Indigenous Representation Matters

In 2007, when I worked at The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment (US SIF)— The national association for socially responsible investing (SRI) firms and professionals—I became the staff liaison for the Investors and Indigenous Peoples Working Group (IIPWG). One of IPWG’s main  campaigns at the time was asking companies and investors to pressure the owner of the Washington, D.C. professional football team to change its name to anything else that was not a racist slur.

Bank of America, which sponsored credit cards with the NFL team logos, declined multiple times to  become involved. FedEx, the owner of the stadium used by the team, similarly claimed it had no grounds to make appeals for a name change.

IIPWG’s campaign was one small fight in a long string of political, legal, and cultural clashes between Native Americans and the DC team owner Dan Snyder. Most notably, Suzan Shown Harjo and the  Morning Star Institute initiated and carried the work with court battles that spanned decades. US SIF members, including Natural Investments, submitted amicus briefs in support as well.

In 2014, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office finally revoked the trademark registration for the Washington, D.C. professional football team, stating the name is “disparaging.” The team owner continued to refuse a name change, likely because odds were low for anyone else to step into their  territory and use the R-word commercially.

Change finally came during 2020’s George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests, which ignited months-long waves of unrest across the country. Sentiment in corporate America finally shifted. The intense scrutiny over America’s ongoing systemic racism led several sponsors, including FedEx, to finally write a public appeal calling for a name change. The owner acquiesced when retailers began to pull team merchandise from store shelves.

The football team is now in the middle of a two-year collaborative rebrand with fans. It’s encouraging that Jeffrey Wright, the president of the Washington Football Team, confirmed “Warriors” is not an  option for the new name that will be announced in early 2022. He noted it draws too many comparisons to the old name. If the team is meant to have a fresh start and inspire a united fandom, it cannot ignore the historical legacy and today’s ongoing reckoning with racism that motivated the change in the first place.

He further acknowledged research on “noble savage” stereotypes having psychologically harmful effects on Native youth. How? Because, representation matters. How you see yourself portrayed in mainstream culture, especially true for children, shapes how you view yourself and your role in the world. Words and imagery depicted in television shows, blockbuster movies, sports games, etc. are a reflection of what a society values. Native youth need to see themselves as more than figureheads from an era where their communities suffered mass genocide.

On that note, there is progress. A few prominent examples that can be celebrated:

  • Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and former U.S. Representative for New Mexico, became the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary when President Biden appointed her as Secretary of the Interior. The position, which includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs, is now overseen by a Native woman for the first time.
  • Reservation Dogs” is a dark comedy set in present-day Oklahoma. Owned by FX Networks and available on Hulu, the show has an all-Native American led cast, but the most satisfying feature is that the show is produced, written, and directed by Indigenous Peoples as well.
  •  Joy Harjo of the Muscogee Nation in Oklahoma is an award-winning poet. In 2019, she became the first Native American named U.S. Poet Laureate.

Ultimately, passive egalitarianism isn’t enough. We need to be actively anti-racist to break down the barriers to equality caused by unjust systems. As artist and activist Marian Anderson said, “No matter how big a nation is, it is no stronger than its weakest people, and as long as you keep a person down,  some part of you has to be down there to hold him down, so it means you cannot soar as you might  otherwise.”

In addition to our JEDI statement, Natural Investments maintains a list of BLM Solidarity Action  resources. We continue to help our clients support Indigenous Communities through investments that provide access to capital or economically support Native American enterprises such as NDN Collective, Oweesta Corporation, and Native Energy. Finally, we listen and try to serve as allies in the healing and rebuilding our nation needs, which means we welcome our readers to share their thoughts and ideas as well.

Photo credit: “T.V. Indians” © Cara Romero. 2017. All rights reserved.

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