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United Methodists Denounce Chief Wahoo

by Dana Jones


Protesters of Chief Wahoo.  Photo:  Paul Jeffrey/UMNSIt is impossible to walk more than a few blocks in downtown Cleveland, Ohio, without encountering an image of Chief Wahoo, the mascot of the Cleveland Indians baseball team. Native Americans attending the May United Methodist General Conference, their allies and Native Americans from the Cleveland area and their supporters want that to change. They staged a rally at the May 11 home game of the baseball team demanding elimination of the racist logo.

The stadium demonstration came two days after General Conference, in a 610-293 vote, approved a resolution denouncing organizations and teams using "offensive racist logos." The resolution called for the denomination to engage the Cleveland community and the ownership of the team in dialogue about use of demeaning ethnic caricatures and mascots.

The resolution says:

"The use of negative and denigrating images, and the acceptance of such images by a large segment of media-viewing people, increases the struggles of young Native Americans to Develop strong self-esteem needed to compete effectively within dominant culture, and...increases the isolation, confusion and hostility that is expressed so graphically by the statistical record of such social dysfunction as alcoholism, school dropout rates, teen suicide and violence, and family disintegration among Native Americans."

A related petition approved by delegates bars the denomination from holding future General Conferences in cities where a sports team uses a racist logo or mascot. Though the 1996 General Conference denounced organizations and teams using such logos or mascots, a request from the United Methodist General Commission on Religion and Race to the Commission on the General Conference to move the 2000 conference out of Cleveland was denied.

Related petitions

The resolutions on mascots and logos were just two of a number of petitions on Native-American issues addressed by General Conference. Delegates also discussed Native-American human and land rights, economic development in Native-American communities, the relationship of Native-American peoples to The United Methodist Church, continuance of the Native American Comprehensive Plan and funding for the National United Methodist Native American Center.

A petition, entitled "Human Rights of Native People of the Americas." outlines the injustice, discrimination and fear Native Americans have and do face because of government, social and economic policies. It calls upon the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society to develop a strategy to address such human-rights violations.

Other petitions call on the Board of Church and Society to offer training on social witness to Native Americans within the denomination and on the National United Methodist Native American Center to develop a four-year study on "Caring for Creation from a Native-American Perspective."

General Conference delegates also approved a resolution directing the Board of Church and Society to support Native-American efforts to protect sacred sites and to enter and support court cases relating to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

A petition on returning church-owned Native American lands to the Indian nation in which the land is located was referred to the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries. The petition asks that:

"All Native-American lands held by the church, whether there is no intention of continuing or developing ministries among the respective Native Americans, be transferred without compensation to the ownership of the Indian nation within whose bounds it exists or to the Indian nation that was the original owner."

Two petitions deal with the relationship of Native Americans to The United Methodist Church. The first establishes a forum of general church agencies for discussion and coordination of Native-American Ministries. The second calls the denomination to repentance and reconciliation with American Indians, Alaska Natives and Hawaiian Natives.

That petition calls on churches within the denomination to study and support Indigenous Peoples on such issues as sovereignty and self-determination, the right of Alaska Native to maintain a subsistence land base, and the right of Hawaiian Natives to a just and amicable land settlement.

General Conference approved $1.2 mission over four years for continuation of the Native-American comprehensive Plan, which strengthens existing Native-American congregations, supports development of new congregations and trains leadership for the congregations.

General conference also agreed to continue support and provide about $950,000 in funding for the National United Methodist Native American Center, which focuses on recruiting Native Americans to seminary, works with schools of theology to develop culturally-sensitive and appropriate materials, and offers spiritual seminars for Native Americans.

Native-American members

Of 992 General Conference delegates, 13 wee Native Americans. of 8.4 million United Methodists in the United States, 19,000 are Native Americans. There are 200 Native-American churches, ministries and fellowships, 28 of which are in urban areas.

The majority of Native-American United Methodists - 7,500 people and 91 congregations - are in the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference. Native-American United Methodists and ministries can be found from Florida to Alaska with the largest numbers of Native-American members outside Oklahoma in North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, Arizona, New Mexico and California.

United Methodist presence in the southeast and southwest is because of "comity agreements" of the late 1800s and early 1900s, which were agreements between the U.S. government and mainline denominations as to which denominations would work among which Native Peoples.