On August 3, 1990, President George H. W. Bush made one of the best proclamations of his presidency. On that day, Bush signed a bill into law which would officially make November Native American Heritage Month. As such, federal, state, and local governments are supposed to reserve the month of November to learn about all aspects of Native American culture and give attention to pressing issues within the Native American community.
Today marks the 5th annual White House Tribal Nations Conference, an event started by Barack Obama in order to give more attention to the plight of the Native American community and allow them an opportunity to affect federal legislation and receive representation. In total, 566 American Indian and Alaska Native tribes will meet with federal politicians at the Interior Building in Washington, D.C. (Note, not the White House, as the event suggests.)
While the official meeting between federal politicians and the Native American community started today, Obama invited one dozen tribal leaders to his offices yesterday to start talks about what concerns the Native American community the most. Major issues discussed included such ideas as job creation, economic opportunities for using Native land for renewable energy, increasing investment in Native territories, continuing the success and development of tribal sovereignty, improving Native educational systems, and jurisdictional challenges such as the recent struggle of Native American children in foster care being placed with Native American families.
Despite all of the important issues being discussed at this convention in Washington, the main news story is still the controversy surrounding the Washington Redskins name. In October, the Oneida Indian Nation, led by Ray Halbritter, brought the “Change the Mascot” campaign to Washington DC in an attempt to convince federal politicians to enact legislation forcing the NFL team to change its mascot to something not racist. The “Change the Mascot” campaign was inspired in part by Redskins’s owner, Daniel Snyder, stating, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps,” along with President Obama’s comments in which he stated, “If I were the owner of the team and I knew that there was a name of my team–even if it had a storied history–that was offending a sizable group of people, I’d think about changing it.”
It was the latter comment that received attention once again during the White House Tribal Nations Conference on Tuesday. In the closed door meeting Obama decided to hold with 12 Native American leaders, Ray Halbritter publicly thanked President Obama for defending the integrity of the Native American community: “It was a wonderful opportunity to express our gratitude, which is what I did. The president acknowledged it, he nodded, and applause spontaneously broke out around the table,” Halbritter voiced to USA Today.
Not only did Halbritter publicly thank Obama, but he also presented him with a football jersey from Cooperstown High School in New York, the high school which changed its name from the Redskins to Hawkeyes and inspired the Oneida Nation to fight to change the Washington Redskins moniker.
While the attention the Redskins issue is receiving is important to change cultural perceptions of the Native American community and achieve equality for all, it is almost a shame that this issue is overshadowing all of the important discussions which will be had today during talks in DC. Such issues as extreme poverty, deplorable education systems, poor access to healthcare, high unemployment rates, increased alcoholism, and suicide should all be receiving more national attention than the nickname of a sports organization. Unfortunately, the most attention the Native American community will receive this month besides the Redskins controversy will be distorted elementary school plays about the first Thanksgiving.
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