U.S. Sen. Al Franken Says Native Americans ‘Need Advocates’

GW symposium on mentoring native youth, student forum on Redskins’ nickname tackle cultural issues.

GW symposium on mentoring native youth, student forum on Redskins’ nickname tackle cultural issues.
November 21, 2014

By James Irwin

Al Franken was at Pine Ridge, a particularly poor Native American reservation in South Dakota, when he met the funny kid. The Democratic U.S. senator from Minnesota and former comedian knew talent when he saw it.

“I realized, very quickly, that this kid was really funny,” Sen. Franken said Thursday in remarks about the need for mentors for Native American youth. “I said, ‘You’re really funny.’ And he said something funny back to me. And I said, ‘No, you’re really funny. I know funny, and you’re really funny. I wrote for Saturday Night Live for 15 years. You could be a comedian.’”

Sen. Franken, a member of the Committee on Indian Affairs, spent a half-hour outlining a possible career path. The kid brushed it off.

“I’m kicking myself for not writing this kid’s name down,” Sen. Franken said. “He would not take yes for an answer. Pine Ridge has, I think, about 85 percent unemployment. This was as far away from possible for him as telling him he could go to the moon tomorrow as an astronaut.”

Role models are critical for children, and no group is in more dire need of them than Native American youth, Sen. Franken said at a George Washington University symposium held as part of Native American Heritage Month, one of several November events on campus focused on native issues. “Bridging Worlds: The Role of Mentorship in the Lives and Communities of Native Peoples,” co-sponsored by the Native American Political Leadership Program (NAPLP), the National Education Association and the GW Native American Student Association, featured discussions on supporting native students in the nation’s capital and the White House’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative.

NAPLP provides full scholarships for Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students to participate in GW’s Semester in Washington Politics program through a grant from the AT&T Foundation.

“Part of what Senator Franken talked about is mentoring and opportunities for young people to step outside their comfort zone and gain new experiences,” said Peggy Flanagan, an adjunct faculty member in NAPLP and the executive director of the Children's Defense Fund of Minnesota. “We think one of those ways is happening here at GW.”

Native American youth, Sen. Franken said, are in need of support in Washington. The Committee on Indian Affairs, he said, isn’t a high priority on Capitol Hill—“I asked to be on it, and when you say you want Indian Affairs, you get Indian Affairs,” he said. The committee recently hosted a hearing on childhood trauma, looking at it both as a universal issue and through the lens of the Native American community.

“What we learned is how much more American Indian kids are exposed to adverse childhood experiences,” he said. “One aspect of trauma is historical and cultural. American Indians have lost their history and their culture.”

At a panel discussion Thursday night to discuss the Washington Redskins team nickname, the idea of damaged culture again bubbled to the top of conversation. The NFL franchise has been a lightning rod in recent years over its name. A group of Web developers recently created a tool that searches for the word “Redskins” and replaces it with an alternate name.

“The term was used as a bounty on native people,” Brian Howard, a legislative associate with the National Congress of American Indians, said at the Thursday night event, hosted by the GW Native American Student Association. “During westward expansion there were situations at the state and local levels where officials would basically place bounties on the lives of natives to leave so they could have access to their lands.”

Whether the franchise changes the name or not, there are advocates for it to happen. Joaquin Gallegos is a fellow at the Center for Native American Youth Policy. He said the name, and nationwide use of stereotypical imagery regarding mascots and team nicknames, affects the psychology and mental health of native youth. The Justice Department has held a series of hearings to examine the impact of violence on Native American and Alaska native children. Young Native Americans are committing suicide at around three times the national average.

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