Corporations lend an ear to Indian issues

Everybody knows native American activists want to rename certain pro sports teams, such as the Atlanta Braves.

But what about Chief Shooting Star?

The image – found inside some Tootsie Roll wrappers – and the legend dreamed up about the fictional figure so offended some American Indians that they've launched a campaign to stop it.

Ever heard of Crazy Horse clothing? Descendants of the legendary Lakota warrior are lobbying Liz Claiborne to drop the name – just as they have convinced other companies to stop using it.

Using their growing leverage in financial circles and ties with socially responsible investing groups, some American Indians are aiming to reform corporate America's use of names, mascots, and imagery they find offensive. They've targeted AOL Time Warner for its portrayal of native Americans. They're pressing Federated Stores to stop selling Washington Redskins football gear.

Meanwhile, they're putting increasing pressure on how companies use Indian land. As a result, corporate America is beginning to listen to old grievances.

"The social-responsibility investing movement is making real inroads in Indian country now," says Gelvin Stevenson, investment consultant for the Oneida Trust Committee, which oversees several investment funds of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. "Several tribes are awakening to the strategy, and that will only increase."

So far, they've posted mixed results.

Take the Crazy Horse controversy. BP had planned to use the name for its new oil find in the Gulf of Mexico. But according to Lakota tradition, it's sacrilegious to say the name of a dead person in public, much less use it as a corporate name. When representatives of the Crazy Horse estate complained, the oil company immediately reversed course and announced earlier this year it would change the name.

"I really have to take my hat off to them," says Gary Brouse, director of equality and indigenous issues for the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, based in New York. After negotiations between the group and the company, "we came out with much greater respect for each other."

Similarly, SBC Holdings (formerly Stroh Brewing Company) agreed last year to stop selling Crazy Horse malt liquor. And in a unique ceremony, the company delivered culturally appropriate damages, including seven race horses, 32 blankets, and sweet grass.

The estate continues its suit against another brewer using the Crazy Horse name, and negotiations with Liz Claiborne, which owns the Crazy Horse fashion line, have proved unsuccessful so far.

"We have never used native American imagery or iconography, and we never will," the New York-based designer company said in a statement. Although it offered to make changes to the line – and remains open to modifications – it has refused to drop the name completely. "Lack of response to our good-faith efforts was highly discouraging," the company's statement said.

The American Indian movement into corporate America has gained momentum in recent years. For one thing, tribes are beginning to join forces in causes, even if they're not directly affected.

"We will support other tribes when we learn of harmful behavior that's occurring to their land, their air, or their water," says Susan White, director of the Oneida Trust Department. One example: the Wisconsin-based tribe is paying close attention to the Hopi fight with Peabody Energy over water use on its reservation.

Under its agreement with the Hopi and the Navajo, Peabody withdraws 3.3 million gallons of water a day from the reservation aquifer to run a coal slurry. The Hopi claim the withdrawals are drying up traditional springs and streams. The company claims environmental factors have caused the dryness. Native and other groups have met with Peabody and majority shareowner Lehman Brothers to force a change in the agreement.

Meanwhile, non-Indian social-responsibility groups are beginning to apply pressure as well. For example, the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi in Milwaukee filed a shareholder resolution requesting a report from media giant AOL Time Warner on how it would disassociate itself from offensive imagery of American Indians in its broadcasts and through its ownership of the Atlanta Braves.

"We're trying to get them to be attentive ... to the way American Indians are portrayed," says Irene Senn, director of the congregation's office of justice, peace, and integrity of creation. The sisters withdrew their resolution after a productive meeting with various company executives and have plans for more dialogue.

It's hard to gauge how deeply feelings run in the native American community itself. The movement's crowning achievement so far – convincing high schools and colleges to drop offensive nicknames and mascots – has met with mixed enthusiasm.

"We have the Watertown Arrows; we have the Braves; we've got a lot of Warriors, Chiefs, Chieftains, and Redmen," says Betty Ann Gross, a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux tribe and volunteer director of the Minority Resource Center in Watertown, S.D. "I would say 80 percent of the American Indians here in South Dakota want those schools to retain those nicknames."

Sports Illustrated earlier this year found much the same thing: 81 percent of native Americans surveyed said high school and college teams should not stop using Indian nicknames. A slightly higher percentage (83 percent) agreed that professional teams should not stop using Indian nicknames, mascots, characters, and symbols. On reservations, support was more measured but still garnered a two-thirds majority.

Other issues may strike a deeper chord, however, especially the use of Indian land. Local activists periodically take on retail chains that, in breaking ground for a new store, disturb native burying grounds. Calvert Group, a social responsibility investment company, is targeting energy and technology conglomerate Idacorp after it settled a contentious court battle over dams and native fishing rights.

Actually, the settlement has improved relations between the company and the Nez Perce. The tribe got $11.5 million over five years and now holds quarterly meetings with the company. But Calvert wants Idacorp to formally agree to negotiate with all native populations before undertaking future energy projects.

The conglomerate wants to retain its flexibility. "The company learned much more about the depth of the tribal concern," says Idacorp spokesman Jeff Beaman. But "the best way to deal with issues in disagreement is to address them on a case-by-case basis."

Perhaps the toughest challenge for American Indians revolves around sacred lands. Indians regard them as places of prayer, even if no structures or remains mark these areas.

"We're back to the last few remaining sacred places – all else has been destroyed," says Chris Peters, executive director for the Seventh Generation Fund, a native-American foundation based in Arcata, Calif. "We're not in a position of compromising at this stage of the game."

But "it's a slow process of changing the minds of corporations," he adds. "The sacredness of American soil is not given any consideration."

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