American Indian and Alaska Native peoples and governments have been an integral part of the North American landscape. Against tremendous odds, they have endured great hardship and tragedy and yet remain a viable cultural, political, social and moral presence. They have taught the world diversity and inclusion values that are now ingrained in the human spirit. Namely, people from differing backgrounds, cultures, religions, and traditions can come together to raise the quality of life of all living things.
However, to credibly celebrate American Indian/Alaska Native Heritage Month, we must acknowledge the injustices suffered by American Indians/Alaska Natives and the role our federal government had in genocidal acts against the very people we commemorate this month.
While some of these injustices have been addressed, one major piece of bigotry remains – the objectification of American Indians/Alaska Natives as sports mascots, names and logos. Leading the way as the most offensive American Indian/Alaska Native sports mascot, name and logo is the moniker of the Washington, DC football team, Redskin/s (R-word).
As the granddaddy of all offensive American Indian/Alaska Native sports imagery, the term was coined in the 1800s when the United States government put a bounty on the capture dead or alive of Indians. Bounty hunters could not be paid without turning in the skin of murdered Indians. The skins became known as the R-word due to the bloody underside of the skin.
You may ask what is in a name. Plenty! Words have tremendous power to shape our perceptions of reality. The continued use of the term R-word in our workplaces perpetuates the history of degradation and slaughter of our country’s first citizens and their descendants. It defines American Indians/Alaska Natives in the past. It makes it difficult to be at your best in the present when you are continually defined in the past. The cumulative effect of this negative micro-message also takes a toll on the engagement levels of our American Indian/Alaska Native employees and customers.
As we rededicate ourselves to a federal government core value, “we value differences in people and ideas and we treat others with fairness, dignity and respect,” let’s reexamine our use of this racial slur in the workplace. Then and only then can we engage this community’s unique strengths and talents, where they can contribute to their full potential by bringing their complete selves to the execution of the federal government mission.