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People of color urged to join fight against offensive mascots


NOTE: For related coverage of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race, see UMNS story #430. A photograph is available.

By M. Garlinda Burton*

WAVELAND, Miss. (UMNS) - Native Americans on the racial justice agency of the United Methodist Church have invited members of other racial advocacy groups - including the church's ethnic minority caucuses - to join their fight against the use of offensive stereotypes, images and names for U.S. sports teams.

A panel of Native Americans, addressing the annual Commission on Religion and Race meeting Sept. 21, vowed to engage secular and church racial advocacy groups in efforts to stop the use of team names, mascots and other images by such teams as the Washington Redskins and the Atlanta Braves.

In turn, commission members representing the four other United Methodist ethnic minority caucuses - black American, Hispanic, Asian and Pacific Islanders - agreed to lobby their memberships to address the mascot issue, and began planning an inter-ethnic caucus to address mutual social and moral concerns.

The anti-mascot effort has gained momentum in recent years, says the Rev. Ken Deere, a Muskogee pastor and executive with the Commission on Religion and Race. Deere was one of five Native Americans who discussed the personal and societal affects of the "racist, demeaning portrayal of our people."

Native Americans, he said, are the "landlords of this nation," yet are "invisible" to most of U.S. society except for stereotype logos during weekend sportscasts.

Gary Metoxen Sr., an Oneida layman from DePere, Wis., said flatly: "I have endured racism and stereotypes all my life, and it is time to end it. If we have teams called the 'pale-faces' or the 'black-skins,' we wouldn't stand for it."

"When we challenge the mascots, we are told that we are interfering with 'tradition,' but I would ask you to consider whose tradition is being affected," Suanne Ware-Diaz, Los Angeles laywoman and a Kiowa, told the racial justice commission.

She and other panel members said that the use of such images and names by sports teams - national and local - have historically wrecked havoc on the self-respect of Native Americans. Further, they said, it fosters racism against Native Americans today, and the young people especially are negatively affected. Ware-Diaz cited statistics that suicide and drug use among Native American youth are as much as 17 times the U.S. national average. Deere also reflected on the use of alcohol and drugs - "or if they can't afford it, sniffing gasoline fumes" - as a way for "Indian kids to escape a society that demeans them."

The Rev. Marion Moore-Colgan, a Mohawk from Poultney, Vt., said Native American children in her community often had been invited to wear native clothing and dance for special events. However, when the youth began raising concerns about their education and culture, and wanted to discuss their academic development, "the invitations stopped coming."

Geneva Foote, a retired teacher and Kiowa from Sapulpa, Okla., told about taking tribal clothing to school for a lesson on local Native American history. "The only response I got from the students and teachers was a war whoop someone yelled behind my back as I finished my presentation," she said. "I decided then not to bring my clothing and things back to the school until there was an effort to teach respect for Native American people."

In response, several non-Native American members of the commission agreed that the issue of derogatory portrayals should be of concern - and cause for action by the entire church. The Rev. Jacob Williams, an African-American pastor from Lafayette, Ind., urged the commission to call on all United Methodist ethnic caucus to put the Native American mascot issue on their agendas. James Salley, an African-American layman from Nashville, Tenn., agreed to contact the NAACP.

"This is not just your issue," Williams said, while expressing appreciation to the panel. "This is a justice issue for the whole church."

During the 2000 General Conference, the international United Methodist legislative assembly, Native American church members staged public demonstrations denouncing the name, logo and mascot (Chief Wahoo) of the Cleveland Indians baseball team. Meeting in Cleveland at the time, General Conference delegates passed a resolution opposing the use of "offensive racist logos" and calling for advocacy and dialogue with sports groups.

Since then, Native American United Methodists - who account for almost 20,000 of the denomination's 10 million members worldwide - have urged church groups to avoid holding churchwide meetings in cities where major league teams use Native American names, stereotypes or mascots. Last year, the Commission on Religion and Race gave a $10,000 grant to an Illinois group seeking to eliminate Chief Illiniwek as a symbol of the sports program at the University of Illinois at Champaign.

In other action, the Commission on Religion and Race agreed to ask President George W. Bush and the U.S. Congress for an official policy and full redress for people affected by nuclear testing on the Marshall Islands and in Micronesia. This comes in response to a 2000 General Conference resolution of support for this effort. In addition, the denomination's Western Jurisdiction and Asia and Pacific Islander caucuses urged the racial justice commission to write the president and Congress.

The commission also:
· Approved a request to denominational funding sources for a 200 percent increase in its budget for 2005-2008, most of which would be used for grants to local and regional racism and racial empowerment ministries. The $18 million request must be approved by the denomination's financial agency and the 2004 General Conference. Although seemingly large, it represents "the first increase, in terms of real dollars, in the agency's Minority Grant Self-Determination Fund in nearly 20 years," reported agency treasurer James Taylor.
· Approved in principle a proposed resolution, "In Defense of Refugees," to strengthen the denomination's official call for justice, Christian welcome and support for "the refugee, immigrant and undocumented" people, and calling the church to counter anti-immigrant racism and persecution.
· Noted a 4.32 percent decrease in the number of racial and ethnic minority employees at churchwide agencies.

The Commission on Religion and Race is one of 14 churchwide program and administrative agencies of the 10 million-member United Methodist Church. Its duties include monitoring church agencies for racial justice and inclusiveness, and keeping before the church the issues of racial-cultural injustice facing the larger society.

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*Burton is director of United Methodist News Service.

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