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Black caucus joins Native American mascot fight

Cheryl Walker, president of Black Methodists for Church Renewal, speaks to the United Methodist black caucus about issues of racism against their Native American brothers and sisters. A UMNS photo by John Coleman.

By John Coleman*
April 4, 2007 | CLEVELAND (UMNS)

In keeping with its theme of "advocacy for empowerment," the black caucus of The United Methodist Church began its annual meeting advocating on a racism issue affecting another minority group: Native Americans.

The 40-year-old Black Methodists for Church Renewal is standing in solidarity with Native Americans regarding the use of Indian mascots by sport teams.

Officers of the caucus board met March 19 with an official of the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Greater Cleveland to voice concern about the name of the Cleveland Indians professional baseball team and its mascot, Chief Wahoo.

While team owners did not send a representative to the meeting, the delegation met with Dan Williams, the bureau’s assistant director of sales. They discussed Resolution #131 in the United Methodist Book of Resolutions, which "rejects the use of Native American names and symbols for sport teams and considers the practice a blatant expression of racism."

The resolution, called "Respecting the Native American Legacy and Tradition," was passed by the 2004 General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body. It calls on United Methodist-related organizations and institutions to avoid sponsoring meetings and events in cities that sponsor such team names and symbols, and to make public the church’s concern for this issue.

"The significance of our being here is to raise our voice on this issue, and I believe it can make a difference."
- The Rev. Joseph Crawford

Trustees of the University of Illinois recently bowed to pressure from the National Collegiate Athletics Association, which in 2005 barred sports teams with nicknames and symbols considered offensive to Native Americans from hosting or competing in its lucrative postseason tournaments. The regulatory body banned Chief Illiniwek, a controversial athletics program mascot, as a "hostile and abusive" image of American Indians.

In a March 21 statement read to the caucus by caucus President Cheryl Walker, the group reportedly was told by Williams that the Cleveland Indians organization is "moving to discontinue" use of the decades-old image of Chief Wahoo, a grinning, red-faced, large-nosed caricature of an Indian with a headband and feather, and to replace it with "a scripted letter I."

According to Walker, Williams said team owners are "in dialogue" about changing the team’s name, but no decision or timetable has been determined.

Walker asked caucus members to "continue to pray and advocate for the Indians organization and other teams to change their hearts and remove all symbols and names demeaning to our Native American sisters and brothers."

"We commend black Methodists and people of all races who advocate with us on this painful issue," said Suanne Ware-Diaz of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race in an appeal to the National Black Staff Forum, which met prior to the caucus meeting. "We need you to stand with us in solidarity and give us your support."

Ware-Diaz, a Kiowa American Indian who relates to the church’s Native American constituency, teamed with Chris Begay, a Navajo leader of the local Committee of 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance, to conduct a workshop during the caucus meeting on the issue of Native American team names and mascots.

"The significance of our being here is to raise our voice on this issue," said the Rev. Joseph Crawford, caucus treasurer, at the close of the workshop, "and I believe it can make a difference."

Crawford said the caucus’ new strategic plan would include continuing advocacy on the mascot issue.

*Coleman is director of communications for the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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