A protest against the Washington NFL team's racist mascot. Photo: Confrontational Media

Event focuses on symbols of White supremacy in mascots and monuments

American Indians and African Americans have long dealt with the use of racist and stereotypical symbols in the United States and an event in the nation's capitol will take a closer look at their struggles.

The National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African American History and Culture are hosting Mascots, Myths, Monuments and Memory on Saturday. The symposium will explore why the Washington NFL team's mascot and memorials to Confederate figures persist despite attempts to eliminate them.

Kevin Gover, the director of the NMAI, will be participating in the opening panel, which looks at "contested" imagery in sports. He offers a frank view of why these and other symbols continue to exist.

“As a nation we still live with symbols of white supremacy in our public spaces and popular culture,” Gover, a citizen of the Pawnee Nation, said in a news release. “But we are also at a stage where we can have an honest discussion about their origins and meaning and address the harm they do.”

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Other participants include Ray Halbritter, the representative of the Oneida Nation. The New York-based tribe has been leading the Change the Mascot movement against the Washington team's racist logo and mascot.

"It is critically important that we work as hard as possible now to make sure that our children and their children and their children’s children are fairly represented and treated as equals in this society – and to accomplish that, we must always stand in solidarity with all of Indian Country,” Halbritter said last month as he was honored by the National Congress of American Indians for his leadership role.

Tribes like the Oneidas, organizations like NCAI and Native activists like Suzan Shown Harjo, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work, have been battling Indian imagery in sports for decades. The efforts has resulted in the removal of racist and stereotypical symbols across the country.

"We collectively have eliminated over 2,000 of these so-called Native names, logos, symbols, images, mascots and behaviors from the U.S. sport landscape," Harjo said in a statement after a younger generation of Native activists went viral last November with a name change campaign for the Washington team, one of the biggest holdouts.

"That’s over 2,000 names and images that once wounded and did emotional violence to our children, and now they don’t," said Harjo, who is Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee.

Beyond mascots, monuments to Colonial figures like Christopher Columbus and Don Juan de Oñate have also long been questioned. Addressing them has proved to be equally difficult, with a recent effort in New York City fizzling out even after the mayor ordered a review of "symbols of hate" in public spaces following deadly racial violence in Virginia last fall.

"Reckoning with our collective histories is a complicated undertaking with no easy solution," Mayor Bill de Blasio said in January after city officials said the prominent memorial to Columbus would stay put.

"Our approach will focus on adding detail and nuance to – instead of removing entirely—the representations of these histories,” the mayor added.

The city said it will instead place historical markers at Columbus Circle to explain how he affected indigenous peoples. A separate monument, at a different location, to indigenous peoples is also being commissioned.

In the end, the Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers called only for the relocation of a statue of J. Marion Sims. He was a physician who subjected enslaved African women to invasive treatments without anesthesia because he believed they didn't feel as much pain as others.

Saturday's symposium takes place at the Oprah Winfrey Theater in the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The program, which begins at 10am Eastern, will be broadcast on Facebook at facebook.com/NMAAHC.

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