Patrick B. Pexton
Patrick B. Pexton
Ombudsman

Patrick Pexton: Listening to Native Americans

The Post recently published a spate of columns, by different writers, calling for the local National Football League team’s nickname to be changed to avoid its racist overtones. You know, the red and gold team led by Robert Griffin III.

Meanwhile, on Jan. 28 The Post pulled from publication a short high school sports story about the girls swim team at Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, the Panthers. It was held because the photo that went with the story showed the girls, who dress in a different theme each meet to encourage team spirit, wearing face paint and feathers — seemingly Native American warrior garb.

Patrick B. Pexton

Pexton served as Post ombudsman from March 2011-March 2013.

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As Matthew Rennie, sports day editor, explained, “We didn’t want to offend anyone, if anyone would be offended, and we didn’t want to put the girls on the receiving end of something they didn’t deserve.”

So what’s behind this? A sudden attack of political correctness? No, actually.

High school sports stories are closely edited because they are, after all, about minors who should not be subject to the same level of examination that highly paid professional athletes are.

The columns on the team name appeared because of recent news pegs, as Metro columnists Courtland Milloy and Robert McCart­ney explained. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian held its first symposiumon the topic of sports nicknames this week, with Post sports columnist Mike Wise on the panel. A second lawsuit against the name of Dan Snyder’s team has its initial hearing coming in March. And D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said recently that, if the football team were once again to play its games in the District, a discussion would have to be held on its name.

The other reason is that the columnists have been talking with Native Americans about these issues for a couple of decades.

I talked to Native American groups and individuals this week, too, about the football team’s name, and about the swimmers in their garb. I’m not sure words can properly convey the depth of feeling I heard from them.

Wearing face paint and feathers, many Native Americans feel, is a taking of their cultural and religious traditions. The paint and feathers have distinct meanings for each tribe and nation, and they often are worn only because an individual has earned them through tests, deeds and ceremonies of which white culture has little knowledge or appreciation.

The best analogy I could come up with is the way we treat U.S. military uniforms and insignia. It is against federal law for a civilian to wear the uniform of a U.S. soldier, sailor, airman or Marine for personal gain. Similarly, within the military, if you wear a medal or insignia that you didn’t earn, it is a crime under military law.

Suzan Shown Harjo, a Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is a longtime activist who was part of the 1990s lawsuit against the Washington football team name; that suit prevailed in the first round but was reversed on appeal. She is also a former competitive swimmer herself.

“I would counsel the girls that they are powerful, strong beings — no one is more fit or confident or superhuman than an expert swimmer flying through water, almost outdistancing the need for oxygen,” she said. “Why on earth would they want to diminish their own strength and magnificence by attempting to use symbols they don’t understand or respect?”

As for RGIII and his teammates, Harjo and every other Native American I spoke to see the team name as racist. It hearkens to the early European settling of this country, when French and British authorities put bounties on the heads, or skins, of Native American men, women and children.

“Every major national Native American organization has declared that the name of the pro football team in our nation’s capital is the most offensive thing native peoples can be called in the English language and has called for it to be changed,” she said.

“It’s okay if others aren’t offended by it,” she added. “They should respect that we are offended and that this is something they can do something about — in our world where we can do little about most things, this is something we can actually do something to fix. They should care about it even a tiny bit because we care about it so much.”

Native Americans are not mascots or historical bygones to be imitated; they’re flesh-and-blood Americans, as much a part of the warp and weft of the living fabric of this country as George Washington or Thomas Jefferson.

I don’t think this city’s football fans or the Holton-Arms swimmers are racist. I’m sure they feel they’re honoring the warrior spirit. But most Native Americans don’t feel that way. We honor them most by listening.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.

 
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