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This Thanksgiving, Native Americans will be insulted in the most offensive way possible

On Thanksgiving Day, the National Football League has scheduled a high-profile game between the New York Giants and Washington DC’s professional football team, which uses a disgusting racial slur against Native Americans who have been oppressed for generations

Jacqueline Pata,Ray Halbritter
Wednesday 22 November 2017 11:28 GMT
Research has shown that caricatures of Native Americans can have serious impacts on the self-esteem of Native people
Research has shown that caricatures of Native Americans can have serious impacts on the self-esteem of Native people (Getty)

On Thursday, families across the United States and a growing number in Britain will celebrate Thanksgiving. The holiday is a time of remembrance when we celebrate our varied cultures and traditions, and reflect on the history and future of Native Americans.

Thanksgiving is one of the few times a year that most people give any thought to the first Americans and their enormous contributions to the modern-day United States. However, the holiday is often difficult and hurtful for the Native people it is meant, in part, to celebrate.

The Thanksgiving narrative promoted in popular culture tends to omit the ugly parts of the story – the oppression, violence and bloodshed that many Native Americans faced when settlers migrated to the continent.

This year, however, the pain will be even greater. An additional and unnecessary reminder of Native American marginalisation will actually be broadcast to millions of people via their television screens.

On Thanksgiving Day, the National Football League has scheduled a high-profile game between the New York Giants and Washington DC’s professional football team, which proudly boasts a moniker that is a dictionary-defined racial slur against Native Americans – officially, the team is called the Washington Redskins.

The irony here is deep: using the beloved holiday meant to recognise Native Americans to instead tell people everywhere that it is perfectly acceptable to disregard us as cartoonish mascots and to promote the heinous R-word racial slur against our people.

Unfortunately, this behaviour is not new. To say that Native Americans are often overlooked or belittled is a gross understatement. For hundreds of years, our people have been mistreated, oppressed and mocked. But it is 2017 and we are long overdue for a change.

Reasoned pleas from our Change the Mascot campaign asking the NFL and the Washington team to finally shed the epithet continue to fall on deaf ears. Thus, to help minimise the damage caused by the R-word’s use this Thanksgiving, we have joined with a coalition of prominent advocacy and civil rights organizations in an appeal to the better nature of another powerful constituency – the media.

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Along with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, National Urban League, Advancement Project, Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Forum, Demos, PICO National Network, Race Forward, UnidosUS, National Congress of American Indians and Oneida Indian Nation, Change the Mascot is asking all journalists covering the Washington-New York game on Thursday to honour the spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday by pledging to refrain from using the Washington team’s offensive R-word name in their coverage.

While the Washington franchise claims that the team name somehow honours Native Americans, nothing could be further from the truth. The name is a racist slur that was screamed at Native Americans as they were dragged at gunpoint off their lands. The owner who gave the team this dishonourable label was George Preston Marshall, an infamous segregationist who played a leading role in trying to stop the NFL from integrating African-American players into the league.

Further, the use of this racial slur is not a victimless crime. Social science research has proven that the promotion of the R-word significantly harms Native Americans.

In a 2013 report, psychologist Michael Friedman noted that the presence of Native American mascots results directly in decreased self-esteem and lower mood among Native American adolescents and young adults. Additionally, their use increases negative attitudes towards Native Americans among other races.

The Washington team’s R-word name was called out as particularly damaging: “The Washington mascot is uniquely destructive because it not only perpetuates the stereotypical and outdated caricature portrayed by many Native American mascots, but also promotes and justifies the use of a dictionary-defined racial slur, thus increasing risk for discriminatory experiences against Native Americans.”

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In recent years, every major Native American organisation in the United States has spoken out against the team’s name, in addition to civil rights organisations, religious leaders, civic groups, and elected officials from both parties.

To date, the team has ignored the obvious and overwhelming need for a change. But that insensitive intransigence does not mean that media covering the team must also continue to promote this racial slur and perpetuate the serious problems caused by its use.

To be clear, we are not asking media to stop covering the Washington team or the football game on Thanksgiving. We are simply asking that the press respect Native Americans in the process. Indeed, media organisations can do their jobs by reporting on the team, but also refrain from using the slur and further denigrating our people.

At a time when political debates are so polarised and filled with invective, perhaps our media can find common ground by agreeing not to explicitly promote racial epithets.

In light of all the evidence of destruction caused by the R-word’s use and the recent plea from some of the world’s most respected civil rights organisations, we are hopeful that media across the globe will pledge to honour this minimal request as we celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday.

Jacqueline Pata is the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, and Ray Halbritter is an Oneida Indian Nation representative. Together, they lead the grassroots Change the Mascot movement

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