Activists say R-word and N-word equally offensive
By Charles Hallman
Advocates who consider the Washington professional football team nickname racist and offensive believe that change eventually will come, but not without constant pressure on the team owner to do so.
Since purchasing the team in 1999, billionaire Daniel Snyder consistently says he will not change the original nickname given by the team’s founder in the early 1930s. Some argue that Washington’s annual estimated revenue — at $245 million — is largely based on team merchandise and other apparel that feature a racially insensitive logo.
But Snyder strongly contends that most fans support him and often refers to a 2004 Annenberg poll of mostly White respondents that found that nearly 90 percent of those polled were not offended by the name.
“There is now a national conversation — politicians, journalists, sports figures, activists and leaders of all races — coming together to stand with Indian people in pursuit of respect and dignity,” proclaimed U.S. Congresswoman Betty McCollum
(D-Minn.) last week at a November 5 forum at the University of Minnesota. “It is time for Mr. Snyder and the NFL to stop insulting Indian families, children and elders and take the proper and very simple step to end this hurtful controversy.”
A report released last month by the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) pointed out that the use of Native American sports mascots “continues a legacy of racist and prejudiced attitudes.” The NCAI also noted that over 2,000 “Indian” references in sports have been eliminated during the past 35 years, including 28 high schools in 17 states with the same nickname as Washington’s.
The District of Columbia City Council last summer introduced a new resolution against the name, and President Barack Obama among others has publicly urged Snyder to change the name as well. The Oneida Indian Nation recently met with NFL officials and asked if they could meet with all team owners during the Super Bowl next February in New York. They bought ad time last week on a local sports talk radio station as well and criticized the team name.
The St. Paul City Council signed an open letter to Snyder and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell “expressing their disapproval” of the Washington name, and the Minneapolis City Council wrote and sent a similar letter. An American Indian Movement (AIM) protest rally with an estimated 700 persons gathered outside the Metrodome before and during last Thursday’s Minnesota-Washington contest. Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton last week called the Washington name “antiquated and offensive.”
“It has never been right to disrespect the indigenous people of our country. It is especially wrong to do it in 2013 with the name of a team that represent our nation’s capital,” said Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak in a released statement.
Many Washington lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle are urging Snyder to rethink his position and change the team name, noted McCollum. “How [can] we keep using such hateful language and say it’s OK?” she told the MSR after her panel appearance. “The right thing is to stop using this racial slur. When more and more people will actually know what it means, they don’t want to use it.”
“The ‘R’ word to us is the same as the N-word and other words that are hurtful and create shame,” added Norma Renville, who was a panelist along with McCollum, retired Minnesota Vikings player Joey Browner, Native American curator Richie Plass, and longtime AIM leader Clyde Bellecourt.
Browner afterwards told the MSR that those who support the Washington team name “don’t understand why this word ‘redskin’ [is bad]. Redskin was the first word they used before the N-word.”
“You’ll find Native voices that don’t disagree with the use of Native names with sports teams,” admitted Dr. Anton Treuer of Bemidji State University, “but overwhelmingly people have a real problem with it.”
As executive director of that school’s American Indian Resource Center, Treuer wrote in his book Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians but were Afraid to Ask (Minnesota Historical Society), “The two biggest defenses of [using] Indian mascots are pretty weak. The first is the claim that ‘we are honoring Native Americans.’ If all Native Americans felt honored, then that argument would bear some weight, but most do not feel honored.
“Nonnative people also justify the practice by pointing to Indians who use Indian mascots for teams. The difference is that the Indians…are the descendants of warriors, so their use of that image or name is not a mockery.”
Dr. Treuer last week told the MSR in a phone interview, “Why should something like sports, which is supposed to ideally unify segments of the population, engage in an activity that marginalizes a lot of people?” he asked. “No one would tolerate White guys dressing up in hokey Afros and painting their faces black doing some caricature of Black people, but with Native stuff, lots of people tolerate it. It’s not just White guys, but it’s everybody. It’s not just the issue with professional sports — there are lots of K-12 educational institutions with Native mascots.”
“I do see a positive movement” on the Washington name issue, says Plass.
“I believe that mascot will be gone in a year,” predicts longtime AIM leader Clyde Bellecourt.
See “In Our View” on this week’s editorial page and “Another View” on the MSR website for more on the Washington team nickname controversy.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to [email protected].
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