ChangeMakers: David Glass challenges appropriation of Native imagery, culture in sports

A man wearing a beaded necklace stands outside.
David Glass stands in front of trees at Shadow Falls Park in St. Paul. Glass has been fighting for the dignity and rights of Indigenous communities for decades.
Kathryn Styer Martinez | MPR News

Updated: Dec. 9, 12:02 p.m. | Posted: Nov. 6, 11:30 a.m.

Throughout November, MPR News is featuring Indigenous Minnesotans making history to celebrate Native American Heritage Month.

David Glass, whose Ojibwa name is Zhawanuinini, has been fighting for the dignity and rights of Indigenous communities for decades. He is an enrolled member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and currently lives in Stillwater, Minn., with his wife. 

He has been working with the National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media for more than 30 years. In 1992 when the Buffalo Bills played the Washington Football Team, then under a different name, Glass was part of a group of at least 1,500 people who protested outside the stadium on a wintry January day.

Since then Glass, 69, has been lobbying professional and local sports teams to drop racist and offensive names and to stop using depictions of Indigenous people as mascots. Now the coalition’s president, Glass said recent successes include the Washington NFL team name change this summer and the removal of the Cleveland baseball team’s mascot in 2019. The team is also considering a name change.

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Glass is also a manager in the capital investment division of the Department of Interior’s Office of Indian Affairs. He works with tribes in states from Oregon to Michigan on economic development assistance and also helps Native entrepreneurs get business loans.

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What does it mean to be an Indigenous Minnesotan right now?

“Oh, I don't know that it changes in 2020 than [from what] it was in 2010, or the year 2000.

I grew up on my dad's knees. He was the president of the Twin City Chippewa tribal council for 17 years, which was the forerunner of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council. And my dad was my hero. He fought for all these issues in terms of our community, with regards to health and welfare, education, etc. I heard all of these discussions as a youngster, and we're still having these same discussions today. I mean, it's not a whole lot different.”

What figures have shaped you and who you are?

“My dad is my hero. He helped to shape me in my younger years. I had parents that laid down a foundation of absolutely great values. They taught us a set of values that I don't know gets taught today.

I was one of two of my immediate family who slipped into alcoholism and drug addiction. I stayed there for quite a while. I was — I am — one of the lucky ones that was able to finally get into a treatment program. I was able to turn my life around.

When I left and I got into the world of recovery, I met new people. John Poupart was an elder mentor of mine back in the early ‘90s. Jill Beaulieu Wilkie helped me navigate through college. I went back to finish my education. Loretta Gagnon, who has since passed from this world back to our ancestors in the spirit world, was the director of Indian education in the St. Paul Public Schools [who] was a very dear friend and mentor.

I mean, there's so many people that I have to acknowledge. I'm the person that I am today, because of all those interactions.

I work with tribal communities, from Michigan out to the coast. I love my job. I get to watch daily positive change happen for wealth building and economic development. I love that I'm able to participate in that and to see those kinds of things happen. And the guys that I work for, that brought me on board up there, they've been changemakers in my life and have influenced me. 

Some of those folks are non-Indian, but they've dedicated their life to making a difference in Indian Country. I'm really lucky and so grateful that the Creator has brought so many people into my life, to help give me direction.

I think if you ask anyone who's been who has any kind of success in their life — I don't care if they're on top of the top 100 or top 50 corporations in the world — they're the CEO. I'm quite certain that they're going to tell you that they got there through a whole lot of help from a whole lot of folks who helped them get there along the way. And, you know, there might be a few folks who will think that they've done it by themselves, but they're only kidding themselves.”

What's your vision for the future generations of Indigenous peoples in Minnesota?

“We are going to continue to progress, and we are going to continue to positively impact our communities. In our community, we talk about making decisions that impact seven generations — not just ourselves. Everybody's cognizant of that and that's always at the forefront of our minds. The things that we do today have to be so impactful that they are sustainable seven generations out. 

And as a result, we're here and we're here strong today. When Andrew Jackson said that we will either assimilate or die, that was a U.S. government edict. Then the genocide started. [They] had already started to get rid of us as a people. And in the year 2020, we are here in a very, very strong way. 

We're here in a way that we have a voice. We have a voice at the congressional level. We have a voice at state levels. We have a voice in our communities. We're impactful — helping to provide jobs and not only impacting our economies, but impacting economies of the communities around us, which is a good thing. We've always done that. Our community, the Indigenous peoples of North America of what we know as Turtle Island, has always welcomed people and taken care of them. We continue to do that.”

Correction (Dec. 9, 2020): A previous version of this article misidentified Jill Beaulieu Wilkie. The story has been updated.