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
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.
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?