Remember the game “Simon Says?” Let’s play a round. Simon says: change your name. You thought Simon would say something along the lines of, “Stand on one foot,” didn’t you? That is a hefty demand for the first round of a favorite childhood game. Well, let me throw a wrench in the loop. Simon is Barack Obama. You are Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins football team.
Recently, Native American groups across the country and even President Obama have put pressure on Snyder for a name change to the NFL team.
In an interview with CBS News, Dennis Seymour, a member of the Baltimore American Indian Center, claimed the term “Redskin” is a racial slur and said he wanted the team and Redskins fans to step back and realize the implications of the name, the chants and the dances. Seymour told Gigi Barnett of CBS, “It’s a derogatory term. It’s long past its time. The NFL and the owners of the Redskins need to step up and do the right thing.”
November was Native American Heritage month, and this year, Native Americans across the country intensified their quest to prove their offense against the stubborn Dan Snyder. The loudest group speaking against Snyder is the Oneida Indian Nation, who with the recent help of the National Congress of American Indians, have called upon NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to “do the right thing and bring an end to the use of the racial epithet,” according to the site changethemascot.org.
In a recent press conference, Oneida Nation representative Ray Halbritter referred to the term “Redskins” as the “R-Word” and said his mission to change the name was not about the Washington team or owner Dan Snyder per se, but instead, it was a “civil rights issue.” Halbritter told the NFL the use of the “R-word is not a unifying force.” But according to Snyder, a man who falls back on claims that he has many Native American friends, the term should be considered “A badge of honor.”
In an interview with USA Today in May of 2013, Snyder lashed out against criticism for his team name and stated he would never change the name. Snyder told USA Today, “As a lifelong Redskins fan…I think that the Redskins fans understand the great tradition and what it’s all about and what it means…We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER—you can use caps.”
If that’s where Snyder stands, then the backlash certainly will not end. Tessa McLean of the Ojibwe Nation told NBC News that she finds the term “Redskins” offensive. She said, “(Redskins) is a term that was created for proof of Indian kill,” she said, saying the term references “the early-American sale of Indian scalps.”
In a statement released by Snyder, the owner sought to educate Native Americans, informing them the name of his team was not offensive, giving reason as to why he would never, in all caps, change the name. “We owe it to our fans and coaches and players, past and present, to preserve that heritage,” Snyder wrote. Snyder’s idea of “heritage” is completely misguided, according to Fitni Destani, a physical education professor at Keene State College.
Destani said the issue surrounding the controversy comes back to economics—not heritage. According to Destani, teams like the Washington Redskins or the Cleveland Indians all had good intentions in the beginning, however, he disagreed with the cover up that teams are showing respect to Native American heritage “tradition” or “heritage” by the use of their names and their mascots.
“The original issue comes back all the way to memorializing Native Americans by using values or attributes of Native Americans of how they used to be… Things like the Redskins or the Indians, you’re lumping all of these Native Americans…” Destani stated teams are not necessarily tracing these tribes to their roots. Destani said groups may be offended by the dress and dance of mascots because in that form, regular people are pretending to be sacred, respected individuals in a society for which they know little about.
For mascots, Destani said, “That is somebody that is dressing up to emulate a Native American and to do ritualistic dances and war paint and things like that, wearing feathers that are very sacred to the cultures that you are emulating. Only people of respect can do those things.”
But not all Native Americans are offended by the exploitation of their culture. According to Destani, some groups profit off the use of these team names and merchandise sold. But therein lies another issue—the issue of identity.
“You gave up control of your own public image,” Destani said, “When it comes back down to it, you’re selling out and giving up public control to someone else who is not a native.”
Destani also noted the issue of stereotyping. As Destani said, naming these teams was in no way meant to be offensive—owners had good intentions. But even the best intentions can be miscued when left in the hands of rowdy fans.
“It seems safe but then the fans can’t be controlled with how they use it, and you can’t control overall how the image is going to affect Native Americans,” Destani said. He added that ultimately, Native Americans need to be in charge of their public image, and no one else.
“How they are viewed in the public eye obviously are coming from the stereotypes that we see not only in sports but that we see in movies, in our culture, in everyday language and we enforce the stereotypes through the use of these names and these mascots in sports,” Destani stated.
In an October interview with the Associated Press, Obama said that for these reasons, the team should consider a new name. The President said, “If I were the owner of the team and I knew that the name of my team — even if they’ve had a storied history — was offending a sizable group of people, I’d think about changing it.”
I know little about Native Americans in the United States and knew nothing of this controversy until it became headline news earlier this year. As I have tried to view the issue from their perspective, I find it helpful to use examples from my own life experiences. As Native Americans refer to the term, “Redskins” as the “R-word,” I cannot help think of people referencing the “N-word” and wonder if they hold the same weight of offense. According to Native Americans, it does.
Destani commented on this notion and said, “Can you imagine the alternative, for blacks? It would be the Washington ‘N’s’.” This is what blew my mind. I cannot believe we live in a society that makes claims of “respect for tradition” or uses excuses of “heritage” to keep this sort of thing going. I can imagine Dan Snyder is shaking in his boots just considering the blow he would face financially if he were to make any change in his team’s name. Sure Snyder, it’s nice you think you are fooling us with your claims that your team is honoring Native American’s by running around with a name that really symbolizes the scalping of people. And yes, it is so nice that you have Native American friends. But really, does anybody care? Snyder is trying to save himself hiding behind a weak shield. Open your eyes, Snyder, because your shield is weak and your opposers are telling you they are not buying your story.
And neither am I.
Julie Conlon can be contacted at email@example.com