaults—have always claimed supremacy.

People such as Washington team owner Dan Snyder insist that their supposed right to target, intimidate and persecute people on the basis of their alleged skin color inherently negates the right of others to be free of such persecution.

In some cases, those who have tried to dehumanize us actually have the audacity to claim that they are working to help us. The Washington team is again illustrative of the larger trend: its billionaire owner has insisted that marketing, promoting and profiting off the team’s racial slur actually honors our people. When forced to defend his continued use of the slur, he has asserted that he is genuinely concerned about the challenges Native Americans face today.

In many ways, the fight to change Washington’s team name is part of a larger struggle to finally say that in a 21st century America that values mutual respect and civility over subjugation and hostility, the cynical assumption that one party alone determines what is acceptable is in itself no longer acceptable.

The words of the Washington team’s own hall of fame wide receiver Art Monk underscore this point. He said: “If Native Americans feel like Redskins is offensive to them, then who are we to say to them ‘No, it’s not’?” That is a profound point. A nation that preferences the pathologies of bigots is one that says bigots and bigots alone get to decide that their slurs are acceptable and not offensive. By contrast, a nation that champions mutual respect is one that says the targets of a slur get to make that determination for themselves.

Therefore, the questions that the Change the Mascot campaign raise are far bigger than only questions about a team name.

One question is: what is the threshold for change? Over time, we have seen a cross-cultural upsurge in support for the campaign to stop dehumanizing Native peoples through sports mascots. Not only have political, religious, civic and cultural leaders taken up this cause, but now thousands of people from all different walks of life have turned out for rallies and are becoming far more educated about the topic and its sensitivities.

It is likely that if any other ethnic group had built such a powerful movement, there would be no more debate—change would have already happened. So the question is: why is the threshold for change so high for Native Americans?

The answer, I believe, is because that when a people is so dehumanized for so long, then they are perceived to be insignificant, if not invisible.

In a popular culture that dehumanizes Native Americans, our community is too often treated as an afterthought—or not thought of at all.

For instance, a recent academic study found that Native Americans are all but invisible in mass media, and “in the rare cases they appear, they are typically depicted in a stereotypical and historical fashion.”

When they do speak up in that context, their political beliefs are portrayed as insignificant. They face, in other words, an even more difficult threshold for change than normal.

Another question the Change the Mascot question raises is even more fundamental: which kind of nation will America be and who gets a say in that destiny?

Three decades after my family burned to death because a local fire department saw us as subhuman, and generations after our collective peoples were forcibly thrown off our lands, those questions are now being answered in a different and encouraging way, as a broad coalition is growing against the Washington team name.

That broad coalition represents not just a campaign against a football team’s name, but recognition that people of color have a right to shape the norms and standards of this country. In claiming that right, we are claiming agency for our people—and with that agency, we will be in a stronger position to achieve equality on every other issue.

When we are seen as equals, we will be in a stronger position to claim the economic equality we have for too long been denied, but that we so clearly deserve. When we are seen as equals and not just mascots, we will be in a stronger position to claim an equal share of public resources for health care and education and infrastructure.

This doesn’t mean that we wait to fight for that kind of equality until the NFL finally does the right thing. But it does mean that those who say the Change the Mascot campaign isn’t important somehow believe that Native Americans can be seen as mascots yet simultaneously achieve equality. That’s a false presumption—we can only achieve true equality when we create a society that says we do not deserve to be the targets of slurs.

To know how important this issue is, take a step back, change the perspective and consider the opponents of our campaign. If the issue is so unimportant—if, as they say, it’s just a football team’s name—then why won’t the NFL just change the name?

The answer to that question, I fear, is that those who are so committed to using this name do, in fact, see it as important. I fear they see it as important because they believe they are entitled to continue slandering an entire group of people, regardless of the serious cultural, political and public health consequences of such a slander. And in believing in that, perhaps they fear that any challenge to such entitlement is a challenge to their overall authority.

If that is our opponents’ perception, then it is an accurate one. As Native Americans now rise from decades of oppression and marginalization, we are challenging the status quo, and that will be seen as threatening to those who benefit from the status quo. The blowback we have gotten for simply asking for a change of a football team name shows how seriously the status quo takes that threat.

In that response, we should feel encouraged and emboldened. This is an exciting moment for our people. In New York, we negotiated an agreement that ends age old disputes on our sacred homelands and puts us in a true position of equality as a sovereign nation. Throughout the country, other tribes are making similar strides.

Some have asked me how I feel optimistic about our Change the Mascot campaign, when there still aren’t signs that the Washington team is going to change. That brings to mind a famous Winston Churchill quote. He said: “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing—after they’ve tried everything else.”

I disagree somewhat with Churchill—I believe history shows that Americans often do the right thing on the very first try. But beneath Churchill’s glib comment is a truism: history shows that the march of progress in America may sometimes be slow, but it is consistent, and we ultimately get to the moral high ground.

These names will change and, more broadly, Native Americans will achieve true equality—not because of the benevolence of a team owner, but because a critical mass of Americans will no longer tolerate, patronize and cheer on commodified bigotry. That critical mass is building right now—and it will arrive here sooner rather than later.

Thank you.

N? ki’ wa