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Robert Wood Johnson Foundation says they will no longer honor teams with Native mascots

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation CEO Richard Besser: “In honoring Washington and Kansas City’s football teams, we became part of the problem. Our organization won't honor racism anymore.”

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation -- a non-profit organization that gives an annual RWJF Sports Award to Sports organizations that contribute to health by strengthening and serving communities through sport -- says they will no longer honor teams with Native mascots. The Native Truth Project has issued a public statement in appreciation of the stance taken by the Foundation.

In addition to the announcement made by the foundation, Chief Executive Officer Richard Besser took to USA Today in the first week of May with an op-ed titled: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: We honored sports teams with racist mascots. Not anymore.

Besser noted there was a good chance people had not heard of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, nor the award that had been given in past years. But Besser acknowledged the harm Native mascots caused in terms of generating negative stereotypes and stresses placed on Native health and well-being.

“...You’re no doubt familiar with the controversies and divisions surrounding sports teams that use Native American symbols — whether as mascots, in chants or in memorabilia — for their own purposes. The pro football teams in Washington and Kansas City instantly come to mind,” wrote Besser.

“Our foundation, tucked away in the outskirts of Princeton, N.J., has over the past year unwittingly become part of the problem by using the RWJF Sports Award to honor teams that denigrate American Indian people. We didn’t consider 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.”

Crystal Echo Hawk of Echo Hawk Consulting, Pawnee, has been recognized as one of 12 Indian Progress in Business or INPRO award winners in 2018 as named by the National Center. Echo Hawk was named Native woman business owner of the year.

Crystal Echo Hawk of Echo Hawk Consulting, Pawnee, has applauded the actions of Besser and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Since Besser’s article has ran, The Native Truth Project, headed-up by Crystal Echo Hawk, President & CEO of Echo Hawk Consulting, Michael E. Roberts President & CEO of the First Nations Development Institute and Cheryl Crazy Bull, President & CEO of the American Indian College Fund & RNT National Advisory Committee Member have openly applauded the statements by Besser and the RWJF.

“The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation led with courage in making this decision. As organizations that work with Native youth and in Native communities, we honor that leadership and courage.

The Native Truth Project outlined several studies that supported the harm to Native communities and youth, they wrote that Native communities are cognizant of this harm and asserted “Our research with Native American groups and individual Native Americans throughout the country shows this community is highly offended by Native American mascots.”

“We urge the American public to learn more about the impact of racist mascots and team names on Native children. And we encourage the American public to learn more about Native people and the values we bring to society. We love our children and our families just as others in United States do – we want what is best for them – healthy, supportive environments where they can thrive.”

In supplementation of Besser’s article in USA Today, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Vice President of Communications Fred Mann released an official statement detailing how they would no longer honor teams with appropriating mascots. The foundation admitted that they had fallen short in previous years and had since listened to the responses to the public.“We want to share an important update from RWJF. In the months since we met with you at the NCAI conference in Milwaukee, the Foundation has taken a hard look in the mirror at the consequences of our decision to include the Washington and Kansas City football teams as finalists for the RWJF Sports Award last year. We heard directly from many of you at that time—expressing your disappointment and outrage. Since then, we’ve listened more and learned much from you and from so many honest and courageous young people at the NCAI gathering who told us of the pain and trauma they experience amidst the onslaught of stereotypes of American Indian and Alaskan Native people, including the misappropriation of sacred and revered traditions,” wrote Mann.

The RWJF Sports Award application page on the Foundation's website expresses 'a humbling moment.'

The RWJF Sports Award application page on the Foundation's website expresses 'a humbling moment.'

“As a Foundation, we realized we had failed you and all Native Americans, and we needed to do better if we were to abide by our guiding principles which emphasize that everyone in America should have a fair and just opportunity for health and well-being.On Monday, May 7th, we will announce our Call for Applications for the 2018 RWJF Sports Award with new eligibility criteria; it reads (in part): ‘RWJF will not consider an application if it is submitted by an entity whose name, brand, or practices -- in the Foundation’s judgment -- denigrates, harms, or discriminates against any racial or ethnic group. For example, a team with a name or mascot that, in RWJF’s view, denigrates Native Americans will not be eligible for the award.’”Mann ended the statement with the following:“The Foundation views this action as one step among many that we plan to take in the months ahead as we walk the walk on our health equity journey. We look forward to continuing that journey with you. Thank you for the gift of your time, wisdom, and fortitude in helping us do better.” For more information about the RWJF Sports Award, visit Indian Country Today’s associate editor and senior correspondent, Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) on TwitterFollow @VinceSchilling