The Battle of Washington

Daniel Snyder says it honors the heritage of Native Americans; critics consider it nothing less than a racist slur. We set out to gauge the real sentiment regarding the name ‘Redskins’ among Native American leaders and in grass-roots tribal communities around the country. The short answer: It’s complicated

By
Jenny Vrentas
· More from Jenny·

With special reporting by Emily Kaplan

SAN CARLOS, Ariz. — The dusty roads behind the San Carlos Apache tribal headquarters lead to a place where the debate surrounding the NFL team in the nation’s capital does not feel 2,000 miles away. This reservation, a 1.8 million-acre trust of land two hours east of Phoenix, has an air of isolation. Cell phone service is spotty, and many businesses don’t have the technology to swipe credit cards. The dwellings of the 10,000 plus residents are scattered across the semi-arid terrain.

But the issue of the Washington NFL team’s name—the Redskins—drives the work of one artist on a daily basis. Propped up outside the white trailer that serves as his studio are paintings of Apache men and women on mixed media such as skateboards and household doors. Douglas Miles’ work portrays his subjects in traditional dress of cloth headbands and high-topped moccasins; wielding revolvers in a modern twist on their warrior ancestors; celebrating the tribe’s matrilineal heritage.

About a year and a half ago, Miles, who has lived on the reservation for nearly three decades, started an art campaign called “What Tribe,” with the intent of dismantling racial stereotypes such as the ones he sees in that team name and logo. Instead of a protest or a picket sign, he decided to weigh in by presenting his culture in a way many Native Americans feel is not recognized by the larger American populace. “We’re either seen as this extreme noble savage,” Miles says, “or this extreme poverty case that needs help.”

Indeed, these are the two visages often evoked and juxtaposed in discussions about the Washington team name. The push for a change in the name is pitted against Native Americans’ less-abstract needs—job creation, health care, land rights. But in many Native American communities, and to many Native American leaders, the mascot issue is about more than a football team.

Artist Douglas Miles on the San Carlos Apache reservation in Arizona. (Jenny Vrentas)
Artist Douglas Miles on the San Carlos Apache reservation in Arizona. (Jenny Vrentas)

That’s what we saw and heard during the past month, when The MMQB visited three Native American communities—the San Carlos Apache Reservation, Onondaga Nation in upstate New York and the Seminole Tribe’s Big Cypress Indian Reservation in South Florida—and spoke to dozens of other Native Americans living across the U.S. We spoke to leaders and to everyday people in the community like Miles, whom we met at the local café in San Carlos where his daughter works.

The recent groundswell around the team name produced some movement earlier this month, when the franchise announced the launch of the Original Americans Foundation, which pledges to work with tribal communities to provide resources and opportunities. Team owner Daniel Snyder and his staff visited 26 Native American communities to gather information and assess needs, and their initiative has already had a positive and tangible impact—one project has been to distribute more than 3,000 coats to tribes in the Great Plains this winter.

But the issue of the name remains. There is a loud call from many Native Americans, one that did not ask for money or assistance from the team. It asked for a name change. In a four-page letter outlining the new foundation’s goals, Snyder did not directly address this call, but wrote, “It’s plain to see [Native Americans] need action, not words.”

“I would say we do need action,” says Jacqueline Pata, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). “And one of those actions is treating Indian country respectfully. One of those actions, Dan Snyder, is changing the name. Respect Indian country, do what is right, and don’t cloak it with something else.”

At least a dozen members of Congress want the name changed, as do some civil rights groups and vocal members of the national media. The people at the heart of the debate, though, are those at the grass-roots level among the more than 500 recognized tribes in the U.S. The MMQB took the temperature of Native Americans from coast to coast—representing 18 tribes in 10 states—and found a complicated and nuanced issue. What we did not find: the “overwhelming majority” that Snyder and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell have claimed support the name “Redskins.”

We found opponents of the name in 18 tribes: veterans of the U.S. military, lawyers, college students, cultural center employees, school volunteers and restaurant servers. Their viewpoints align with official statements from dozens of tribes or inter-tribal councils and from the NCAI, which represents more than 250 tribal governments at the Embassy of Tribal Nations. Many of these people wondered how, or if, their voices are being counted.

By no means is there a consensus. We met a man in San Carlos who grew up rooting for Joe Theismann. Others pointed out how the Florida State Seminoles and Central Michigan Chippewas use Native American mascots with the approval and input of the tribes. Some whom we spoke to on the San Carlos and Big Cypress reservations said they had no opinion, and members of about a dozen other tribes or communities we reached out to did not respond or declined to be interviewed.

But team officials and the NFL paint a nearly uniform picture of support for the name, typically citing the results of a 2004 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, that 90 percent of the 768 self-identified Native Americans polled said the team name “Redskins” did not bother them. (The question: “The professional football team in Washington calls itself the Washington Redskins. As a Native American, do you find that name offensive or doesn’t it bother you?”). That survey is 10 years old. Can the same opinion be applied today?

Voices

John Warren, Chairman of the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi, in Michigan and Indiana: “To me, I look at it as a part of an old, institutionalized racism. I don’t understand why some athletes, especially the ones of color, don’t say something. The ‘R’ word is just as offensive. Athletes of color should be very, very offended when they hear that word. It’s the same thing we’re talking about here. Why is it offensive to us, and not others? Does it matter that there are not as many Native Americans playing the game? It shouldn’t matter. The connotations that word has, any minority group who has had a history of oppression, they should know that it is wrong.”

Neely Tsoodle of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma: “My personal belief is completely different than anyone I know. But I don’t see the need to eliminate Native Americans as mascots. In fact, I don’t want to do that. At all. If we do, then we are erasing another part of our footprint in American culture. … Somewhere along the road it got out of hand, and became a caricature. Maybe it was lack of education, maybe it was society, but it turned into crazy, violent men running around beating drums with red paint on their face, and that’s not OK. But that doesn’t mean we should erase the name completely. We just need to make sure that the nickname is used in a tasteful manner and we are educating people about the meaning behind it. If we get rid of the name completely, we are erasing a part of our identity, and that’s something I know we have fought so hard to maintain.”

* * *

The Washington football team has drawn more attention than other professional sports teams using Native American names or imagery—Braves, Indians, Blackhawks—because it represents the nation’s capital, and because it uses a word critics consider a racial epithet. The NFL plans to crack down on slurs on the field for the 2014 season, emphasizing to officials that such language is part of the 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. That raises plenty of questions—including: How does the “Redskins” debate fit in to all this?

The word “redskin” has a complex history and meaning. An early usage, as traced by Smithsonian senior linguist Ives Goddard, was as a self-identifier among Piankashaw tribesmen in the mid-1700s. But newspaper clippings from the 1800s show the word used in the darker context of the colonial authorities’ bounty offer for each “redskin” killed, during the era when scalping was practiced by settlers.

Like the n-word, it is derived from the color of a person’s skin and has acquired offensive connotations through history. And members of the group to which it applies have repurposed it among themselves, sometimes using it as an expression of kinship. But that doesn’t subtract from the word’s potency. Says 53-year-old Victor Billie, who teaches traditional carving and the Seminole language for Big Cypress, “In a way, ‘Redskins’ is a racial slur, but in a way, it ain’t. I’m divided. I leave ‘Redskins’ up to each person’s definition. If a person says to me, ‘You’re a redskin,’ I consider it the truth. I’m not black-skinned, or white-skinned; I’m a redskin. I’m proud of it. But, when I was younger, it was an insult, and it hurt me.”

In the shadow of FedEx Field, a protest popped up at a November 2013 news conference about the Washington NFL team name issue. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
In the shadow of FedEx Field, a protest popped up at a November 2013 news conference about the Washington NFL team name issue. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The hurtful connotations are what many Native Americans hear in the Washington team name, often based on personal experience. Members of the Blackfeet Nation tribal council explain how they are referred to as “redskins” in Cut Bank, Mont., just outside their reservation’s border. They also recall being denied service in some restaurants in that same town. “Depending on the way you tell me [‘redskin’],” says Leon Vielle, one of the councilmen, “you might get punched in the nose, or you might get looked at mean.”

One member of South Dakota’s Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe, Robert Shepherd, shared a memory of being called to the blackboard to complete a math problem as a sixth-grader in the nearby school district. When he got stuck, the teacher told him, “Go sit down, you dumb injun.” Now chairman of his tribe, Shepherd is preparing to formally oppose the “Redmen” mascot of Sisseton High School—and all Native American mascots—which he believes contributed to his experiences with discrimination.

But he would be the first chairman in Sisseton to take on this issue. The school serves both the tribe’s reservation and the border town, and some members of the tribe hold loyalty to their alma mater. There has long been debate about the Redmen name in the community. Elsewhere, tribes embrace mascots, such as the San Carlos Braves and the Ahfachkee Warriors, but the student body at these schools is nearly 100 percent Native American.

Complicated? Perhaps. But the common denominator is that Native Americans want to have a say in how words and imagery that refer to them are used, in the same way that African-Americans establish when and how the n-word can be used. “All this is, is Native American people saying you cannot dictate to me what I should like, and accept, and not accept,” says Miles. “I may only be one person, but if one person doesn’t like it, then someone needs to pay attention.”

Voices 

Stephanie Vielle, 31, U.S. Marine veteran and member of the Blackfeet Nation: “Racism gets really draining. Sometimes people accept it, not because they want to, but because it has been so repetitive. That’s kind of what the Redskins represent, is our exhaustion.”

Jeremy Baker, 23, Creek and Seminole: “I think people my age and younger don’t have a problem with [the Redskins] near as much as the older people. I don’t necessarily have a problem with it. Now if you walked in here and called me a ‘redskin,’ I might have a problem. It would be different. People my age wear Redskins gear even. I don’t know why younger people don’t care. I think we’re just not as much into Native American culture, with the way we’re raised today. We’re Americanized, I guess.”

* * *

Since last fall, Snyder and his staff spoke with 400 tribal leaders, according to his open letter, and started more than 40 projects in Native American communities. As word of their trips trickled back to NCAI headquarters, many tribes reported that team officials did not ask how they felt about the name.

This was the case during a February visit to the Blackfeet Reservation in northwestern Montana, up near the Canadian border. Snyder was not present, but team representatives spent about four hours with members of the tribal council, discussing children’s programs and economic development. They made suggestions for an empty five-building industrial park the tribe is trying to turn into a foreign trade zone to create new jobs.

Leon Vielle, who participated in the meetings, admits he might not have wanted to take part if the focus had been on the team name. But the industrial park has been his pet project, so he put his strong feelings against the name aside to help his community. “I realize the controversy with the name,” he says, “but one of the things is it’s brought some attention to something that is lacking in Indian country, that is lacking within our federal government. If it takes [Snyder] to help us, then fine. We’re not looking for a handout, we’re looking for a hand up.”

Daniel Snyder. (Simon Bruty/SI/The MMQB)
Daniel Snyder. (Simon Bruty/SI/The MMQB)

The team’s approach has merit—taking the time to listen to the needs and challenges many Native American communities face. Snyder wrote in his letter that he “wanted and needed to hear firsthand what Native Americans truly thought of our name, our logo, and whether we were, in fact, upholding the principle of respect in regard to the Native American community.” The team did not describe how it chose the communities it visited, or the scope of its financial commitment. Onondaga Nation general counsel Joe Heath says Snyder was invited to their community—one of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, along with the Oneida Nation, which launched the “Change the Mascot” campaign—but it was not one of the trips the team made. Nor was the San Carlos Apache Reservation, whose tribal council passed a resolution in October denouncing the “Redskins” mascot as “deeply offensive.” Says San Carlos Apache vice chair John Bush, “I’d love to share my thoughts with them.” (A team spokesman did not make Snyder available for an interview with The MMQB.)

Snyder’s outreach pleasantly surprised his fellow owners at the NFL meetings in March. Indian country, however, has been more skeptical. “You never took interest in us, going on a few decades,” says Vielle’s daughter, Stephanie, a U.S. Marine veteran who is now attending college at the University of Texas at Arlington. “I’m glad they’re helping us now, but that’s taking advantage of a poor community. It shouldn’t be shut-your-face money.”

Navajo Code Talker Roy Hawthorn at a game at FedEx Field in November. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Navajo Code Talker Roy Hawthorn at a game at FedEx Field in November. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Snyder has owned the team since 1999, and his effort to connect with Native Americans in response to the rising push for a name change has created divides in some communities—including Navajo Nation, the second-largest tribe in the U.S., which has long remained officially silent on the mascot issue. Among the tribe’s most revered members are its Code Talkers, the veterans who used their complex language to transmit coded messages during World War II. In November four Code Talkers were recognized on the field during a Washington game at FedEx Field; three were wearing team jackets. Later, at a Feb. 28 meeting of the Navajo Code Talkers Association in Arizona, seven members passed an endorsement of the team’s name, though the rest of the group’s 40 members were not in attendance for the vote.

In response, Joshua Lavar Butler, a delegate in the Navajo Nation Council, introduced legislation last month opposing professional sports teams’ use of Native American mascots. “Navajo Nation can no longer afford to sit back and remain neutral,” Butler says. “An endorsement by the Navajo Code Talkers is not an endorsement by Navajo Nation.” The committee voted last week to table the legislation and amend it, striking out the references to the Code Talkers.

Other aspects of Snyder’s outreach have also raised questions. His foundation will be run by Gary Edwards, a Cherokee and retired member of the U.S. Secret Service, whose selection has already been scrutinized. When Edwards was chief executive of the National Native American Law Enforcement Association, the organization received a $1 million contract from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to recruit Native Americans to work in law enforcement. But the Washington Post reported that the contract was canceled after federal investigators found the group’s work under the contract completely unusable. Pata suggests that rather than bring on Edwards, the team could have partnered with people or organizations already doing work in Native American communities, for greater returns.   

“Indian country is a welcoming community—we have a history of that, right?” says Pata, a member of Alaska’s Tlingit Tribe. “But I believe the motives are disingenuous. It’s all part of that larger strategy to win at something that is important to them, which is keeping their name, keeping the franchise and keeping the dollars rolling in for the team.”

Voices

Arvina Martin, 34, enrolled member of Ho-Chunk Nation, from Wisconsin:The most harmful thing is that these depictions are ways to keep Native people in the past, as these two-dimensional images that are very comfortable to most Americans to keep Indians in that sense. A lot of people do seem to care more about these images than real Indian people who are sitting there and talking to them. And that to me is insane as well, a living breathing person standing here talking, saying, ‘This isn’t appropriate, and let me tell you the reasons why,’ and dissenters just saying, ‘Nope, don’t care.’ ”

Herb Stevens, director of the San Carlos Apache Cultural Center: “It’s an honor to be recognized as being ‘Native,’ but not to be called a redskin.”

* * *

There’s an inconsistency in the story that the Washington team name was adopted to honor Native Americans. In 1933, when the franchise switched from “Braves” to “Redskins” to avoid confusion with the Boston Braves baseball team, the team had a Native American coach, Lone Star Dietz, and several Native American players. But team owner George Preston Marshall told the Associated Press at the time of the change that their presence “has not, as may be suspected, inspired me to select the name Redskins.”

Preston Marshall. (Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated)
George Preston Marshall. (Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated)

Snyder, who grew up attending games at RFK Stadium with his father, has not budged from his stance on the name. And he has the public support of Goodell. At the league meetings last week in Florida, the commissioner said it was “very clear when you look at public opinion, when you look at the polls, that 90 percent of Redskins fans support the name. They believe it’s something that represents pride. And the general population also supports it overwhelmingly.”

Furthermore, there’s no recourse or precedent for the league or other owners to dictate what happens with the name—the decision rests entirely with Snyder. People around the league see his stance like this: Absent proof of a significant swing in fan opinion, he doesn’t want to change what he likes, or to take on the risk of a rebranding.

Ken Meringolo, managing editor of the popular blog Hogs Haven, considers the Washington team to be sacrosanct, but he admits the issue is complicated among fans. “Look, no Redskins fan thinks of himself or herself as racist,” he says. “You love this team, and the last thing you would ever want is for something you love to be negative.” He was surprised last fall when the site partnered with the Washington Post on a contest for graphic designers to submit new logos and names. They received nearly 2,000 entries, and most of the feedback was not negative. “It showed a willing participation in being a part of a new chapter,” he says.

Snyder has softened his tone a bit regarding the naming issue. Last May, he made some among the Washington fan base and in the NFL alike cringe by telling USA Today he will “NEVER—you can use caps” change the 81-year old moniker. In his letter last week he wrote that Native Americans “have genuine issues they truly are worried about, and our team’s name is not one of them.”

As with the American population as a whole, different tribal communities have different priorities. The Onondaga Nation spent eight years fighting for 4,000 square miles of land it says New York illegally obtained 200 years ago. Says Sid Hill, the spiritual leader of the Onondagas, “Land rights are our number one priority, first and foremost; it’s always on the docket. And then there are tax issues, environmental issues, passport issues, health issues. Yet somehow the ‘Redskins’ mascot keeps coming up. Is it a priority for us? No. But it always seems to enter into the conversation.”

Part of the reason is that, for those against the name, conversations about Native Americans’ rights and how their voices are represented draw on the same matters at the heart of the mascot debate. Chad Smith, the former principal chief of Cherokee Nation, says it’s a “daily fight” to ensure that rights guaranteed long ago in treaties with the U.S. are upheld. The San Carlos Apache, for example, have been engaged in a fight against a proposed copper mine that could threaten a sacred tribal site. “The mascot issue is a symptom of a lot of the problems in Indian Country,” Smith says. “The American public sees Indians as a novelty, rather than as a real people, and that penetrates other issues.”

Miles, the artist, used to work as a youth counselor in San Carlos. But when he witnessed the impact of stereotypes like the Lone Ranger’s Tonto and the Washington mascot on the self-worth of the kids under his care, he turned to art and started a skateboard company and team, Apache Skateboards, that promotes cultural pride. His “What Tribe” art campaign has staged shows in Phoenix, Los Angeles and Denver and has an Instagram account with more than 1,000 followers.

Voices

Frank Cloutier, a representative for the Saginaw Chippewa Nation in Michigan: “There are some who feel an out-and-out ban on Native American mascot images, monikers and/or the like would be the only solution once and for all.  Personally I believe we should approach this issue with an optimistic spirit. This is a great opportunity to look at educational possibilities and perhaps a greater understanding of our true history here in America.”

Zandra Wilson, Navajo, cultural interpreter for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.: “A lot of times, people come into the museum and ask me what I think, and I can only share my individual viewpoint. I try to tell them I love watching football. It’s a family tradition. But I’m not sure if ‘honoring’ is the most appropriate word to be using at a Sunday football game. In some cases, I’ve felt uncomfortable. I don’t know the right way to say it—I feel embarrassed. Each feather [in a headdress] was an accomplishment, not something taken lightly. The headdresses are not made yourself; they are given to you or made for you. And achievements are not light. Do not take traditional clothing lightly.”

* * *

This issue is not new. The NCAI has campaigned against Native American stereotypes in pop culture since 1968. Arvina Martin, 34, chair of the American Indian caucus of Wisconsin’s Democratic Party, testified at a hearing for a bill opposing Native American mascots in schools when she was a high-schooler. But there is a new momentum, and times are changing. Says Martin, a member of the Ho-Chunk Tribe, “We are perfectly capable of being politically active on more than one front. Part of it is that this is one that people choose to listen to.”

The team privately believes the current groundswell has been driven in part by the media and non-Native Americans. Both groups have advanced the conversation, but Native American communities have also developed a stronger voice thanks to growing access to social media and a more vocal younger generation. “Tribal leaders across America are bigger economic partners, more sophisticated organizations than they were 20 or 30 years ago when the last attempt was made to change this,” U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from the state of Washington, said in an interview with The MMQB in March. She is the former chairwoman of the Senate’s Indian Affairs Committee. “They are more able to communicate about why this is so offensive, and I think that will be a turning point in the debate.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state, who is working with her constituents in opposition to the team name. (Charles Dharapak/AP)
Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state, who is working with her constituents in opposition to the team name. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Cantwell, whose constituency includes a large Native population, has been a political ally for critics of the name. In December she organized a meeting attended by Goodell and Native American leaders in Washington, D.C. But after seeing Goodell’s continued support of the name at his Super Bowl press conference and in a Feb. 27 response to a letter Cantwell sent him, she has set to work challenging the league’s tax-exempt status. “Using a slur on the field is bad, but using it on a banner above the field is somehow OK?” Cantwell says. “Because they continue to perpetrate that lie, we are going to continue to push on legislation here.”

Her plan dovetails with a sweeping tax-reform proposal by U.S. Rep. Dave Camp, a Republican from Michigan, which includes ending the tax-exempt status of professional sports leagues. (NFL teams pay taxes on the billions of revenue earned, but the league office, which is organized as an industry association, is tax-exempt.) Camp’s proposal has found little support in Congress so far, but a tax restructure could affect clubs with stadium loans from the NFL.  

Both sides of the debate are also awaiting the ruling of the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, which more than a year ago heard a suit by Native Americans to cancel the registration of the team’s “Redskins” trademarks. Jesse Witten, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, says there have been at least a dozen cases since 1992 in which the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office refused to register trademarks using the word “redskins” on grounds that it may disparage Native Americans. Seven of those applications were submitted by Pro-Football, Inc., the corporation that operates the Washington NFL team, and one was by NFL Properties, Inc., the merchandising and licensing arm of the NFL.

Challenging the existing marks is more difficult, because the plaintiffs must prove that each of the team’s six “Redskins” trademarks—granted between 1967 and 1990—was disparaging to a substantial population of Native Americans at the time it was registered. In a similar suit brought in the 1990s, the Board cancelled registration of these six trademarks. But when the team appealed, a federal district court overturned the decision on two grounds: The Board lacked substantial evidence for its decision, and the petitioners waited too long to pursue their claim. In the current case, the plaintiffs are younger—closer to the age of 18 when they filed—so the second defense should not apply. Another difference is that this case would go to a different federal court on appeal, because of a reorganization since the last suit. 

The trademark case could take several years to play out in a courtroom, and a related bill proposed in Congress has not yet had much support. The team could still use the “Redskins” name if its trademark registration is canceled but would have a harder time preventing trademark infringers from selling knockoff team gear.

Says Pata, “When the moral issue, the ethical issue of this, hits the purse strings, that’s when it will make a difference.” She believes Snyder’s recent outreach is, in part, a way of addressing the anticipation for the trademark board’s ruling.

 Voices

Robert McDonald, spokesperson for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana: “We look forward to a day when all professional sports teams use names that bring people together rather than repelling potential fans.”

John Bush, Ph.D. in education, Vice Chair of the San Carlos Apache Tribe: “We need to get the public support to eventually not attend a Redskins game that has real negative connotations to human beings and people. If most people would research, they would understand it’s very negative, and maybe they would take a different approach to attending these games. I just can’t believe these racial stereotypes of Native Americans exist in this time and age. It’s about time the Washington Redskins owner and organization makes the change.”

* * *

Douglas Miles’s Apache skateboards. (Jenny Vrentas)
Douglas Miles’s Apache skateboards. (Jenny Vrentas)

This name-change debate is a bit like the old paradox of physics: What happens when an immovable object meets an unstoppable force? Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, weighed in boldly last week, telling the Washington Post he thinks the name will be changed within three years.

Snyder has already given his response to the growing pressure for a name change, and that response was last week’s announcement. To many, it’s an answer to a different question. “A paltry attempt to buy your way out of an ugly situation,” says Smith, the former Cherokee leader. “It suggests to me it may take another generation for them to come to their senses. It tells me it’s going to take more time.”

Maybe not. By now, opponents of the name are not expecting the change to be initiated by Snyder and the team, but rather through external pressures—the trademark case, legislation or public resistance. In the meantime, the calls are getting louder. “He’s clearly made sure that we all understand he’s grounded in his decision,” Pata says of Snyder. “But it doesn’t change [our optimism] at all. I think a change will be made in the near future. There is not even a doubt in my mind. I just do not think this can continue to be tolerated. This is not America, and it defies not just the first Americans, but who we are as American people, to be disrespectful to other people.”

Perhaps the most relevant question is not if there is a consensus among the country’s more than 5 million Native Americans—the answer is no—but rather, should a name change depend on one?

Robert Klemko contributed reporting from Big Cypress Indian Reservation.

460 comments
KGETZ3
KGETZ3

"Perhaps the most relevant question is not if there is a consensus among the country’s more than 5 million Native Americans—the answer is no—but rather, should a name change depend on one?"

You're right.

We should just depend on the superior opinions of enlightened white liberals.

S C
S C

Geez...can we just make up what is racist these days?  We should just do away with all color names and just call every damn crayon color NOT TRANSPARENT.  You can't be Yellow, you can't be White, you can't be Red, you can't be Black....well not Black in Spanish anyway.  We all can however be NOT TRANSPARENT

Jim Mouser
Jim Mouser

When the Red Mesa High School in Arizon residing on a reservation and servicing 97% Native American kids adopted Redskins as the name for their sports teams, I suppose they knew it was a racial slur and did it anyway?

When the principal was questioned about it recently, it was a big "so what. We have other worries than what our team name happens to be". Hardly evidence of any racial slur.

For about the last 70 years the name was on hundreds of schools, many on reservations. Only in the last 5 years or so have any "Redskin" schools reconsidered their names.


MichaelTailour
MichaelTailour

I wonder how many Americans know that almost all Indian cultures of the Americas were slave societies??? Not a matter of debate, it is a historical fact. Hell, quite a few of them were into human sacrifice also.  And how did Indians settle these lands prior to European settlement.  The same freaking way Europeans did; they killed or decimated every weaker tribe or group in their way.  As another matter of fact, the Oklahoma Territories sided with the South during the Civil War because those 'poor' Indians were using slave labor to make huge, huge profits.  How can Indians talk about inequality when even today, black members of the Cherokee and Creek nations are suing in court to get full recognition as members of those same tribes???  Why doesn't Eric Holder or Obama take care of that problem (rhetorical question: we already know that Chief Race-baiters 1 & 2 don't care about their own hypocrisy)???  So take all your touchy-feely nonsense, your irrational race-baiting, your freaking ignorance, and do the tomahawk chop with me right into the abyss.

JoeWade
JoeWade

Bunch of chicken chits, too weak to address the hard issues eh?

Amazing how much attention the media gives towards a sports icon and racism, while saying nothing about the racist acts of AIM's murder and hiding away of Perry Ray Robinson Jr. who marched with MLK, 40yrs and his family continues to call for the return of his body and yet NDN country and the media turn a deaf ear and close thier eyes while they yell racism about a team name.

Sickening! , Even the likes of Angela Davis and support groups will not raise their voice for such racism towards others from within .... GET YOUR PRIORITIES STRAIGHT PEOPLE.

"“I was floored,” Oswald says. “Banks is not only aware of Robinson’s killing, but where he was buried, and he acknowledges his own role in where to bury the body.” It also lent credibility to the theory that AIM’s leadership wasn’t averse to frontier justice." - NY Times Article April 2014
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/27/magazine/who-killed-anna-mae.html

LarryTRobertson
LarryTRobertson

Can we see if there is a tribe that would adopt the Washington football team? No one complains about the Seminoles, do they? I can see that "Redskins" is offensive, there is really no other way to see it. But using, by the tribes approval, a tribal name brings respect, dignity and a sense of history and cultural education. People I think would want to learn about the tribe, its history, what its beliefs are. I think the Washington fans was truly embrace the change and the authentic feel of who they are, not a stereotype but part of a real living breathing people, a family, which is what all Washington Redskins fans think they are. Just a long shot chance at solving a very real and problematic situation.

RonAhmay
RonAhmay

Like Goddard, Shoemaker said that by the end of the 18th century, Native Americans were using "red" to describe themselves and to assert their pride of being North America's original inhabitants.

tony20009
tony20009

I think it's high time folks get over the mere word and focus on whether the team's owners and senior managers have actual racist leanings and have actually acted in a manner -- other than owning/running a team that had a name given it some 60 odd years ago -- that shows them to be racist or racist-leaning.  It's not the word itself that's necessarily offensive, but rather the thoughts and feelings of the folks who use it.  It's time as a nation that we start focusing on substance more than form.

cgwhitney
cgwhitney

I am one quarter native american and I find this entire discussion repulsive. There is absolutely nothing offensive about "Redskins". It is absolutely the opposite. It is honorable. How far is this going to go?! How about going after the Aniak, AK High school moniker of "Half Breeds"?! ...or the Spokane Indians (farm team of the Texas Rangers). Isn't "Indians" politically incorrect these days as well? Get a job, or at least another hobby for crying out loud! Harry Reid, get back to work and focus on something with substance for crying out loud! ...or better yet, retire.

eick74
eick74

In the article they point to the Annenberg 2004 poll that said 90% of Native Americans did not have a problem with the name and asked can that opinion still apply today. They also said they could not find the "overwhelming majority" that Snyder and Goddell said support the name. They obviously talked to many Native Americans but all they can say is that there is not a consensus. Makes me wonder what SI considers to be a overwhelming majority and what percentage of those that SI talked to do not have a problem with the name.


The fact that they did not include any numbers of that kind lead me to believe that the percentage is far too close to the Annenberg 2004 number that SI would like to admit.

pjohn7759
pjohn7759

I am Lipan Apache and I say leave the Washington Redskins name alone! Enough has been done and taken from Native Americans already seems like this issue now just wants to diminish our existence. Native Americans have different tribes like Lipan,Apache,Lakota,Navajo and Washington has there Redskins. Why after so many years does this become an issue. Everyone has his or her own opinion but one individual does not speak for us all.

BrutusTheBuckeye
BrutusTheBuckeye

Lets get real here... you can't get consensus among Native Americans so now you write an entire article trying to say you don't need a majority to be offended just a couple Native Americans.  This is a slippery slope of thinking for our country but a common thing for liberal Democrat white people looking to make themselves feel better about history.  This isn't the n-word or any other negative racial stereotype and it is what Native Americans came up with themselves.  The media has an agenda here and it is no coincidence that ESPN has come out with a coordinated effort where they claim they are open to debate yet 100% of their on-air personalities are against the Redskins.  83% of the country has no problem with it in the most recent poll of the country and there is a reason this author chose not to pay for a poll of Native Americans who use Redskins for their own youth team nicknames.  This is very similar to the gun debate where you have a minority of rich white people who think they get to make the rules for all the rest of us peasants.  Sorry, we still live in America and until the free markets demand that Snyder change his name then he should be left alone to run his business. 

chazatlas
chazatlas

NOBODY uses Redskin as a slur or derogatory term.  Native American Indians refer to themselves with pride as belonging to the "Red Nation."  There is the Red Nation Film Festival, dozens of community groups, etc.  Well, when they say the belong to the Red Nation, what "Red" are they talking about?  Red for the blood their people spilled when being massacred?  No, they are talking about their red skin.

chazatlas
chazatlas

The Atlanta Braves stopped using their "Screaming Indian" logo back in 1989.  You now have a generation of younger baseball fans and players that don't even realize the team is named after and in honor of, Native American Indians.  I randomly asked several young people in their teens & twenties if they knew what the ATL Braves were named after.  Most thought the name simply stood for being brave or courageous.  The only a couple of them knew it stood for Native American Indian Braves.  How did they know?  They grew up in households that had team memorabilia with the old Indian logo.  These handful of NAI's need to be careful what they ask for before their people truly get lost in obscurity. 

mrmach1
mrmach1

Teams are named in HONOR of something.......someone or some thing they hold in HIGH REGARD......Teams are not named after someone or something that is hated or despised.........Common sense anyone ?

JimPrato
JimPrato

"Washington Redskins " =  Hurtful and insensitive name

" United Negro College Fund " = Non Offensive ?????????

How about changing the name to the  Washington Negros then ? I mean since the word " Negro " is accepted.

This world just blows my mind.

JimSmith4
JimSmith4

A seven-month study was conducted by Smithsonian Institution senior linguist Ives Goddard. In the study, which is available online, Goddard concluded the origin of the word was "benign and reflects more positive aspects of relations between Indians and whites."


http://anthropology.si.edu/goddard/redskin.pdf


Native Americans described themselves as Red or the Red People.  “Homa” means Red People in Choctaw.  “Oklahoma” means land of the Red People in Choctaw and that word did not exist until the territory was named by a Choctaw Indian asked by the Government to do so:


http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~okcoal/place/choctaw1.htm


The current logo was designed in 1971 by Native American leaders, including Walter "Blackie" Wetzel, a former president of the National Congress of American Indians.  He brought in other leaders from Indian Tribes to help with its creation.  When it was done they said it was “perfect”. 


http://www.greatfallstribune.com/story/news/2014/02/16/don-wetzel-dont-call-redskins-logo-offensive/5528647/


Interestingly, the same National Congress of American Indians is now blaming the Washington Redskins for having a racial slur as a team name.  What has changed?  Could it be that the race baiting by other groups out there like the NAACP promising payouts of some kind in the end has mucked the waters? 



I'll tell you what is really arrogant and racist.  To take the meaning of a word from its original intention that was created by a culture and used by that culture as a proud honorable way to describe themselves and make it a racial slur against that culture.  


Who do these predominantly white liberal politicians and individuals think they are to decide such a thing?  And look how they have mucked the waters and turned the various Native American tribes against each other on this issue with their thought and PC police.  


They are a disgrace to America.  They are still lying to the Native Americans and using them as political footballs to the point where they now want to take away the name that they used to describe themselves and then convince them it is a good thing because it was a "racial slur" after all.  Absolutely despicable Harry Reid and Co.!  


All of this in an effort to distract, redirect, and continue to polarize Americans from focusing on the complete failures by these politicians on the real issues facing Americans of all color, race, and religion.

DannyRT
DannyRT

I'm a proud member of the Cherokee tribe and honestly I don't care about the name Redskins. I think a majority of American Indians don't have a problem with it. In my entire life I have never been called redskin as a slur. I am by no means saying there are those who haven't, I'm saying for my gen and the ones after the term to us has always been associated with a football team not racism. That term used to be know a has a hateful term in the past, but now a days not so much. Lets leave those days in the past and move on and not let a stupid name take power over us. I think they need a nation wide vote held by the tribes if the majority says change it then change it. If they majority says leave it be then leave it be. Again I still don't have a problem with the name. Hate the team being a Dallas Cowboys fan, but the name and logo, which I find tasteful some think it's also racist which is odd seeing as Indians designed it, does not bother me. If they want to change something offensive in sports I'm sure most would agree the need to change that damn Cleveland Indians logo. I Don't mind there name but there logo has got to go.


RosNAnte
RosNAnte

My father, who passed, was a Choctaw. His grandfather was on the Trail of Tears, and his grandmother was an orphan from it. His parents met at an Indian boarding school and he struggled in American society when he left his hometown.  He experienced many of the social problems and diseases of his people.  When people asked him if he was an Indian because of how he looked he would say "yes, a feather, not a dot", just to be sure.  So he had a sense of humor.  He told me that in his gut he was personally offended by the "Redkins" team name because he remembered stories about how the term was used in a derogatory way and so his grandparents and parents changed their names and clothes and tried to change their lifestyles to pretend they weren't Indian because they were ashamed.  Local church folk back then called them "heathen Redskins" who didn't have a place in heaven because they told him Indians weren't really human.  He didn't have a sense of belonging anywhere.  A generation down, the name doesn't affect me personally and few people even know I'm Indian and I don't have any strong feelings about my heritage - I'm fully assimilated and fine with my life and love my country and this planet.  I know a lot of Native Americans and other races don't care about the name, or they even like it, and that's okay - nothing against them.  But my father cared, and that is good enough for me.  In his memory and honor, I'm against the name.  

GregGustav
GregGustav

This is not a complicated issue. 

It's offensive otherwise there would be no story here. 


aschifter
aschifter

It seems to me that the offensive ones are those who are not Original Americans telling Original Americans what they should or should not feel about the name.  The obfuscated history of the name leads everyone to second guessing the intention of the name.  But the intention of the name should not be the focus.  If "Jet" became a racial slur than those people called "Jets" should be listened too about their feelings and not be preached history lessons either way. These NFL names, that bring millions of people together of all races and backgrounds together, stand not as a barrier but a bridge.  Nelson Mandela recognized this power when he maintained the Springbok.  And if it is the collective choice of Original Peoples from the DC area, who the Redskins represent, to change the name, that objection should be listened to.  But so far Original Americans have not.  What they have said is "recognize us" and this discussion has done everything but that.  It has denigrated these people by ignoring what they really want and need.  And as a further insult it has told them how they should feel about something that has little importance to them.  

citizenpained
citizenpained

Most commenters who think NO ONE is denigrated by the name Redskins don't seem to have a problem denigrating anyone who disagrees. "We're not calling THEM names, we're calling YOU names!" . . . that says it all, don't you think?


I wonder if they (excluding most Baptists) would have a problem if people donned surplices and miters and drank beer out of chalices while attending a game by a team called the "Bishops". 

RalphTheGardener
RalphTheGardener

Snyder is a petulant little Jewish man who is obviously unable to grasp the incredibly obvious. What was meant as a compliment, back-handed as it may have been, in the 1930's has simply out-lived its usefulness. Does he need to have the Supreme Court force him to drop the term "Redskin"? It is not as if it is a particularly "good" moniker. It is stale and out-dated and frankly offensive to some people. Not to mention the money and good will to be harvested from a change-the-name contest, new colors and all new merchandise. The team itself is in the toilet and likely to go down the drain the way the inmates are running the asylum these days. While I may not like Mike Shanahan I am certain he is a much better football coach than Snyder and his sidekick Booby Griffon. The poor puppet they brought in (Baby Gruden) is certainly in for a drubbing. Amid all that jazz a name change is nothing.

Al Albert
Al Albert

As usual what we have here is a noisy minority of arrogant liberals trying to convince others that they should be offended. Never mind that the majority of Americans want the name to stay, by god liberals know best, and damnit they say you should be offended.

LarryTRobertson
LarryTRobertson

Excuse my grammar snafu, I did not spell check before I posted, Lol!

LarryTRobertson
LarryTRobertson

@RonAhmay it's amusing that at the end of the century a lot of minorities were trying to define or redefine themselves. In a search for identity a people will move through stages, as their view of themselves and their place and position in the world changes. It is now the 21st century and maybe that sentiment is not the same. Just a thought.

LarryTRobertson
LarryTRobertson

@tony20009 I could almost agree with you but racism is not that easy to define or outlaw, or morally destroy. If it is high time we as people get over something it is the idea that words don't hurt, they don't  help to define and shape our world view, and they don't cause us to be callous of other people's feelings because it seems okay and what's the big deal anyway. Hey just another person's view on your view. Be Blessed and have a nice day


skyking812
skyking812

@cgwhitney He IS working!  Things like the above are what Harry Reid does: race baiting, sewing racial disharmony. 


What I'd love to know is who is funding and organizing this upstart "Name Changer" business?  Seems like business to me.  This "issue" was barely a blip on the radar a few short years ago; now one can't go a full day without running across it somewhere.


A campaign this organized takes lots of money and manpower.  Who's at the top of the pyramid?

KGETZ3
KGETZ3

@eick74 Yep and despite numerous polls that tend to show majority support for the name they decide to start each page using quotes that are almost completely against the name.

skyking812
skyking812

@BrutusTheBuckeye "...a common thing for liberal Democrat white people looking to make themselves feel better about history."

You hit the nail on the head, my friend. As much as anything else, this is about erasing the memory of American Indians, and thus all the wrongs that were visited upon them.  It distresses me to see so many sincere Native peoples fall into a trap intended to further marginalize them.

But if you've tried explaining this to a Name Changer, you've already discovered that they listen impatiently (when they listen at all), and then regurgitate the very same talking points as before, in the same order.  Saul Alinsky's RULES FOR RADICALS explains how to do this, so they're working from a playbook, no doubt about it.

skyking812
skyking812

@chazatlas There is, not unimportantly, the State of Oklahoma, unfortunate destination for many tribes who walked on, and died on, the Trail of Tears.  "Oklahoma" is Choctaw for "Red People".


Nobody seems very upset about this.  Nor should they be.

skyking812
skyking812

@mrmach1 Correct.  No one would ever name a sports team the "Wife Beaters", now would they?

LarryTRobertson
LarryTRobertson

@JimPrato Dude for real, you just had to bring  that into the discussion? And you wonder why people still see racism as an issue in America. That you thought that was appropriate, insightful and intelligent way to discuss this blows MY mind. But okay our Soldiers  of all races, colors, creeds and religions have fought and are still fighting wars for your right to say whatever is on your mind. I just hope you show a little more sensitivity and restraint in the future. Just because you have the right to say something does not mean it is the right thing to say. Have a wonderful day and God bless you!

skyking812
skyking812

@JimSmith4 The only thing I think should be added to your superb marshaling of historical facts above (well done!) is that the logo adopted in 1971 was the first time the helmet had a likeness of an American Indian. At that time, the letter "R" appeared on both sides of the helmet.


At that time, Walter Wetzel and NCAI Council members traveled to DC to expressly ASK the team to put an image of a Native American on the sides of the helmet.  Do they sound as if they were appalled by the "slur", "Redskins"?

cgwhitney
cgwhitney

@JimSmith4 I am one quarter native american and I find this entire discussion repulsive. There is absolutely nothing offensive about "Redskins". It is absolutely the opposite. It is honorable. How far is this going to go?! How about going after the Aniak, AK High school moniker of "Half Breeds"?! ...or the Spokane Indians (farm team of the Texas Rangers). Isn't "Indians" politically incorrect these days as well? Get a job, or at least another hobby for crying out loud! Harry Reid, get back to work and focus on something with substance for crying out loud! ...or better yet, retire.

mrmach1
mrmach1

I appreciate your comment and understand.

Ask yourself this question...If I had just organized a football team and the time had came to make a choice on how we will identify my team.

Would you naturally be inclined to permanently identify Your team in celebration of something you Admire ?

Or would you want to choose a permanent name for your team after something hate or despise ?

I dont believe anyone takes the second aprroach !

BrutusTheBuckeye
BrutusTheBuckeye

@GregGustav apparently you didn't read the article... if it wasn't complicated he wouldn't have written 5 pages about just how complicated this issue is.  Though I would argue for free markets, if people stopped going to games and buying the merchandise, Snyder would change the name tomorrow, however as the article stated Native Americans themselves go to the games, buy the merchandise and even name their youth teams Redskins so maybe this issue isn't quite so cut and dry.

mrmach1
mrmach1

@GregGustav

Do you believe that any and all gripes and complaints are legitimate ???? Your line of thought is ....People are offended or they wouldnt say they were offended.

Does that make it legitimate ?

skyking812
skyking812

@citizenpained I'm missing something here.  Is there some disgrace in a bishop wearing his vestments?  Or is the disgrace in drinking beer? I'm sure a number of bishops would take offense at your insinuations. 


Would you also favor renaming the chess piece of the same name?  See, I hate to say it, but I see your thinking as twisted and not at all logical.  OH!  It's always about FEELINGS, isn't it?

armagecko
armagecko

@RalphTheGardener Go back to gardening, Ralphie. You're criticizing a team for it's unintentional insult while you flagrantly insult the owner by calling him a "petulant little Jewish man." The obvious thing here is that this is a non-story promoted by the sensationalist media: the people who are most "offended" by the team's name are those who are least impacted by that name. The one who is "obviously unable to grasp the incredibly obvious" is you. 

BarryDay
BarryDay

@Al Albert It's not liberals who are offended, it's most Native American tribes who find it offensive. The problem is, NAs don't typically speak up. They learned their lessons about making white people angry.


It's just that liberals have started acting as a voice for the Natives. Now that they see white people sticking up for them, they are beginning to voice their displeasure with the name.

alcibiades5410
alcibiades5410

@Al Albert  Yeah, and I'm sure the majority of Southerners who were permitted to vote in the 1960's would have loved for segregation to continue. The majority doesn't get to decide minority rights. I believe the common comparison is "3 wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for dinner." 

RalphTheGardener
RalphTheGardener

@Al Albert  I would guess that the majority of Americans could care less about the name of a football team. It's not that big of a deal.

moresensethandollars
moresensethandollars

@BrutusTheBuckeye @RalphTheGardener Eh, these are the same people also fight for Hamas's rights and freedoms to oppress women and minorities. What happened to the days Americans believed in themselves, believed in egalitarianism and equality, believed that we need to stand up for people getting put down. It's a shame we live today where political correctness goes to the lengths of defending those who actually oppress, and demonizes people at home hurting no one.

skyking812
skyking812

@BarryDay @Al Albert How many American Indians spoke up in this discussion?  A half-dozen or so, so there goes your theory.  You didn't bother to read through the comments, did you?


Only one voice a moderate dislike for the name.

Jim Mouser
Jim Mouser

@BarryDay @Al Albert Hate to shake your delusion but there are no indications anywhere of your claim that most Native American tribes find the name offensive. For example, Red Mesa High in Arizona on a reservation and servicing 97% Native American kids are the Redskins.


I guess it's your contention that they proudly adopted what has been labeled a racial slur by liberals as their team name? Are you saying that these particular Native Americans are backward, misinformed, or what?

BrutusTheBuckeye
BrutusTheBuckeye

@BarryDay @Al Albert BS... the movement to change college mascots came from politically correct liberals and when they tried it with Florida State, the Seminole tribe stood up and let them know.

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