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The Sports Fields of Cleveland and Washington, D.C. Present a Golden Opportunity for the Biden Administration to Create Dialogue through a Federal Bureau Name Change

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michael Blair Thomas
January 27, 2020

If sports inspire change, then perhaps the time has come for Capitol Hill to look at America’s pastime. Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians have declared that after 105 years, the franchise will abandon the name and mascot it has known for over a century, starting in the 2021 season. The announcement comes only months after the Washington Football Team changed its name after 87 seasons as the Redskins (formerly the Boston Redskins from 1933-1936 and then the Washington Redskins from 1937-2019) succumbing to pressure by corporate sponsors and minority owners to financially disassociate with the team without a name change. The franchises confronted a history of 192 combined seasons before choosing to emblazon jerseys that reflect a more diverse generation of fans and shifting societal values. With 196 years in the making, the federal government should consider a name change of its own.

 In the U.S. Department of Interior exists the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE). They reside under the banner of the purview of the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs and serve close to two million American Indians and Alaska Natives. Formally, the BIA traces its roots to 1824 and was created by then-Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun. Calhoun was a known segregationist, who despite all of his political accomplishments, had a political philosophy that has remained dormant until this year’s moral awakening and Calhoun’s role in it, as Clemson University dropped his name from the institution’s honor’s college. It is Calhoun’s role in the department’s conception that could warrant a name change in today’s climate. In 2020, Americans protesting across the country have forced public administrators to confront our nation’s past at the municipal, state and national levels with calls to address inequities on fronts including access to education, health outcomes, police brutality and systemic racism throughout all areas of society. While Americans witnessed statues topple and flags change at the local and state levels, the Trump Administration fell short in executing change at the national level, even symbolically, in the form of a name change.

By observing an outgoing administration that showed little interest in extending an olive branch for marginalized groups outside of its voting base, renaming the BIA and BIE would be actions that President Joe Biden’s administration could propose to demonstrate an eagerness to examine a spectrum of ways to improve relationships among marginalized groups. While this action would not serve as a substitute for a greater call for policy changes, the symbolism presented is a tone-setting first step that could be introduced and executed in Biden’s first 100 days in office. A proposed change would also build on momentum already occurring at state capitols across the country as well.

Renaming the BIA and BIE is likely to diffuse to the state level, especially if the Biden Administration provides funding to offset the typical business expenses associated with formal name changes. Although several states feature commissions and departments with the word “Indian” in its formal name such as the Alabama Indian Affairs Commission and the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, states are aware of the potential positive impacts of eliminating the use of “Indian” names or imagery. This is evidenced by Maine becoming the first state in the country to mandate a ban on all Native American mascots in its public schools in May 2019. This built upon such efforts made in states, including Oregon and California, among others, to curb the use of Native American mascots at the high school level. Given this year’s domestic protests highlighting the need for restorative justice and an examination into America’s relationship with people of color, the department name changes are appropriate after nearly two centuries.

President Biden credits his father Joseph Biden, Sr. for saying, “Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” At the very least, executing a name change to the BIA and BIE presents an opportunity to have discussions on how to improve the relationship between the federal government and Native American tribes and send a message that the Biden Administration is not the Trump Administration. It is a small price to pay for goodwill and to start dialogue immediately. While the idea might seem like a Hail Mary to ask for on Capitol Hill, taking on this symbolic, albeit worthwhile effort, would serve as a home run for an administration whose campaign was built upon a promise to represent all Americans.

Author: M. Blair Thomas, Ph.D., MPH, MPA is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Valdosta State University. His most recent work has appeared in the Administration & Society, American Review of Public Administration and the Journal of Nonprofit and Public Sector Marketing. He can be reached at [email protected].

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