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As the 2023-2024 National Football League (NFL) season gets underway, efforts to revitalize the former Washington football team’s name have also made headlines.

 A petition to change the team’s name of “Commanders” back to the “Redsk*ns” began in June and has gained more than 131,000 signatures as of press time. 

“The name ‘Redsk*ns’ carries deep cultural, historical, and emotional significance, honoring the bravery, resilience, and warrior spirit associated with Native American culture,” the Change.org petition says. “It was never intended as a derogatory or offensive term but as a symbol of respect and admiration. Changing the name abruptly disregards the positive legacy that the Redsk*ns name has built over the years and disorients the passionate fans who have invested their emotions, time, and unwavering support in the team.” 

Washington Commanders’ President Jason Writer set the record straight, saying that the old team name would not be considered. Washington changed its former Redsk*ns team name in July 2020, after 87 years and years of refusal by the team’s former owner, Dan Snyder to change the name. In 2013, Snyder commented in an interview with USA Today that he would never change the team’s name. 

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After the name change in 2020, the Washington franchise took the name Commanders in 2022 after two years as the Washington Football Team. Snyder sold the franchise for a little more than $6 billion—a record amount for North American sports—in July 2023 to a group of business franchise owners, including National Basketball Association Hall of Famer Magic Johnson.

In July, the NFL fined Snyder $60 million after an independent investigation found he sexually harassed a team employee and that the organization withheld revenue from the NFL. The investigation was sparked after a House Oversight Committee received allegations of workplace misconduct by an employee named Tiffani Johnson in 2021. 

Leaders and organizations have spoken out about the effort to revitalize the team name, including the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), Illuminative, and other local leaders in the Washington-Maryland-Virginia area.

NCAI Executive Director Larry Wright (Ponca) said in a press release that he hopes that the new Washington leadership continues dialogue with duly elected tribal leaders and to engage with communities directly affected by the previous mascot. “This call to action extends to other professional franchises, including the Atlanta Braves, Chicago Blackhawks, and Kansas City Chiefs,” he said in a press release on August 30.

Illuminative Executive Director Crystal Echohawk (Pawnee) said in a statement challenging Washington Commander leadership to acknowledge why the previous name was removed.

“This conversation will not end until team leadership publicly acknowledges WHY they rebranded and the harm they caused Native peoples,” Echohawk said. 

Illuminative is a Native woman-led racial and social justice organization building power for Native people by amplifying Native voices, stories and issues has campaigned for the removal of Native-themed mascots and sports.

“The Washington Commanders’ President Jason Wright announced that the team is not considering a return to their former team name, ‘period,’” said Echohawk in a statement on August 31. “While it’s great that the team is not reverting back to their old name — which, to be clear, is a dictionary-defined racial slur — this conversation will not end until team leadership publicly acknowledges the harm inflicted upon the Native community as the explicit reason for this decision. 

For decades, Native leaders and allies have called on the state of Washington and the NFL to change their team name and to acknowledge the pain it has caused to the Native community. Financial campaigns, lawsuits, demonstrations, resolutions, and letters have all pressured Washington to change its name, calling the team name a racial slur, as defined in the dictionary.

Previous owners of the team, as well as the current team owners, have not apologized for the use of the name.

“Our hope is that once Commanders’ fans and the sports community at large understand this rationale, they will stop saying the former name once and for all and build a space for Native people to feel respected and safe,” Echohawk said. 

“NCAI urges these organizations to follow the lead of the Washington Commanders and Cleveland Guardians, promoting a dialogue that upholds tribal sovereignty, amplifies contemporary Native voices, and paves the way for the retirement of harmful mascots, imagery, and branding,” NCAI Executive Director Wright said.

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About The Author
Author: Darren ThompsonEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Darren Thompson (Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe) is a staff reporter for Native News Online who is based in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. Thompson has reported on political unrest, tribal sovereignty, and Indigenous issues for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, Indian Country Today, Native News Online, Powwows.com and Unicorn Riot. He has contributed to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Voice of America on various Indigenous issues in international conversation. He has a bachelor’s degree in Criminology & Law Studies from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.