Toya: Free speech: Another side of the ‘redskin’ debate

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The latest legal move against the Washington Redskins is just an ultra, ultra-liberal initiative full of political correctness and out of step with what is going on in Indian country. In the battle over eliminating American Indian-based team nicknames, we are giving resources and attention to a cause that few support while taking away resources and energy from the real issues on our reservations.

What we have are lawyers and individuals trying to justify fighting against free speech and for censorship. While some may find certain aspects of Indian nicknames and/or mascots offensive, perceived bad taste and having your feelings hurt is not protected in the Constitution, whereas free speech and freedoms are. Any efforts to limit free speech should meet a very, very high standard. Even burning the American flag doesn’t meet that level.

Certainly, somewhere, some people are offended by the use of American Indian nicknames or mascots as people are offended about a whole array of other things. But being offended is not sufficient to limit free speech in America.

It is also grossly ironic that those pushing this issue are holding that it is permissible for schools that are primarily American Indian to use Native nicknames and mascots while it is also permissible to censure free speech if you are non-Indian. By doing so, they are going to support discrimination based on race (only American Indian people can then use Indian nicknames). How can lawyers, especially American Civil Liberties Union-pedigree lawyers, support such a position?

In addition, those pushing this issue are claiming to represent the majority of American Indian people when first, no one elected them our spokesmen and second, facts and polls say the vast majority of American Indian people (and non-Indian people) oppose their viewpoint.

Even if the majority of people in the United States – Indian and non-Indian – agreed with them, you still cannot ban the use of nicknames. This is the United States of America, where free speech means something. We don’t, and shouldn’t, take limiting free speech lightly.

Every time I hear Boston Red Sox fans chant “Yankees suck!” I consider this vulgar, offensive, and even a hate crime where “hate” is admitted to proudly by these true evildoers. Why can’t we stifle this free speech?

Limiting offensive language does not lead to a more accepting and more tolerant community. Columnist John Leo said it well: “An obvious thing to say about laws that limit speech is that we have no evidence that they work to meet their stated goal – reducing bigotry and increasing tolerance … In real life, the creation of protected classes sharpens tensions and leads to competition for victim status.”

As American Indians, do we need this protection from free speech? Many tribal leaders don’t think so.

Chief Charles E. Dawes of the Ottawa Tribe once described those complaining about nicknames and mascots as “fringe militants who make their living by making this fuss, not legitimate Indian leaders,” in “The Chronicle of Higher Education.”

The New Mexico State House of Representatives once voted 49 – 7 on a memorial to support the use of Indian nicknames for sports teams. The memorial was sponsored by two Navajo representatives, both Democrat. The memorial stated that “some critics have emerged arguing that [the] use of Native American images is derogatory and offensive while the vast majority of Americans, including Native Americans, find these sporting images both acceptable and applaudable … [and] … that colleges, universities, high schools, and professional sports teams be encouraged to continue to use Native American names and images as part of their team image and that other teams be encouraged to adopt other Native American images.”

The Albuquerque Journal in 2004 published an item in its sports page that stated: “A poll of American Indians found that an overwhelming majority of them are not bothered by the team name [Redskins]. Only 9% of those polled said the name was ‘offensive.’”

An often-cited Sports Illustrated poll several years ago found only 25 percent of American Indian people found the use of team names offensive.

I am an enrolled member of a federally recognized American Indian tribe. I have proudly played on Indian and non-Indian sports teams with the name Redskins, Chiefs, Warriors, Indians, Renegades and other names. I played on a team called the Albuquerque Breeds where everyone, it turned out, was half American Indian and half another race (some black, some white, some Hispanic). My friends, both Indian and non-Indian, wear Redskins, Braves, Chiefs and other images, whether these represent professional teams, college teams, high school teams or other recreational teams. And they do so proudly.

Mascots themselves are generally representations of nicknames and not always well done. Often they look awkward, whether they are depicting a scorpion, a lobo, a lion, a cowboy, a coal miner, a mountaineer, an isotope, a Viking, a pirate, an Irishman or an Indian. At least there is an equal opportunity shortfall when it comes to mascots.

But whether you are the “Fighting Irish,” “Fighting Illini,” “Fighting Sioux” or “Fighting Albuquerque Breeds,” there is a right to free speech and free expression. So if you want to sell T-shirts that say “Fighting Honkies” or “Fighting Whites,” thank God we live in the United States of America where you have the freedom to do so.

We have an issue that doesn’t legally exist and isn’t supported by the majority of people they claim to represent. I challenge all of us to put the same amount of energy (time and emotion), resources (money for lawsuits, etc.) and effort (drumming up support and blasting those not in agreement) to finding new and innovative solutions to the real reservation issues of drugs, gangs, unemployment, alcoholism, suicides, etc. And I will be there side by side with you.

<i>Ronald Toya is a member of Jemez Pueblo.