Fact-checking yet another Washington team-name debate.
I asked The MMQB’s Jenny Vrentas to weigh in on the latest back-and-forth over the controversy of dueling letters late in the week (50 U.S. senators asking for “Redskins” to be banned, club president Bruce Allen saying it’s a prideful moniker), particularly in the areas of their letters where facts are used. Her report:
In the debate about the name of Washington’s NFL team, there isn’t much common ground between the pro- and anti-Redskin side, but here’s one thing they can agree on: The conversation on the subject has never been louder. The two sides paint polar opposite pictures of the support for and appropriateness of the team name. What’s true, and what’s spin? Our take:
1. Team says: An overwhelming majority of Native Americans do not find the name offensive.
The team and the NFL use as proof a 2004 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy center, in which 768 self-identifying Native Americans were asked this 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?” Ninety percent of those polled said the name did not bother them. It’s a leap, though, to say the results of that poll mean an overwhelming majority do not find the name offensive 10 years later, particularly when there is significant evidence to the contrary: Opposition from dozens of tribes or inter-tribal councils, including the country’s largest tribe, Navajo Nation, whose Council voted in April, and the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), which represents more than 250 tribal governments. Allen did not write in his letter when the survey was taken or the sample size.
2. Senators say: This is a matter of tribal sovereignty—and Indian Country has spoken clearly on this issue.
Native Americans maintain sovereign tribal governments that hold a government-to-government relationship with the United States. That’s a lot of political speak, but what it means is that an entity like the NCAI, which operates out of the Embassy of Tribal Nations in Washington, D.C., represents the interests and critical issues of its more than 250 member tribes to the federal government. Their opposition to name represents the stance of their people, though when the senators write that Indian Country has spoken clearly on the issue, it’s not altogether true. Formal opposition from tribal organizations like the NCAI speak clearly, but the rank-and-file native citizens are mixed on the issue, something we at The MMQB found while reporting the issue this spring. We visited 18 Native American tribes in 10 states, speaking to ranking tribe officials and average native Americans. However, it’s clearly not the case, from our research, that 90 percent of native Americans either support the name or don’t find it offensive.
3. Team says: The term “Redskins” originated as a Native American expression of solidarity.
Allen’s letter correctly cites the research of Smithsonian senior linguist Ives Goddard, who traced the word “redskin” as a self-identifier among Piankashaw tribesmen in the mid-1700s. But he leaves out the negative connotations the word picked up over the next few centuries—its use in conjunction with the scalping practices of settlers, or the fact that even today, members of the Blackfeet tribe in Montana say being referred to as “redskins” and being denied service in a border town to their reservation go hand in hand. The word has benign origins, and can be an expression of kinship, and has taken on the usage of a slur against a group of people based on the color of their skin. All are true of the n-word, too, and we’ve learned to respect that word’s potency.
4. Team says: The vast majority of Americans are in favor of keeping the team name.
The Associated Press conducted a survey in January 2014 asking a variety of questions via online interviews with 1,060 adults. And the AP reported that 83 percent responded that the Washington NFL team should not change its nickname. That, obviously, is a clear majority.
5. Team says: Our logo was designed by Native Americans.
The team’s name goes along with a logo of the profile of a Native American man. Allen writes that the current logo was designed by Walter Wetzel, member of the Blackfeet Nation and former NCAI president, and approved by Native American leaders in 1971, when Allen’s father was head coach. Wetzel’s term as NCAI president ended in 1964, and the NCAI says the logo was not created on its behalf. We couldn’t confirm or deny Wetzel’s involvement—the Blackfeet tribal council had no memory either way—but the team first used the profile of a Native American man in its logo from 1937 to 1964, and then a modified version from 1972 to the present.
Of the 49 Senators who signed the letter, 47 are democrats and two are independents. Both senators from Maryland, where Washington’s FedEx Field is located, signed in support of a name change; neither senator from Virginia, where the team has its headquarters, signed. On Thursday, Washington senator Maria Cantwell gave a speech on the Senate floor calling for bipartisan support of a name change. “I’m convinced that if each member of this body speaks on this issue and is forceful in their resolve that we can help initiate change,” she said.
Many have asked why government officials have gotten involved with this issue. Cantwell, former chairwoman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, explained her position to The MMQB earlier this spring. Her constituency in Washington includes members of 29 tribes; in Nevada, Senate majority leader Harry Reid represents members of 22 tribes.
“While [native Americans’ interests] might not be front and center in mid-Atlantic states, I guarantee they are a very integrated part of our economy in the Pacific Northwest and in other parts of the U.S.,” Cantwell said. “I just think that the NFL is out of touch with that and is just parroting the line the team has, which is definitely a very out-of-touch perspective.”
But not a perspective the team is bending on—at all. Wrote Allen in his letter to Reid: “Our use of ‘Redskins’ as the name of our football team for more than 81 years has always been respectful of and shown reverence toward the proud legacy and tradition of native Americans.”
In other words, we’re not near the end of this story. —J.V.
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My take, as one who no longer uses the team name when I write about the Washington franchise: This is not going away. In fact, it’s intensifying. Bruce Allen writes a smart, cogent, mostly accurate letter, with the point the team has been making for months now—that they view the name as a noble tribute to native Americans everywhere. The fact is, there’s a burgeoning group of native Americans, which seems to grow larger by the month, that is offended by the name. Thousands, and I can’t tell you how many thousands, view the name as a slur. That number will increase as the story gains traction, which it’s doing now. Simply put, there are pockets of native Americans across the country, and an increasing cadre of politicians, that are not going to drop this. Does owner Daniel Snyder want this to be a continuing story for years? Does the team want to keep expending energy to fight this fight, and to risk turning off the other 31 owners and the league office with a black eye that is likely to come from a protracted fight over something that has nothing to do with making the league, and the team, better?
I’ve thought this for some time. At some point, at some league function or some private moment, but probably not for some time because it’s not a tidal wave of native sentiment yet, Roger Goodell and perhaps another owner Snyder trusts will go to Snyder and ask him, “Why are you doing this? Is this worth it? If you’re offending even 15 percent of native Americans in this country—and that’s probably a low number—is it worth it?”
To me, it just doesn’t make much sense for Snyder to keep fighting a fight that’s on the wrong side of history.