MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, you might be thinking about freshening up that spring wardrobe. Think about how much trickier your shopping excursion would be if it were for clothes you only need for nine months and your every move is photographed. Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion writer Robin Givhan is with us to tell us more about fashion trends for moms-to-be.
But first, we want to return to the touchy subject of sports team names and mascots, and if you root for a team, whether it's in high school or college or the pros, then you know that team spirit is a powerful thing and you might even believe your team's mascot a sacred thing. But you probably also know by now that what is for some a harmless fun tradition is highly offensive to others, particularly to Native Americans who've become increasingly vocal in recent years about team names that seem to reference that heritage in a way that the tribes and others consider demeaning.
Now, in many places that debate is locked in a stalemate between those who say they're defending tradition versus those who say it's immoral and wrong. Enter Cooperstown Central School and the Oneida Indian Nation. That school in central New York was home to the Redskins. The middle and high school students voted to change the name.
To support that, the Oneida Indian Nation has offered to pick up the tab to offset the cost and then the Oneida Nation is working to establish a fund to help other schools who want to follow suit.
We wanted to talk more about this and learn more about the Oneida Nation, so we are joined now by Ray Halbritter. He is the Nation's federally recognized representative. He's the CEO of the Oneida Nation Enterprises and he recently wrote about this in the New York Daily News and he's with us now.
Welcome. Thanks for joining us.
RAY HALBRITTER: My pleasure.
MARTIN: Could you talk about the timing of this? I mean did you know that the school was debating this question and then offered to kind of help the debate along or did you hear about it afterwards?
HALBRITTER: No. We actually didn't know about it in advance and I think what happened in Cooperstown is a very powerful and teaching moment for us - for the country even. This group of kids one day went to the superintendant and told them that they were uncomfortable with the mascot and that led ultimately to a vote and a decision was made by these kids to drop the Redskin mascot. And they're only located steps away from the Cooperstown Hall of Fame, which is the baseball hall of fame, and so it was really telling that these teenagers, in spite of being in the shadow of the hall of fame, were more sensitive than many of the owners of the major sports teams to this issue.
MARTIN: So how did you all hear about it then?
HALBRITTER: Well, we heard about it through the news media and we just approached them. Once we did that, we knew that there were consequences when you make a decision. This was not an easy decision. And we knew there would be a financial consequence because if you change the name, you have to change the jerseys and the signage and also, you know, there was going to be a backlash because there's always people who say that it - roll their eyes and say, well, this isn't offensive. We've been doing it for so many years. Since the 1920s the Redskins has been their mascot.
But, you know, nowadays what's so remarkable about what these kids did is they're in a sense teaching this generation that this society needs to be more inclusive.
MARTIN: So how did you come up with the idea? Or who came up with the idea of helping them to make this change?
HALBRITTER: Well, we just talked about it and we know schools are really hard, you know, pressed for monies these days and even though they didn't have the money to make the change, they still made the decision anyway. And we know it still has to go through the proper - there's one more level, but I think that regardless what they did was very significant and we wanted to support and honor that decision by these kids.
MARTIN: How much do you think it's going to cost?
HALBRITTER: About five to 10 thousand is what they think. We actually are going to be seeking other Indian nations to start a fund because Morningstar Institute said there's about 900 offensive mascots in use in this country.
MARTIN: Nine hundred.
HALBRITTER: About 900 organizations of mascots that are insensitive. Now, we know that people didn't intend to dishonor, but we nevertheless do something about it. If we bump into someone or something, we say, excuse me, even though it was unintended, and that's what was remarkable about - to me - what these kids did. They did it on their own and they're kids. It's wonderful. We can be so proud of what they did.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Ray Halbritter. He is the representative of the Oneida Indian Nation. You know, this comes at an interesting time because this whole debate over the professional sports team also named that name - we don't have to keep saying it - there's renewed attention to that name, and the owner of the team has been adamant and all of the leadership of that team has been adamant that they are not interested in changing the name, and yet there's been an increasing intensity around this locally. A number of the columnists, the sports columnists, for example, at the leading newspaper in the Washington, D.C. area have aggressively called for them to change the name.
But there's also been subsequent reporting that says that - you know what - this is not a matter of like five or 10 thousand dollars for a professional sports team. It could be, what, hundreds of millions of dollars.
MARTIN: Is there an answer to that?
HALBRITTER: Well, I don't have the answer and I don't have $100 million on me. But I do think, though, that...
MARTIN: I was going to ask you.
MARTIN: Because you're looking pretty prosperous, but...
HALBRITTER: Well, they actually, I think the National Football team has been a little better than Cooperstown High School. But sometimes, you know, the right decision is not an easy decision - we know that. But, nonetheless, we know that if it's the right thing to do, you know, we need to find a way to achieve it and to do it. But I think that where you have kids who are willing to make a courageous decision like this, even though they didn't have the money to pay for it, they nonetheless, made the right decision. That's why we were honoring that.
MARTIN: But you're also changing the dynamic of the debate in a way, by also saying that the Indian nations - some of which are doing very well with their commercial enterprises - are willing to pony up to participate. And I'm interested in how you think that may change the dynamic or how people think about this.
HALBRITTER: Well, first of all people have to understand how offensive racial stereotyping is. And, sometimes, you know, closer to home in New York, it's still a problem. There was a public official who dressed up in black face and an Afro wig. Remarkably, as a public official, at first said it was a political correctness to the absurd. But, I mean obviously then subsequently apologized. I mean, you know, in 2013, mutual respect should not be controversial. It's should be something that our next generation should make efforts to make sure everybody does. And that's, sort of, part of the focus. I do think that what these kids did was also sort of an interesting potentially radical change in the way the generation's thinking. I mean the last presidential election was more of an inclusive mindset. And when you're thinking about being more inclusive, that's what this decision was by these students, to me.
MARTIN: But isn't it a sign though, of the growing economic clout of Indian Country, the Oneida Nation in particular, but Indian Country in general. I just want to point out that in 2011, the Oneida Nation was - do I understand this right - the fifth-largest employer?
HALBRITTER: In the 16 county upstate regions, we are the...
MARTIN: In the upstate region.
HALBRITTER: ...largest employer.
MARTIN: In upstate New York you are the largest employer, and that because of the Turning Stone Resort. But you also own the Indian Country Today Media Network.
MARTIN: And, you know, we've had reporters from the network on this program to demonstrate their expertise on a variety of subjects. I wonder isn't it in part a demonstration of the growing clout of Indian Country?
HALBRITTER: I think there is a change occurring. I mean for generations American Indians were either been told that we were just mascots or for entertainment or just ignored. Now we've been working hard to stress the value and our part in the local community, being one of the largest employers in the 16 county upstate regions. Nonetheless, the Regional Economic Council set up by the state, no Indian nation was invited to be part of it. And that is not inclusive. Policies of omission are not good policies. I think that's what this generation now wants to see. They want to see inclusive policies. And I think there are going to be consequences for organizations and businesses, and for politicians who try to keep the divide and conquer politics alive.
MARTIN: Well, you've been emphasizing how this vote by the students shows how this generation has changed. But isn't the move by the Oneida Nation also a sign of how things have changed for the Oneida people?
HALBRITTER: Yes, they've changed quite dramatically for us. For 200 years we've lived in poverty and despair. We're reduced from 300,000 acres to 32 acres in upstate New York. And we asserted our land claims. And there was a time, for example, where my aunt and uncle burned to death in a fire and the city of Oneida refused to send the fire department. So it was very, very difficult times for us. We had a dirt road. We didn't have really good water systems. We didn't have sewer systems. So from that point in time and out of that unfortunate situation, we were looking to help our fire protection, so we started a bingo hall and other sorts of gaming. And that's where Indian gaming in America actually began in that small humble beginning. I was the first bingo caller. We have a little cage with wooden balls and I used to roll them and call the numbers in a little trailer. About 30 people came to the first bingo. And so we started to raise money for ourselves and now we're the largest employer, of about 4,500 employees, in a 16 county upstate New York area. And we're still having difficult time, we can't get a meeting with the governor and were hoping someday we'll have a more cooperative relationship because it's best for all of us. And where a developer that can do more in the region and create more jobs, and we're hoping for that opportunity.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, you mentioned that you expected that the school would get a backlash from their efforts. What have you heard so far and what kind of response are you getting to the offer from the Oneida Nation?
HALBRITTER: Well, we haven't - there's yet another level of decision-making by the school to formally make the change. But the leadership has said they are certainly going to take us up on the offer if they make the change. So we're delighted to hear that and we're delighted to have, been able to have the resources to make such an offer.
I do think that political leaders in both Washington, D.C. and the statehouses should take notice of what these kids have done, and about what that speaks of the generation that we're in now and how it's changing from the old divide and conquer to more inclusive.
MARTIN: Are other tribes following your lead?
HALBRITTER: Well, we're going to be talking and reaching out to them. It's happened so quickly that we haven't had a chance. But I know that throughout Indian Country that, you know, we're a people that have been offended and have been stereotyped and treated differently, and we'd like to see that the change in the mascots signals, as it does in Cooperstown, a change in the way society is looking at and treating American Indian people.
MARTIN: Ray Halbritter is the recognized representative of the Oneida Indian Nation. He is the CEO of the Oneida Nation Enterprises. And he was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios.
Ray Halbritter, thank you so much for speaking with us. We hope we'll speak again.
HALBRITTER: Thank you. I hope so too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.