I think it’s safe to say the Redskins name debate has been front and center as the dominant headline around the Washington franchise since the conclusion of the drama filled 2013 campaign. To be fair, the name debate has been a slow simmering debate that I personally recollect dating back to the ’91 Super Bowl when a small group of protesters demonstrated near the Minnesota Metro Dome.
The Oneida Indian Nation’s Change the Mascot campaign combined with an impending resolution of the long standing legal challenge to the Washington Redskins trademark case currently before the United States Trademark Trial and Appeal Board have provided an open public debate of the appropriateness of the use of the word that some Native Americans find offensive. These individuals maintain that the word Redskin is a slur with a history of violence or denigration of the whole race of native people of America. Prior to Ray Halbritter standing in the board rooms of Washington’s corporate sponsors pleading that they end their support for Dan Snyder’s club, Suzan Shown Harjo took the same fight along with several other plaintiff’s into the courtroom.
In 1999 Harjo argued the globalization and branding of “Redskins” perpetuates long felt ills committed against Native Americans. Harjo impressed upon the court that Redskins is a slur tied to the days when bounties were issued for proof of murdered Indians, but the victory would be short-lived as Daniel Snyder would appeal the decision and record a victory in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia thus reversing the lower court’s decision in 2003. The fallout from the decision would continue the longstanding issue, and it also revealed two diametrically opposed views to the meaning of the word and its context in modern society.
On one side of the debate you have Oneida Indian Nation representing the view held by some Native Americans that Redskins was a pejorative term used on their ancestors accompanied by savage acts of violence and genocide. On the other side of the debate is the fan turned owner of the billion dollar organization, and millions of supporters. Dan Snyder and the NFL maintain that the “Washington Redskins” Legacy for 80+ years has stood for honor, pride and tradition. So the debate rages on. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? The answer probably lies within your own personal interest in the matter, but one thing is for certain- The issue is not as clean, cut and dry as the Oneida Indian Nation and their supporters would lead you to believe.
I actually believe Ray Halbritter and the Oneida Indian Nation are employing a tactic of engaging Dan Snyder in this very public campaign because they know that Dan Snyder has the tangible facts and imperial evidence supporting the Washington Redskins position. Somewhere among their ranks they have acknowledged that polling data is incredibly in the favor of the team’s argument among the public, and the majority of Native Americans across Indian Country too. If this was not true, you better believe they would be rolling out their imperial evidence to support their claims. Tell me, besides what Halbritter says during his press releases, letters, and meetings with groups have you ever seen him provide any facts to support his claims of the mental anguish the name and logo of the Washington Redskins has on children across Indian Country? I haven’t been able to locate a single study that indicates the “Washington Redskins” is oppressing young Indian children. I cannot say the same for gambling and alcohol consumption, both staples of the casinos that serve as a major economic pillar of the Oneida Nation communities across America. In my opinion, The Oneida Nation Enterprises most successful maneuver to date has been to get the football club and the NFL’s executives to engage them in an argument of indefensible straw points. The following are a few of the most consistent arguments tossed at Washington Redskins Organization:
1. Redskins is the equivalent of nigger among ethnic slurs- Wrong on so many levels. First and foremost the Smithsonian’s senior linguist Ives Goddard researched the origins of Redskins in American history and determined that Red-Skins first appears in recorded history being used by Native Americans during treaty talks with white settlers in the late 1600s. Additionally Goddard details the early usage of Redskins to have a relatively benign meaning. Of significance, Goddard’s research of the term indicated that decades long descriptions by Harjo and others linking the term Redskins to the barbaric practice of scalping are “unfounded claims.” Goddard’s full research findings can be found in his essay titled “I Am A Red-Skin”
The term nigger has universally been used globally by non-blacks to negatively identify people of African descent among majority Caucasian populations. I understand in modern urban culture the word nigga has taken on a pseudo-identity and substituted as a term of endearment, but nigger is global. You can go to any corner of the earth and ask a random person to describe a nigger and they will positively identify a darkly pigmented person of African descent. If you ask the international community to describe a Redskin, the majority would reference sports or Washington’s football team. Very few would even associate the term with the indigenous people of America.
I’m not dismissing that Redskin has probably been used at some point in time, by some portion of the population to disparage Native Americans, but the origin and context of words matter when making the case for what is the appropriate use of words or the identification of an ethnic slur in modern connotation.
2. Individuals that are offended by the word Redskin have openly dared Dan Snyder to come to Indian Country and call a Native American to his/her face a Redskin if he truly believes the term honors their people. Dan Snyder will never engage in this exercise, but I bet you if his scouting department identifies an athlete capable of running, passing, blocking, catching or jumping better than 99% of his peers Bruce Allen or Daniel Snyder would be the first to call that man a “Washington Redskin” and reinforce their statement on a re-occurring basis to the tune of a wealthy contract. Do not be misled by that straw argument of theatre. This very scenario nearly played out in 2010 when the club held the number 4 pick in the NFL draft and Sam Bradford sat atop their draft board in total value. Surely Redskins name opponents don’t think Roger Goodell was going to not mention “With the 4th pick in the draft the Washington Redskins select- Sam Bradford” and certainly those same people don’t believe Sam Bradford was going to remain seated on draft day or forfeit the $78M contract that came along with the selection.
3. Halbritter consistently says the Washington Redskins and their supporters are on the wrong side of history. Again, how do you measure this claim? We are required to look at the facts of this claim to determine the merits of it. All polling data, including that of Native Americans consistently has shown the Harjo, Halbritter, Harry Reid, and the 50 Democratic senators that signed the most recent congressional plea to Dan Snyder are all on the wrong side of the facts of this matter. The American people agree with Dan Snyder and the Washington Redskins.
4. Oneida campaign supporters say the league’s most notorious racist George Preston Marshall (founding owner) renamed the team Redskins out of a racist impulse. They cite the forceful integration of the team under threat of losing their lease to play on federal grounds as further indication of his racist nature, therefore the name of the club was born from racism, thus making it racist. They are correct that George Preston Marshall was undoubtedly a racist, but in making this argument, they also prove the point that he did not name the team in an effort to disparage Native Americans. When the team name was changed it was being coached by William Lone Star Dietz , a self-identified, but unconfirmed man of Native American decent. Deitz also fielded a roster with 6 Native American players at the time. We know Marshall hated blacks as evidenced by his conviction to not employ them until the early 1960s. If he so hated Native Americans would he not have held them in similar regard and practice? If it was about his insistence to demean them, would he want the brand most associated with his name and status permanently tied to a group he hates?-No
A better understanding of the usage of Native American team names with sports franchises can be found in an essay by J. Gordon Hylton titled Before the Redskins Were Redskins: The Use of Native American Team Names in the Formative Era of American Sports, 1857-1933. J. Gordon Hylton writes “that the most famous teams bearing Native American names adopted before 1933—the Boston (now Atlanta) Braves and the Cleveland Indians of the MLB, the Boston (now Washington) Redskins of the NFL, and the Chicago Black Hawks of the National Hockey League (NHL)—70 chose their names, at least in part, as a reference to the supposed athleticism of Native Americans and their special successes in team sports.” Specifically to the point of the Boston Braves/Boston Redskins/Washington Redskins, George Preston Marshall was following the norm at the time of professional football clubs mirroring the names of the already established professional baseball club in the city or area. As Boston had two professional baseball teams at the time (Red Sox and Braves) George Preston Marshal would select Braves to coincide with the team whom they would be sharing a stadium. Stadium lease issues a year later would force the team to relocate to Fenway Park (Red Sox). Recognizing the confusion of having the Boston Braves playing home games in Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox, would cause among fans Marshall knew he had to make a change. Wanting to keep his established linkage to Braves in the ongoing branding of the franchise Marshall made the change to Boston Redskins. The Boston Redskins of 1933 featured 6 Native American players and a head coach that was widely respected among the Native Americans for his successful tenures as the leader of the football programs at Washington State College and the Haskell Indian School, yet none of them complained or protest the name. In fact Dietz, whom was also an artist, would design the original Redskins Indian Head logo that would later appear on the team jersey. It is difficult for me to believe that seven individuals that identified themselves as Native Americans would have no objection if the team name was indeed born of racism and a pejorative term. Unfortunately Marshall’s marketing prowess and eagerness to capitalize on the Native American representatives on his football team can also point to the fact that he was at a minimum insensitive to Native American culture, but potentially it was a nod to his racist nature towards Native American too. Marshall instructed his head coach to sometimes wear full Indian regalia while coaching the team, and he also instructed all of his players to wear Indian war paint on their faces while playing games.
5. Last month a letter endorsed by Senator Harry Reid and 50 Democratic Senators was sent to the Redskins organization imploring them to change the name in lieu of the recent developments with the embattled owner of the NBA’s L.A. Clippers being secretly recorded making racist statements regarding blacks and his insistence that his bi-racial love interest not take pictures with blacks or bring them to any of his games. The letter championed NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s swift and prompt action showing the world that professional sports is no place for racist and commended the NBA for banning Sterling. This is an amazing play on your intelligence. To be fair, Donald Sterling has a demonstrated and well documented track record of nearly 3 decades of lawsuits and complaints about his discriminatory practices in employment and housing of minorities and women. These issues were present when Sterling was approved to be an NBA owner and they continued throughout his ownership tenure. Adam silver acted quickly, but Commissioner Silver has been in charge less than a year. That means the previous commissioner of the NBA turned a blind eye towards Donald Sterling’s exploits for nearly 30 years. Sterling got banned because his latest exploit could not be covered-up and because the sponsors of the NBA began to boycott.
Lumping Daniel Snyder in with Donald Sterling is an epic fail. Snyder’s charitable work cannot be questioned. Ray Halbritter and his supporters criticized The Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation as an attempt to buy the support of Native Americans. I find the irony of that position to be extremely humorous considering the amount of time and money the Change the Mascot Campaign is investing in their congressional lobby and on the lobby of local legislatures such as the New York State Legislature. I also see incredible irony in the fact that Indian Reservations are designated as independent sovereign nations within the United States’ borders that are not subject to federal law. This designation permits the tribes to have their own legal systems and create economic opportunities such as gaming resorts that are completely under their own control, and not subject to the same laws established by the US Constitution and local State charters. On one hand Halbritter and the Oneida Nation have all the rights and privileges associated with being an independent nation, but when advantageous Halbritter openly lobbies for the treat my people like everybody else in America model.
6. Who is the voice for Indian Country? I will tell you this- There is not a sole voice or genuine consensus of what Native Americans feel. The Oneida Nation has gathered some of the largest groups of organized Native American Tribes and gained the endorsement of the National Bureau of Indian Affairs to assist in the forwarding of their message. The truth of that matter is that you still don’t have an accurate accounting of how Native Americans actually feel about whether the term Redskins is offensive. Just as The Oneida Nation rolls out their big name tribes and government employed individuals, the Redskins Organization actually traveled to meet with tribes in more than 20 states during their research phase for the formulation of the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation. So who should you believe is actually reporting the true interest of Native Americans?-Neither! You should believe the independent polling data because the Redskins organization certainly has a motive to report the information one way and the Oneida Nation certainly has a motive to report the information another way.
Don’t be hoodwinked by the presence of the National Congress of American Indians (NCIA) or anything endorsed by the National Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The BIA is a government organization. Also know that many self-identified Native American tribes in America are not federally recognized or members of the NCIA. I live in Delaware where the Nanticoke Indian Tribe has desperately been trying to gain federal recognition for nearly 30 years. The same applies to the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware. Both have been repeatedly denied federal recognition despite being state recognized tribes for several decades. It is an example of the government or non-government Indian Organizations telling the members of those tribes that you are not Native American enough to be among the rank and file of the Oneidas and other federally recognized tribes. This underscores many internal problems in Indian Country and further illuminates the problem of government officials lobbying for the interest of any group of Americans that claim to be the united voice of the entire group. Across this country there are more Native American organizations that are not federally recognized than those that are so what voice are you really getting when you accept an endorsement of the National Bureau of Indian Affairs.
I, like many of you, wish the whole debate would just go away. I accept that it will not. I have seen this issue enlighten some folks in America to an unknown history of the indigenous people of America. I have also observed the American special Interest political lobby on full display. No matter where your loyalties fall on the issue, I ask in advance that you think about the unfortunate conditions that many Native Americans currently experience in this country. Whether the Washington Redskins remain for another 80 years or merely another 80 days, at some point this will no longer be an issue and all the people that have been awakened to the plight and condition of Native Americans across the country will move on the next openly gay athlete or military hostage story and exile the true gist of this debate (Native American Legacy) to the back of their minds, in essence, re-victimizing our native brothers and sisters in the modern era.
Understanding that Daniel Snyder and the leaders of the Washington Redskins organization are not public relations gurus, I sincerely hope that they recognize the complex strategy being employed by the Oneida Indian Nation and their supporters is aimed at capitalizing on the perceived weakness of the organization in the hopes that they can antagonize the organization enough to make statements like telling the media “I will never change the team name- You can use all caps” or allowing team media to instruct the team’s social media followers to tweet Senator Harry Reid to show your Redskins pride using #RedskinsPride. Gaffes like these do nothing to strengthen the team’s position which is supported by evidence and fact, but it does provide motivation for the folks that remain firmly in the middle of the debate (folks that have no interest in the debate) to take a side. Human nature will tell you that newly motivated people tend to move towards the cause of people that have been victimized. Victimization is exactly what Ray Halbritter is selling when he tosses out claims of oppression without any supporting data. The Redskins can stem these types of attacks by providing more responses similar to the May 24, 20014 response from Bruce Allen to Senator Harry Reid and the 50 additional co-signers of the letter urging the team to change their name. Responses that are sharp, concise, and reinforce the overwhelming amount of data that supports their position to keep the organization’s name in tact is a more prudent approach to dealing with the Oneida Indian Nation’s indefensible straw arguments.
Ideally, the United States Trademark Trial and Appeal Board will make a ruling soon. The hesitance of their impending ruling and some recent denials of a couple patents using the term Redskins is being cited as an indication that the Board is leaning towards vacating the Washington Redskins Trademarks. I think it’s just the opposite. Hesitance in a court of law usually demonstrates there is not enough evidence to overturn the existing ruling. Especially when you consider the Board is now reviewing a challenge that was overturned by a District Court. This leads me to believe that Senator Reid would be better served trying to utilize his legislative influence to urge the judicial branch of government to bring a legal conclusion to this matter. Quite possibly Suzan Harjo, Ray Halbritter and the name opposition leaders have been informed that a positive ruling is highly unlikely and these current threats and acts of aggression towards the NFL and the Washington Redskins are a last ditch effort to get the team to voluntarily do what the courts cannot. As such, we continue to watch theatre consisting of a calamity of errors, true lies, and the Washington Redskins.