Opinion: Commentary: Finally, Respect for Native Americans

Opinion: Commentary: Finally, Respect for Native Americans

This week, the Washington NFL team made an historic announcement that the franchise will finally retire its racist name and logo. There are several professional sports teams across the United States that reference Native Americans which also should be changed, but the Washington team name was the most egregious. Native Americans are people, not mascots, and I know we all understand that. Imagine attending a game with a friend who is a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation from South Dakota, as I did, and to see their horrified reaction to the team band wearing ceremonial-like headdresses, and to see fans with similar faux Native American garb “playing Indian.” Why was that okay? It was many years ago, and I am still uncomfortable recalling that afternoon.

American Indians are not caricatures, and their heritage and traditions should not be appropriated for entertainment. The franchise’s derogatory and degrading team name was never acceptable to begin with when it was chosen 87 years ago, and so the next best time to get rid of it is right now. I applaud this move as an important step forward to reconciling the past. In fact, I sent an email to the owner back in 2011 that I would not renew my season tickets until the franchise changed its name.

In the last two months, we have seen a much-needed spotlight upon the evils of systemic racism and especially the horrific treatment of Blacks by some in our nation’s law enforcement. The impetus, or frankly the last straw, was the gruesome murder of George Floyd. In the aftermath, we have witnessed the removal of Confederate monuments, the rebranding of companies using racist iconography, and the renaming of places featuring the names of controversial historical figures, to name a few long-overdue changes. None of this happened overnight, though it may feel that way. It is important to remember that this particular team name change is the culmination of over nearly a half-century of Native-led advocacy across legal, political, scholarly, and corporate settings. At last, now, at a Washington football game, they are no longer objectified and diminished as a people. As the famous humanitarian and Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills (Oglala) said recently, “...they [Washington] are on the verge of righting an historic wrong.” And, that it is “never too late to do the right thing.”

As Americans and Virginians, we have a long way to go to support and lift up our Virginia tribes, celebrate their rich cultures and traditions, and acknowledge their important contributions to the Commonwealth, and our country. But, there are things we can and are doing legislatively in the General Assembly in Richmond.

Five years ago, I introduced joint resolution HJ 347, passed unanimously by the General Assembly, to designate the day before Thanksgiving as Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the Commonwealth to raise awareness of Native Americans in Virginia and educate the general public on their history and life today, and the diverse, strong cultures of these tribes. Across the country you can find Indigenous Peoples’ Day, or Native American Heritage Day, on the second Monday in October, replacing “Columbus Day.” However, in my conversations then with local Virginia tribal leaders, the consensus was that celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day the day before Thanksgiving was a good way to recognize Virginia tribes and their historic and current contributions to our Commonwealth. That day is a historic one as it is the day when the Pamunkey and Mattaponi tribes present a deer and turkey to the Virginia governor as part of a 343-year tradition as their tax tribute. The Mattaponi and Pamunkey have reservations dating back to colonial-era treaties beginning in 1658.

I also may reintroduce my plan for the Tribal Land Repatriation Program and Fund, which would allow Virginia tribes to apply for grants to purchase and recover their historic lands. When Europeans arrived, tribes were met with violence and many were forcibly moved, including the Nansemond and Rappahannock. Only two tribes, the Pamunkey and the Mattaponi, currently own small pieces of their original land. In too many instances, the government took land or was sold tribal land cheaply and did not fully compensate the tribes. We will never be able to right the wrongs done in the past, but we can ensure that these tribes receive future support for repatriation of their land.

Finally, as Chair of the Subcommittee on ABC and Gaming, I supported an amendment to the landmark casino bill that passed this session, which will divert one percent of the casino tax revenue to the Virginia Indigenous People's Trust Fund if the casino is operated by a Virginia Indian tribe. These funds will be distributed to all of Virginia’s federal and state-recognized tribes and can be used for their priorities in education, housing, and economic development.