As an American Indian, I have tried for years to understand the psychology behind non-Natives taking on our names and images for local schools or in the world of professional sports.
Three years ago, I attended two school board meetings in Paw Paw, Mich., where a group of American Indians were calling on the school system to drop the Redsk!ns name. Both meetings were emotionally charged with multiple generations of “Redsk!ns'' testifying during the public comment portion of the meeting, saying they would never change and threatened to vote school board members out of office if they voted to drop the name.
Among the most memorable speakers to come forth at the second meeting I attended was an elderly man, who appeared to be in his 80s. As he spoke, his face turned red and he pointed his finger at the group of American Indians in the crowd, telling them he had some tar at home and if he had some feathers, he would have come to “tar and feather” the group.
It was truly one of those “wow” moments we encounter in life.
Listening to the speakers, I realized through the years they had taken ownership of the Redsk!n name and did not care that the American Indians in the room wanted them to drop the name.
At that point in time, the school board decided to keep the name. Then, in March 2020, the Paw Paw school board decided to drop the name.
In recent weeks, with a national dialogue on systemic racism developing across the United States, there has been a renewed call for Dan Snyder, the owner of the professional Washington, D.C. NFL team, to drop the racist Redsk!ns name.
Earlier this month, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) said it's time to change the name.
On “#BlackoutTuesday,” which was called to draw attention of racial injustice in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, Ocasio-Cortez noticed the Washington NFL team blackened its Twitter logo to support Black Lives Matter.
“Want to really stand for racial justice? Change your name,” the first-term congresswoman wrote in response on Twitter.
Mayor Bowser was asked about Ocasio-Cortez’s comments on a local DC talk radio show.
"I think it's past time for the team to deal with [the team name, Redsk!ns] offends so many people," Bowser said on the radio show. "This is a great franchise with a great history, that's beloved in history and it deserves a name that reflects the affection that we feel for the team."
On Friday, the Washington Post ran an called for the name change in an editorial, Change the name of the Washington NFL team. Now.
“This should be an easy call. Mr. Snyder — or, if Mr. Snyder refuses to back down from his declaration of “NEVER,” the NFL — should take advantage of this singular moment in history to get on the right side of history,” the Post editorial says. “Change the name. NOW.”
The renewed call to change the name is welcome by American Indians. American Indian organizations have fought against the name for decades.
In an opinion for The Guardian in January 2013, Suzan Harjo (Cheyenne-Arapaho) writes:
“Can the Washington team not see that its name celebrates a vile history of bounty hunting and mutilation of Native Americans?
All major Native American organizations have called for the Washington pro football franchise to end its team's despicable name. Why? Because it's a racial slur and – no matter how many millions it spends trying to sanitize it and silence native peoples – the epithet is not, was not, and will not be an honorific.”
The next year, Harjo was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, by President Barack Obama for her tireless work for decades to get sports teams to drop names that promote negative American Indian stereotypes. For three decades, Harjo has worked to have the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office revoke the Washington Redsk!ns filed in September 1992.
The call by American Indians to do away with the misappropriation of Native-themed images goes way beyond being politically correct. It is about doing the right thing.
According to the Reclaiming Native Truth project released in June 2018, four out of five American Indians say they find Native-themed mascots disrespectful. There is a basis for American Indian opposition that goes beyond the racist nature of mascots:
“Research shows that these mascots are damaging to Native high school and college students, negatively impacting feelings of personal and community worth, and that they reinforce bias among non-Native people,” says the Reclaiming Native Truth study.
This publication has called for the Washington NFL to drop its racist name for years. The time to change the name is long overdue.
Now is the time.
Levi Rickert (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation) is the publisher and editor of Native News Online.