May 16, 2018; Indian Country Today
Earlier this month, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), which gives an annual RWJF Sports Award to sports organizations that contribute to health through sport said it “will no longer honor teams with Native mascots,” reports Vincent Schilling in Indian Country Today.
This move comes in response to the reaction RWJF received after the Kansas City and Washington football team foundations were among its 2017 professional sports team finalists, despite having American Indian mascots. Eric Mann, Vice President of Communications, said to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI),
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.
Earlier this month, Richard Besser, CEO of the foundation, penned an op-ed in USA Today to explain the foundation’s decision:
Though one might not think of racism and discrimination as factors in health, the clear science tells us otherwise. They impact the physical, emotional and psychological health of people, especially children.
Sign up for our free newsletters
Subscribe to NPQ's newsletters to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.
More specifically, research shows deep psychological consequences caused by the perpetuation of American Indian stereotypes—whether they are deemed offensive or not. As University of Arizona researcher Stephanie Fryberg and colleagues found, “American Indian mascots are harmful because they remind American Indians of the limited ways others see them and, in this way, constrain how they can see themselves.”
So one would expect a major health foundation to be speaking out against derogatory language and images. Instead, the 2017 RWJF Sports Award recognized the Washington Redskins and the Kansas City Chiefs as finalists, and the foundation became party to injustice and the mistreatment of an entire group of people—a failure that echoes our nation’s struggles to heal centuries-old trauma and right historic wrongs. In short, we got an important health issue wrong. Besser added,
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.
Schilling notes that the foundation’s action has received widespread support from the American Indian community: “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…have openly applauded the statements by Besser and the RWJF.” The National Congress of American Indians also released a supportive statement.
The RWJF Sports Award application page on the RWJF website expresses the sentiment that this is “a humbling moment” and includes a link to the USA Today op-ed. The application form this year explains, “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.”—Steve Dubb