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The NATIVE Bill: Changing images and attitudes in schools

Many people in our society have become desensitized to the way American Indians are mistreated in America. There also exists in mainstream culture a lack of awareness about the social, economic, cultural and political relationships between Native people and the United States. Some of those who are desensitized and unaware actually oversee, support, teach or attend educational institutions, which use names and symbols of Native people that are inappropriate as school signifiers.

Approximately 1,200 schools across the country use names and symbols of Native people. Often these names and symbols are harmful and offensive to Native people, especially Native students. Many Native people consider the use of the words Redskins, Red Raiders, Chiefs, Indians and Braves by mainstream schools to negatively impact their lives. Native organizations, such as the National Indian Education Association and the National Congress of American Indians, have issued resolutions against the use of such names by schools and other institutions. Numerous articles have been written detailing the negative impact such names have on Native people by mainstream institutions.

In addition to schools, a number of athletic programs and professional sports teams have adopted Native signifiers as their own without the approval of Native people or tribal governments. A number of these athletic teams, upon being made aware of the problem with using such signifiers, have refused to change their names and symbols.

In response, Native leaders, such as Suzan Harjo, brought a lawsuit to force the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to cancel federal trademarks used by teams that use the word "Redskin." Under the Trademark Trial and Appeals Board (TTAB) rules, no trademark registration shall be denied unless it "consists of or comprises immoral, deceptive or scandalous matter which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs or national symbols, or bring them into contempt or disrepute."

During the TTAB hearing, Dr. Geoffrey Nunberg stated that the word "Redskin" has been in use for at least 300 years. Upon review of dictionary entries, citations in the press, use in movies and encyclopedias from the 1800s to present, he and others convinced the TTAB that the word is "a connotative term that evokes negative associations," often used in the "context of savagery, violence and racial inferiority." The TTAB found that the trademarks were disparaging to Native people at the time of their registration and had a tendency to bring Native people into contempt or disrepute. As a result, the TTAB decided to cancel the registration of the marks at issue. This victory has been appealed to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

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Though many athletic programs have changed their images, a great deal of work still remains to be done, especially in relation to schools. H.R. 5487, the Native Act to Transform Images in Various Environments (NATIVE) Bill, which I introduced in September 2002, seeks to remedy this situation by providing a vehicle by which Native people can assist educational institutions in changing their images and attitudes. The use of names and symbols that are detrimental to Native people by schools and colleges furthers the mistreatment of and discriminative action against Native people.

The NATIVE Bill establishes a grant program for qualifying schools to enable them to afford the cost of changing their offensive names and symbols. Renovation or construction funds may also be available to schools participating in the program. Because of the federal government's legal responsibility to provide educational services to Native people (in exchange for historical land transfers from tribal governments to the federal government), tribally-controlled schools and colleges shall automatically qualify for renovation or construction funds without having to change their names or symbols.

Under this bill the authority to determine the parameters of school participation, to review proposals submitted by schools seeking inclusion into the program and to allocate funding for program activities would reside within a newly constructed committee working with the Secretary of Education.

The committee would be known as the Committee of American Indian Relations (CAIR) and would assist the Secretary with carrying out the duties and responsibilities of the bill. The CAIR would be comprised of members from tribal governments or their tribal schools and be headed by a director selected by the Secretary in consultation with such entities. The CAIR would also provide cultural proficiency education training at the school sites selected for participation in the program to assist in making such institutional changes successful.

The NATIVE Bill was developed in conjunction with Native American organizations such as the National Indian Education Association, Indian Teacher Educational and Personnel Program, California Rural Indian Health Board, the Capital Area Indian Resource Center and tribal governments.

Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr., D-N.J., currently serves as an active member of the Native American Caucus of the U.S. House of Representatives. As a member of the House Resources Committee - the committee with jurisdiction over all matters regarding the relations of the United States with Native Americans and American Indian tribes - he has been a defender of the sovereign status of Indian tribal governments.