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The generosity of a stranger: Stay in your place, accept gifts of civilization

A television producer alerted me to a newspaper piece attacking folks who want to eliminate Native references in sports. Did I want to debate the writer on a Fox News "shouting heads" program? Not really, but OK.

The premise of the opinion piece - "Justice intrudes in mascot fray" (USA Today, 6/27/01) - was that federal involvement in mascot or repatriation issues was somehow unconstitutional. It skewed facts and dates, asserting wrongly that U.S. interference made American Indians too powerful and arose in the Clinton era.

The lead example was the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs. In May, it asked the Justice Department - and Maryland's Board of Education, a fact omitted in the opinion piece - to help convince the state's schools to retire their American Indian-related team names and symbols.

The piece did not mention that American schools with Native sports references started dropping them in 1970 - more than one-half, or more than 1,500, to date - and not one was sued or forced to do so.

The piece also failed to acknowledge that the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in April called "for an end to the use of Native American images and team names by non-Native schools." The commission cautioned that the practice could violate anti-discrimination laws and contribute to a racially hostile environment for American Indian students.

Also misrepresented in the piece was Harjo et al vs. Pro Football, Inc., the case regarding the name of the Washington football team which I and six other Native Americans filed in 1992 before the U.S. Patent & Trademark Board. In a unanimous decision in 1999, a three-judge panel agreed with us that the team's name is disparaging and holds Native Americans up to contempt and ridicule, and canceled trademark licenses first granted in 1967. Our victory is on appeal in federal district court.

The piece did not admit that federal law from the 1940s to the present has disallowed disparaging, contemptuous or ridiculing trademarks, which is the test applicants must meet when they want the federal government to grant them the exclusive privilege of making money. It also gave no nod to the fact that the federal government in the early 1960s had to force the Washington owners to allow Black football players on the team.

The piece went on to knock the tribal and federal side of the Kennewick Man case, which centers on the 9,300-year-old human remains unearthed in 1996 on Umatilla land along the Columbia River. He is called "Ancient One" and claimed by Colville, Nez Perce, Umatilla, Wanapum and Yakama peoples.

Some scientists said he looked Caucasoid or Asian or Polynesian, and his bones were drilled and scraped. The Army Corps of Engineers and the Interior Department sided with tribal experts and decided to return him to the Native Peoples.

Eight anthropologists sued the corps in federal district court to stop his burial. Most of these scientists enjoy federal largess and one of them is a full-time federal employee of the Smithsonian Institution, but the article did not note or object to that kind of federal involvement in the case.

The Kennewick Man case turns on the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which was signed into law in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush, who signed the first repatriation law in 1989. These are Native American human rights laws intended to return some of the myriad human remains and cultural property stolen and looted from Native Peoples' homes and sacred places.

"Interestingly, there has been no mention of the separation of church and state in (Kennewick)," Ann Coulter opined in the newspaper piece. She did not even acknowledge the United States' violations of Native Peoples' religious liberties. For more than a century, the United States appropriated federal money to Christian religions to proselytize to specific American Indian nations. Over six decades, the United States banned American Indian religions and imprisoned and starved their practitioners, driving Native traditional religions underground, one way or the other.

"Any group whose claims trump the Constitution ought to be required to forfeit its victim status," wrote Coulter, a writer-spokesmodel for wing-nut positions. Billed as a constitutional lawyer, she exhibited no expertise in her field or in federal Indian law. The Supreme Court has consistently held that American Indian rights do not interfere with the constitutional rights of non-Indians, but she must not have gotten around to that body of case law in her studies.

I went on the June 28 "Battle Zone" segment expecting some semblance of a debate and some chance of completing more than one sentence. I was wrong.

Right off the bat, the conservative host, Sean Hannity, interrupted me: "Well, you don't speak for all Native Americans because we've had them on this program and they don't mind it at all." I wanted to say (but didn't), "You've had a majority, over a million Native people, on your program? Outstanding. My guess is that the number is more like one or two."

Instead, I said, "The overwhelming majority of Native Americans do mind and specifically want an end to these Native American references in sports." Coulter piled on: "That's not true." I said, "It is exactly true" (not to be bested at the game of "are-not-am-too.").

Coulter dismissed the Native American parties in our lawsuit as "seven disgruntled Indians" and insisted that most American Indians agreed with her.

The fact is that the leading organizations representing the vast majority of Native nations and individual Native Americans are on record demanding that the Washington team change its name, supporting our side of the lawsuit and calling on all teams to drop their Native references. These include the tribal and individual members of the oldest and largest group, the National Congress of American Indians, regional, intertribal organizations, and associations of Native attorneys, artists, activists, educators, journalists and youth.

The host on the left, Alan Colmes, valiantly tried to let me say something, but Coulter kept butting in. She went off about 20 years of name-changing resulting only in a transposition from "colored people" to "people of color." "I think you need a certain limit on how many words can be going through this revolving door," she sputtered. "You can't be constantly throwing out, changing ... you create chaos and confusion...."

I did manage to say that it didn't really matter what she thought, because it's up to the offended, not the offender, to say what offends. "I think it's silly to say it doesn't matter what other people think," she said. "At some point you lose the generosity of the American people. You cannot be constantly changing this and that ... what you want to be called, what's OK, what's all right ... ."

I tried to muscle in with something on point: "Over one half of all the educational athletic programs have dropped their Native references and you are on the wrong side of this societal trend ... ."

But, she got in the last word: "Right, because you called in the federal government."

There you have it. Stay in your place, stop changing things and don't call for help. So, no more gifts of civilization for me from one white lady and maybe others. Oh, I can only hope.