12:46 PM PT -- The impact of professional sports teams mocking Native American history and culture couldn't be more profound on young folks who identify with that heritage ... according to the President of the National Congress of American Indians.
We spoke with Fawn Sharp Tuesday on "TMZ Live," and she reinforced just how damaging the dichotomy can be on Native American youths ... who grow up learning the importance of headdresses, ceremonies and the like, but then see it taken as a joke in public.
Sharp tells us that it's a two steps forward, one step back type of deal -- she says Natives learn the rich history of their people, and know its inherent value, but then get a gut punch when they see that -- after all these years of supposed progress -- it's all co-opted for exploitation and fun.
The scarring on their psyche couldn't be more clear in Sharp's eyes -- which is why moves like what the Cleveland team are making are critical going forward.
The Cleveland Indians changing their name will prevent Native Americans from taking their own lives -- this according to leaders in the community, who insist there's a connection.
Suicide is an enormous problem among Native Americans -- it's the 2nd leading cause of death, and is especially dire among the young.
As for why the name of a baseball team affects the suicide rate -- when Native Americans see non-Natives wearing sacred headdresses and mocking their people with mascots, names, antics, etc. -- it screws with their heads in a big way ... so says Prairie Bighorn-Blount, Executive Director of the American Indigenous Business Leaders. This, we're told, profoundly diminishes self-esteem as well as pride, and can create a severe identity crisis.
There's actual, hard proof to back this up ... namely a study of 600 Native Americans, the overwhelming majority saying they were highly offended by pro sports teams using nicknames related to Native Americans.
The groups we spoke with are thrilled Cleveland's changing its name, but they won't be satisfied until other teams follow. They're talkin' to you, the Kansas City Chiefs, the Atlanta Braves and Chicago Blackhawks.