Native Americans in the United States are suffering. They are victims of domestic violence at higher levels than any other race. They experience higher rates of alcohol abuse, mental health illnesses and suicide than the general population. More than a quarter of them live in poverty, a rate two and a half times higher than white Americans. And one in three Native American women will be raped in her lifetime, more than any other racial group.
Native Americans lag behind the rest of the country in almost every leading indicator of health and well-being. And yet, we rarely, if ever, hear these problems discussed in the news, on social media or around our own kitchen tables. There is, however, one Native American issue that has captured the national spotlight: the Washington Redskins’ name.
On this topic, everybody has an opinion: Mike Ditka, Phil Simms and Tony Dungy, California lawmakers and even Pocahontas (sort of). And now federal politicians are taking action. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) announced this week that, because of the controversial name, she plans to introduce legislation that would revoke the NFL’s tax-exempt status.
The debate surrounding the Redskins name is an important one. As our country becomes more diverse, it’s critical that we don’t condone the use of racial epithets regardless of how long they’ve represented a team. But when you look at the state of native nations in the U.S., it’s clear that the national dialogue about the Redskins name is too narrowly focused on a symbolic victory over real progress. Against the backdrop of crippling challenges facing Native Americans, why are we spending countless hours debating the name of a football team?
The answer is simple, but disheartening. Unlike the easy outrage sparked by the Redskins name, the complex web of social ills weighing on the Native American community are difficult to boil down into a cohesive narrative that grabs the attention of the national psyche.
For one, you can’t address Native Americans as a single bloc. There are more than 560 federally recognized tribes and dozens of unrecognized ones. So, the challenges in dealing with sexual assault or substance abuse in the Yupik Eskimo village — an Alaskan community accessible only by boat or plane — are very different from those of the Pascua Yaqui tribe of Arizona. With no singular Native American experience, their plight can’t be easily addressed as a collective.
Further, there are huge structural complexities in Native American regions that keep them isolated from the rest of U.S. society. Native Americans live on vast tracts of primarily rural land often with labyrinthine divisions of legal jurisdiction between tribal, federal and state authorities. In many instances, non-Natives who commit crimes or acts of violence on reservations cannot be prosecuted in tribal courts because of a 1978 Supreme Court decision. Less than a third of all reported rapes in these regions are prosecuted due in part to these legal limitations and jurisdictional complexities.
The truth is, it’s always been this way. Our nation habitually ignores problems affecting Native Americans because of their complexity and isolation. Native American communities are, for the most part, in the same condition they were a century ago. In 1907, Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte, the first Native American woman to receive a medical degree, wrote a letter to the Office of Indian Affairs, noting that she had broken down from overwork in an Omaha Indian community. She appealed for assistance: “If you knew the conditions and circumstances to be remedied you would do all you could to remedy them.” More than 100 years later, those dire needs still exist.
And so, after decades of being overlooked by the media, Native Americans have been cast into the national spotlight for the wrong reason. The truth is, if the Redskins’ name changed today, the lives of Native Americans would be just as desperate as they were yesterday. But I hope this controversy will become an opportunity not only to correct an injustice that has been tolerated for more than 80 years, but also to raise awareness regarding underserved Native American communities and to begin addressing their long-standing problems. The biggest mistake we could make would be to return to our natural state of moral superiority and simply wait for the next hashtag-friendly inequality.