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Why We Must Listen to Dahkota Kicking Bear Brown

A Native American student fights racism.

Dahkota Brown, used with permission
Source: Dahkota Brown, used with permission

At the age of 17, Dahkota Kicking Bear Brown is already a prominent civil rights leader.

On Oct. 11, California became the first state in the country to ban the use of the term “R*dskins” as a sports-team name, logo or mascot in public schools. A Native American high school student, Dahkota Kicking Bear Brown, was on the front lines of the fight to ban the use of this dictionary-defined racial slur.

Testifying three times before the California Legislature to support the passage of this law was only the latest of Brown’s appearances on this topic, which include speaking at the Center for American Progress, on MSNBC and MTV , at the White House and, most recently, at the National Congress of American Indians’ annual conference. Brown, a Miwok enrolled in the Wilton Rancheria, speaks not only about the damaging effects of racist team names and logos on Native American youth, but also how this practice is part of a broader picture of racism against Native American peoples.

And by telling his story, Brown shows that if you stand up for your convictions, you can fight racism and make real change happen in the world.

Brown’s own family history is steeped with the oppression and genocide of Native Americans in this country. He told me, “We actually have letters from my great-great-aunt about some of my relatives’ grandmothers having to hide their children in flour barrels because of the Indian Removal Act.”

Brown’s culture has always been an important part of his life. “My daily life consists of native culture. But apart from daily life, we have different ceremonies that we partake in every year. The biggest one is the last week of September. It’s what we call Big Time and ours is held in Volcano, California. It’s our annual acorn festival, our fall harvest celebration.”

“There are tribes from all over California and even some from Nevada who come to our Big Time to dance and celebrate and sing in our Roundhouse. A roundhouse is our sacred place, much like others’ church. This tradition goes all the way back to the first peoples of this land before it was ever colonized.”

Brown described how dancing at events such as Big Time has been a particularly important part of his cultural identity. “I’m a Miwok traditional dancer. It’s a pretty spiritual feeling. It’s like nothing you’ll ever feel in your life…Our roundhouse is partially underground, where only the roof is above ground,” he explained. “So, it’s representing almost being back in your mother’s womb. You sense an energy like nowhere else and the feeling is incredible. You walk in, and you automatically smell the medicine from the sage. It’s nice and cool and the only light that is shining in is from the smoke hole in the roof. Knowing I am dancing where my ancestors have prayed and danced is an amazing experience.”

Initial research suggests that connection with one’s culture is associated with higher levels of health and well-being. Theorists suggest that “culture is medicine” — A strong connection to one’s culture can facilitate health and well-being. As an example, one study of 287 Native American children found that participating in traditional cultural practices was not only associated with lower levels of depression, but also protected children against the negative effects of discrimination.

“I’ve always known that being an active cultural practitioner brings me great happiness and makes me feel whole,” he explained. “I feel my best after spending time with my family at Big Time, dancing with my cousins. Something about really connecting to and being a part of something so historic and traditional brings me pride I can’t explain.”

“When my feet stomp the ground in a Roundhouse that my ancestors danced in hundreds of years ago, I feel them there with me. I know I exist because of their strength to overcome genocide, and knowing that makes me feel complete and at peace. It’s a mental awareness that if they can survive history, there is nothing I can’t do if I put my mind to it.”

Brown was, therefore, shocked when he went to public school and found that other children could be very disrespectful of him and his culture. Brown describes one of his experiences when he was in the third grade, “You were supposed to write a paper about someone in history who had done great things — an inspiring person — and you were supposed to dress up like that person and tell the class about them,” he said. “So, there were students who picked Abraham Lincoln and Amelia Earhart and all these other people. And I decided to pick Red Cloud, chief of the Lakota. And so I had dressed like Red Cloud, and I had worn a headdress and a Pendleton blanket around my shoulders. I had gone shirtless that day and just wore flip-flops because they wouldn’t let us go shoeless.”

“Before I even got a chance to do my presentation, on the playground, a group of sixth-graders danced around me, plucking my feathers from the headdress and then doing the stereotypical ‘woo’ thing. It pretty much ruined my whole day. I was in tears before class even started.”

“My teacher didn’t know what happened — that the sixth-graders had pretty much assaulted me. She saw me crying and thought that it was because I was feeling uncomfortable because I wasn’t wearing a shirt. She told me to suck it up, that we could get through my presentation, and I didn’t have to worry about it. I got through my presentation and held in the tears for the whole day and as soon I got in the car when my mom came to pick me up, I just let go and started crying.”

Even then, Brown felt that the best way to address this issue was through education. “It was a pretty bad experience for me. When the teachers consulted with me about what I think the punishment should be for the sixth-graders, I didn’t ask that they be suspended or expelled. I wanted them to write a report on California Natives or Natives in general, just to do some research on their own and learn about the historical traumas that we went through. I still have the papers that they wrote to this day.”

From an early age, Brown has been committed to helping others. “My mom and dad always joked that I always put others before myself. In kindergarten, actually, my mom had just put money in my lunch account, and the next day, she got an email that I was all out of money,” he said. “I guess the day that she had put all the money in my account, I had gone through and put my number in for anybody who was in line, so that the kids who didn’t bring a lunch or couldn’t afford lunch — I made sure they had lunch that way. And my life has gone that way ever since, as far as helping others…I wasn’t really aware of what I was doing, I just did it.”

In 2012, when Brown was in eighth-grade, he co-founded NERDS (Native Education Raising Dedicated Students), a peer-to-peer mentoring program. “It really started with my cousin, who wasn’t getting the grades that I know he was capable of. He just wasn’t turning in his work and just wasn’t doing his best. So, I pulled him aside and talked to him about getting his grades up so that we could promote together and go to high school together. We talked to all of his teachers and got all of his work. And there was four or five months of work that he had to do in a month, so we sat down and got to work,” he said. “We agreed to help each other out, and by the end of the school year, he had gone from a 0.3 GPA to a 3.8 GPA. It was really awesome for me to see because he put in the work that he was capable of and really set his mind to it, and that’s really where NERDS got its start.”

Brown currently serves as president of the executive board of NERDS, which is now a non-profit, and has 10 chapters with hundreds of involved students. They are dedicated to improving the lives of Native American students through cultural awareness, education and abuse prevention. With a mission to decrease the dropout rate of Native American students, NERDS focuses on improving grades through peer-to-peer mentoring. To date, NERDS has a 100 percent success rate of students graduating on time after their participation in the NERDS summer school program.

NERDS is inclusive of all students. “Since most of our clubs are at public schools, the rule is you don’t have to be Native to join, as long as you have respect for the culture. As long as you are willing to respect the Native students and are open to learning about us, then you are absolutely welcome to come to the meetings and to the different cultural events that we participate in. But only the Native students can run for positions and lead the clubs.”

Soon after founding NERDS, Brown became more actively involved in an issue that he knew was damaging Native American students — racist team names and logos, particularly the term “R*dskin.” One could say that Brown was born into this issue. “I’ve grown up with the mascot fight. Before I was even born, the first time that my mom had ever met my auntie was at a rally to change mascots. They were doing a protest, and my dad wanted to introduce my mom to his auntie, so that was the first time they had ever met,” he said.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office made the decision to cancel the National Football League Washington team's trademark because the team name (R*dskins) was found to be "disparaging." Several Native American organizations, such as the National Congress for the American Indian (NCAI), which is the oldest and most representative Native American organization in the world; the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA); and the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) have all issued public statements condemning the use of the word “R*dskins.” A recent poll that required evidence of tribal membership to participate found that majority of the respondents thought the "R*dskins" was a racial slur.

Further, major civil rights groups such as the NAACP, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the National Council of La Raza and the Anti-Defamation League have all condemned the practice of using this slur. Most recently, the Fritz Pollard Alliance, a civil rights group dedicated to promoting diversity and equality in the NFL, has joined the growing chorus of protests against the Washington football team’s ongoing use of a dictionary-defined racial slur as its name and a stereotypical caricature as its logo.

“I never went to a school with a Native mascot, but I’ve always seen them around me…From a very early age, my brother played football, and I remember going to football games where he would play against the R*dskins. And at that time, I didn’t know what the name meant. But I was offended most by the cheerleaders who would wear these outfits that were mocking, or supposed to represent our traditional buckskin dresses,” Brown said.

“Our women, when they dance, wear buckskin dresses that are long, modest and full length to show respect when they dance and pray, so it was tough seeing these girls in these outfits that were completely mocking and making fun of my culture in a sexualized manner. I remember I was standing at the snack bar with my mom the first time that I saw one of them, and they walked past. And I just like looked up with huge eyes at my mom, and before I could say anything, she said, ‘I know, it’s OK, the game’s going to be over soon,’ and just tried to reassure me.”

Moreover, professional organizations, such as the American Psychological Association, American Sociological Association and American Counseling Association, have issued statements that the use of Native American team names and imagery is detrimental to children's mental health and development. Experimental laboratory studies demonstrate causal effects that the presence of American Indian sports-team logos results directly in lower self-esteem and lower mood among American Indian youth. Longitudinal studies show that discrimination such as exposure to racial slurs predicts increased depression and substance abuse in American Indian youth over time. Additionally, studies also show that exposure to American Indian sports names and logos activate negative stereotypes of American Indians among non-American Indians.

“That’s actually part of the mascot issue that a lot of people miss. Mascots devalue the importance of Native identity and culture. I felt almost attacked and hurt by these mascots and these images from a very young age. I was just appalled…Why would they want to be mocking our culture and dressing up like our people when they don’t really know what that means?

“They don’t know what it means to be Native.”

Brown described how he saw this similarly influencing his peers, “These same happy, social, well-adjusted members of their tribe who were just laughing, singing and dancing in ceremony and serving their elders and cracking jokes are instantly withdrawn and quiet on campus,” he said. “A majority of them sit in the back of the class, keep to themselves, put their heads down on their desk or hide behind their long hair by wearing it down over their faces as if to mask who they are. They don’t feel accepted for who they are, they don’t think they fit in, so they struggle to do their best to get through the day.

“The comment I hear the most from peers is, ‘I don’t even look like that!’”

Brown received national attention for speaking at a Center for American Progress conference on the harmful effects of racist team names and logos. “I had always grumbled around town and to friends about the use of race-based mascots and wanted to address it on a local level, but realized it would be exhausting to visit every school in California. So during the summer of 2014, I spoke out in Washington, D.C., at the Center for American Progress about my personal experiences being a rival of a school with the ‘R*dskins’ as a mascot,” he said. “I also was asking the [Washington football] team’s owner, Dan Snyder, to listen to the children and do the right thing. I thought if the NFL team would change, all schools across the nation would follow suit. By start of my school year, I realized it was going to take too long for Dan Snyder to do the right thing, so I organized 50 NERDS club members to attend the 47th annual Native American Day at the State Capitol. We collected over 200 signatures and ran out of petitions within two hours.”

That was when Brown met California State Assemblyman Luis Alejo in 2014. “I met Assemblyman Alejo by chance when I asked for his signature on a petition. He had just finished getting his resolution passed requesting Dan Snyder to change the name. It was fate, and he promised me he would help. I presented a request to my own school district asking for them to ban Calaveras [High School] from displaying their mascot when visiting our campus,” he said. “I helped collect letters of support from our state school superintendent, the California Teachers Association, numerous tribes and national organizations, as well as hundreds of individuals.”

“I prepared testimonies for every legislative hearing held and stayed in contact with the adults who had worked on the previous two attempts more than 11 years ago. I spoke often and collected thoughts and quotes from peers, then shared them with media as often as I could to help gain support far and wide.”

After California’s decision to ban “R*dskins” in public schools, Brown became the object of scorn by people supporting the use of this term. “As recently as Oct. 9, at the Friday night Calaveras game, a lady working the gate asked some of my friends for a donation to help the ‘R*dskins.’ One of the boys asked what the money was for, and would they ever change the name. She replied, “Yeah, it looks like it, thanks to one of your classmates” to which the other lady with her commented: ‘Somebody should skin him.’”

“I have been the target of social-media threats and hundreds of angry trolls sharing their hate with the general public that comes with even more slurs like ‘Last Stand for our R*dskins…I don’t think so.’ This is a clear reference to Custer or ‘You lost the war once, too bad we didn’t kill you all, R*dskins for life.’ To be honest, I expected backlash on social media, but am a little shocked and saddened by those who have heard my testimony and yet still insist on misappropriating my culture or using a racial slur. You can only claim ignorance once because after we have educated you on the facts and enlightened you with the proof of harm being done, if you opt to still wear the fake regalia and use the term, you are basically saying you don’t care.”

Brown’s experience is unfortunately not unique. In contrast to claims that people who support Native American sports-team names and logos honor Native Americans, research indicates otherwise. One study used qualitative analysis to examine more than 1,000 online-forum comments for people defending Native American mascots. The findings indicated that a large percentage of online-forum comments represented ignorance about American Indian culture and even disdain toward American Indians by providing misinformation, perpetuating stereotypes and expressing overtly racist attitudes toward American Indians.

On a national scale, defenders of the term “R*dskins” often dismiss opposition to the use of this term as an example of political correctness gone awry. Those supporting this term often support their position by presenting a false dichotomy: Native Americans should be forced to tolerate racial slurs because they suffer from other “more pressing” issues, such as poverty. In response to a letter from American Indian U.S. Congressman Tom Cole urging the NFL to support a name change for the Washington team, team representative Tony Wyllie responded by saying, “Don’t they have more important issues to worry about?”

Brown views these perspectives as a reflection of ignorance towards, rather than respect for, Native Americans. “From my own personal experiences, people are just stuck in their ways and ‘just ignorant’ is the best way I can put it. It’s almost like they refuse to believe that Natives are still around, and they refuse to look at the Natives who are saying this is wrong. Every person who I’ve ever talked to who was against the name change or wanted to keep the mascot always used the same arguments, and they’re never really educated arguments, while people who are fighting for the name change, they can always state statistics and facts,” he said. “People who argue against the name change, they don’t have that research or evidence behind their arguments. It’s just opinions and experiences where they created a culture in their schools and with their teams that they feel are more important than Native people’s culture and Native people’s rights.”

But Brown knows that the racism that is ingrained in team sports is not only reflective of, but contributes to, the oppression that has historically faced Native Americans in this country. “Native American children have the highest rate of suicide of any population group in the United States. Only 51 percent of Native youth graduate high school. Native youth are also arrested at a rate three times the national average. Twenty-eight percent of the Native American population lives in poverty,” he said. “The unemployment rate across Indian country nationally is nearly 15 percent. About 29 percent of Native people lack health insurance and rely solely on underfunded services through the Indian Health Service. With education and economic opportunities less accessible for Native youth, violence and crime have become prevalent. Violence — including intentional injuries, homicides and suicide — accounts for 75 percent of deaths for Native American youth age 12 to 20.”

“Can all of these be linked to the use of race-based mascots that lead to mockery and bullying? I say yes, because it’s a fact that if you don’t fit in, you withdraw and remove yourself from the situation or location. Be it in a job, friendship or in school…if children don’t fit in, they drop out …Dropping out causes a lack of education to obtain a job that is connected to every other problem I just listed. It seems to me that providing a safe space and opportunity for an equal education for every student, regardless of their heritage, would help solve many problems that cause economic strain in our society.”

Brown’s point is well taken. By any measure, the ongoing use of racial slurs and offensive imagery by individuals or schools towards Native American children despite the ongoing protests of the Native American community would constitute bullying. We now have evidence that not only does this form of behavior predict aggression and substance abuse among Native American children, but also that bullying is associated with poor educational performance. A meta-analytic review of 33 studies with 29,552 participants found that peer victimization is associated with poorer academic achievement.

And so for Brown, addressing racism in sports is part of the bigger picture of his work. “I personally think this is the first step towards righting a lot of injustices against Native people. We hear constantly about how there are so many bigger issues we should worry about other than mascots. But by removing the ‘R*dskin’ mascots, we are eliminating a source of all problems. I think it’s a great start and a small part of a bigger plan,” he said. “Children will no longer face misappropriation of their regalia. They will be free to attend all school events with pride of their school rather than skipping an event because they were forced to feel uncomfortable and misunderstood. The mascots misrepresented who we are as unique individual tribes by forcing us all into one large group. Removing these images will eliminate mockery and non-Natives from ‘playing Indian’ based off of stereotypes.”

Brown sees how the removal of these racist team names and logos will clear the way for other conversations to occur. He explained, “To all those who said they were ‘honoring’ us with their mascot, now that we have removed it, you can show us how much you truly honor us by standing with us and addressing all the major issues like sovereignty, treaty rights, sacred sites, health care, prevention of substance abuse or suicide and poverty all without them associating us with mascots. In others words, let’s see them really defend our honor now,” he said.

“This means we can finally have a discussion with local, state, and national leaders about all issues. On a personal note, I’ve had so many people ask me when we first meet, ‘Oh, so you’re Native? Are you a ‘R*dskin’ fan?’ I’m tired of being associated with a relic of racist America, and it’s time to move on. I would much rather have someone ask me, ‘Oh, you’re Native? How do you think the government can better serve Native youth?’ These are the kind of questions that people need to think of when associating with Native youth, not just mascots.”

For Brown, this includes a reflection on how history is taught. He explained, “I firmly believe the second part of this plan needs to be accurately teaching the history of all 567 federally recognized tribes and the countless others still fighting for recognition. We must stop teaching the whitewashed version of American history and start teaching the truth,” he said. “Throughout history what has happened to the Native Americans and to the first peoples of this land hasn’t been seen as a genocide, where it should be classified. People don’t pay attention to what actually happened to the Natives, and so when we start learning about them in school, people aren’t entirely educated on what happened. There haven’t been a whole lot of Natives within our history books. I fully support Assemblyman Alejo and his bill's attempt to have ethnic studies as a requirement in our California schools and hope to help with this initiative in the future.”

Brown knows that addressing racism head-on will not be easy. “I think that what they are missing is that Native people, we’re here, we’re asking them to stop using the name, and we are actual people. I feel like it stems from the mascot, where it has created this mindset that we are not actual people. We’re just the mascots they see every day with their teams and their schools,” he said. “And so when they are talking to us, they’re talking to mascots and they don’t really see the pain that is felt by the indigenous people from all across the nation.”

“They don’t see that there are hundreds and hundreds of years of cultural genocide behind the faces of the people they are arguing with.”

Ultimately, Brown is optimistic about the future and with good reason. “On July 9th, the president held the first White House Tribal Youth Conference,” he said. “Students got to interact with federal officials…Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior, was there. Representatives from the Department of Education, Department of Health and Human Services, different Senators and White House officials. It was really awesome for Native youth to voice the problems they are having in their communities.”

And Brown was honored by the Center for Native American Youth as a “Champion for Change” in 2013, followed by being named one of United National Indian Tribal Youth’s “25 Under 25” outstanding young leaders in 2014. And most recently, Brown was the first federally recognized Native American selected to attend the United States Senate Youth Program in 2015, which is a highly sought-after scholarship opportunity offered by the Hearst Foundation.

And so Brown continues on what he feels will be a lifelong journey. “With the mascot issue and all the activism, I’m definitely going to carry that with me throughout my life since I am comforted in knowing that my voice has the power to affect change for those who may not have the privilege to speak,” he said. “I never set out to be an activist. I just set out to speak up about what I thought was the right thing to do. I consider it an honor and a privilege to be able to speak up. I plan on living my entire life doing the right thing based on my inner core values.”

“If that makes me an activist, then so be it.”

Michael Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Follow Dr. Friedman onTwitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl.