Why use of Native American nicknames is an obvious affront


Whenever the white man treats the Indian as they treat each other, then we will have no more wars. We shall all be alike -- brothers of one father and one mother, with one sky above us, and one country around us. -- Joseph, Nez Perce chief, during a visit to Washington, D.C., in 1879

We'll never change the name. It's that simple. NEVER -- you can use caps. -- Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington football team, in a USA Today interview, May 10, 2013

Home means a lot in sports. Home field, home court, home ice. Home plate. Homestands and home openers. Batters slug home runs, running backs take it to the house, basketball players slam it home. We do solemnly swear to "Protect This House," in ads and pep talks, on signs and posters.

It's a powerful concept. But it doesn't seem to apply to the 5.2 million people whose ancestors were here first.

As University of Georgia professor Claudio Saunt pointed out in a recent article for Slate, the United States has grabbed more than 1.5 billion acres of homeland from Native Americans. And that's just since 1776, after many of the Eastern tribes already had been forced out by colonists and decimated by Old World diseases.

The Washington football team, for example, plays on land taken by sword from the Piscataway tribe.

Progressive Field, where the Cleveland major leaguers play home games, sits on territory that belonged to the Algonquins. (Some say it's an actual burial ground.)

The past, present and future abodes of the Atlanta baseball team were once on the property of the Creeks -- until William McIntosh, the son of a Scottish trader and a Creek Indian woman, sold land he didn't really own to the U.S. government.

Chicago's NHL team wears the image of a Sauk chief who fought in vain to keep his people from being removed from Illinois.

And the end zones that are called "sacred ground" at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City were once the home of the Osage.

In other words, each of the five prominent Big Four sports teams that use Native American imagery and mascotry is essentially a Visitor. As Saunt wrote, "In light of the manifold struggles that America's first inhabitants have faced, attaching any Indian name to a multimillion-dollar sports franchise seems the most incongruous of honors."

Or, as Suzan Shown Harjo, president of the Morning Star Institute, says, "How would you feel if you had your home taken away from you and then watched as your identity was stolen for profit? It's adding insult to injury."

The struggle to get that identity back has been long and hard -- the National Congress of American Indians began education efforts in that regard in the 1940s. Thanks to the National Indian Youth Council and activist Clyde Warrior, the University of Oklahoma was finally persuaded to drop its "Little Red" mascot in 1970. In the past 40-plus years, pushed along by both Native American activists and socially conscious students and faculty, some 2,000 colleges, high schools, middle schools and elementary schools have dropped Indian-themed names, leaving about 1,000.

The NCAA, which banned the use of American Indian mascots at its postseason tournaments in 2005, now makes exception for only a few schools that maintain ties with the tribes whose names they use, including the Florida State Seminoles, the Central Michigan Chippewas and the Utah Utes. A state referendum to allow the University of North Dakota to drop the Fighting Sioux as a nickname was overwhelmingly passed in June 2012.

Professional sports teams, however, have proved far more resistant. Fueled by billions of dollars in revenue, and governed by mostly white men in offices that are all located in Manhattan -- an island long inhabited by the Lenape and essentially taken by settlers in the 17th century -- these teams now find themselves clinging to names and images and traditions while the winds of change are howling around them. What makes it especially problematic for the NFL is that while the league is trying to claim the high ground on other issues -- domestic violence, marijuana use, racial slurs on the field -- it has condoned the use of an ethnic slur off the field.

In the meantime, people are choosing sides, Offense vs. Defense, in a wider debate about nicknames at any level. It's racist, sacrilegious and demeaning, say those who want to see the names expunged. It's an honor and a tradition, say those who want to keep the imagery, and those who don't are being oversensitive.

"There is no room for bigotry in American sports," Seattle Seahawks linebacker and Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith tweeted earlier this year. He later explained it was a broader observation of a number of issues, including the Washington team name. "It takes courage to change the culture."

"It's capricious action by the sensitivity police," commentator George Will said on Fox News when discussing the elimination of the University of Illinois Native American symbolism, "and they ought to mind their own business."

The one thing everybody can agree on is that the battle is heating up:

• The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office recently canceled several of the Washington NFL team's trademark registrations because they were disparaging to the American Indian and Alaska Native communities. The team already has appealed.

• Ohio state senator Eric Kearney introduced a resolution on Aug. 6, asking the Cleveland Indians to change their name and mascot, Chief Wahoo. Club president Mark Shapiro later declared that Wahoo "represents the heritage of the team and the ballpark."

• Recently retired and highly respected NFL referee Mike Carey revealed to The Washington Post two weeks ago that he had been asking for seven years not to be assigned to Washington games because of the team name.

• At a recent Native American Heritage Night at AT&T Park in San Francisco, two Native Americans, Kimball Bighorse and April Negrette, were detained by security after Negrette confronted a group of fans who were horsing around with a plastic headdress.

• At the urging of Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), the University of Minnesota is attempting to keep Washington from using its logo and name in promotional materials when the team plays the Vikings on Nov. 2 at TCF Bank Stadium on the campus.

• Long-simmering animosities at the University of North Dakota came to a boil in May when students posted photos of their Springfest T-shirts that read SIOUXPER DRUNK, above an image similar to the old logo head drinking from a beer bong -- and feeding a stereotype.

• At Cleveland's home opener, a fan in "redface" provided a telling photo op when he tried to argue about his face paint and headdress with Robert Roche, a Chiricahua Apache who heads the local American Indian Education Center and annually protests the team's use of the Chief Wahoo cartoon character.

• A group of investors filed a shareholder proposal with FedEx, asking the company, which holds the naming rights to Washington's stadium, to "respond to reputational damage from its association with the team." Fred Smith, the CEO of FedEx and a part owner of the team, declined to address that proposal.

If Daniel Snyder and his team seem to keep popping up in the news, it's because he's hanging on to the most obviously offensive of all Native American-based trademarks.

Both 2008 presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, said the name probably should be changed. Voices at all the major networks that carry pro football are refusing to utter the word. Jordan Wright, the granddaughter of George Preston Marshall, the man who gave the team the name, has said, "They need to change the name. In this day and age, it's just not right."

Even Larry Dolan, owner of Cleveland's baseball team, has said, "If we were the Redskins, the day after I owned the team, the name would have been changed."

Says Harjo: "They shouldn't even be allowed to call themselves Washington. For one thing, they play in Maryland, and for another, Washington, D.C., should not allow its name to be used to further the dehumanization of a race of people."

Harjo, a 69-year-old writer and activist born in Oklahoma of Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee ancestry, visited Washington in 1961 as a 16-year-old representative of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal Delegation. She and her husband moved there for good in 1974 and, being football fans, they went to a Washington NFL game.

She recalled that visit recently for Business Insider: "People started like pulling our hair. And they would call us that name, and it was very weird for us. So we just left and never went to another game."

Inspired by the efforts of Clyde Warrior, she took a leadership role with the NCAI and, in 1992, began the legal odyssey that led to the Patent and Trademark Office ruling. She actually won against the big legal guns of the NFL in 1999, but a federal judge ruled she was too old to be a plaintiff in a case that relied so heavily on the potential harm to young people. So she started all over again with a new plaintiff: Amanda Blackhorse, a Navajo woman and Kansas grad who had organized a protest at a Washington-Kansas City game at Arrowhead Stadium. Blackhorse was 24 when Harjo decided to refile the petition with the Patent Office in 2006.

When Snyder bought the team from the estate of Jack Kent Cooke in 1999, Harjo reached out to him to talk about the name. "I had high hopes," recalled Harjo. "Here was a young, educated man from a Jewish family, a man who must have known about the Nazi atrocities to his own people. I wrote him a letter, but he didn't answer. I asked the late Abe Pollin, a friend of mine who had just changed the name of the Bullets to the Wizards, to talk to him as the mentor he was to Daniel. Abe tried, but he came back and told me Mr. Snyder was not going to change."

Despite pleas from such former team greats as Art Monk and London Fletcher, despite multiple Washington Post editorials on the subject, despite political pressure from conservative congressman Tom Cole (R-Okla., a member of the Chickasaw Nation), Snyder continues to hold fast, dismissing the criticism as "cocktail chitchat," citing outdated and flawed polls, claiming Native Americans really like the name, and trying to defuse the controversy with his own charity, Original Americans Foundation.

Snyder told ESPN's John Barr in a recent, revealing interview, "The name of our football team is the name of our football team. And I think that what I would encourage you to do and everyone else to do is just look at the history, understand where the name came from, understand that it means ... honor, it means respect, it means pride. And it's that simple."

Not so simple. Snyder claims the name was changed from Boston Braves in 1933 because of Coach William "Lone Star" Dietz, but Marshall himself said at the time, "The fact that we have in our head coach ... an Indian, together with several Indian players, has not, as may be suspected, inspired me to select the name Redskins." No, he just wanted to change them from the Braves to distinguish them from the Boston baseball team of the same name. As it turned out, Dietz was actually a German-American masquerading as a Native American. (See sidebar.)

Snyder also considers the nickname a tribute to his own father, a freelance journalist who wrote for National Geographic and felt the logo was a noble representation.

Whatever his reasons, Snyder still has plenty of supporters who, like George Will, feel as if it's none of our business. Here's Chris Freind, a columnist for the Delaware County Daily Times: "We must, without reservation, not just hold down the fort but go to war with those riding roughshod over hallowed American traditions -- fighting the people who love nothing more than to chop away at things no one actually finds offensive."

Get it? Reservation, fort, chop. With supporters like that, Snyder doesn't really need enemies.

He often claims that the Native Americans he talks to like the name, and while there may be some, they are few and far between: The NCAI represents most of the 566 federally recognized Native nations and many state-recognized Indian tribes, and Harjo says that at their last convention, they were all of one voice.

Snyder has steadfastly refused to meet with activists. Last October, Ray Halbritter, the head of the Oneida Indian Nation in upstate New York, did sit down with NFL representatives in New York City -- the Oneidas had been one of the Buffalo Bills' sponsors. But, he says, "They were not interested in listening. They were there to defend themselves."

How do you defend the appropriation of a people's identity without their permission? Here are some of the ways:

It's beside the point

Daniel Snyder maintains that the conversation should not be about the name, but about the real needs of Native Americans. "It's not names of football teams, names of baseball teams, names of basketball teams -- that's irrelevant. ... They need an opportunity. And they need a job. And that's what's needed. They need -- the daily needs of life, daily opportunities of life."

Snyder is right that we have an obligation to help Native Americans, who have been the victims of a government-sponsored diaspora. The poverty rate of their communities is nearly double the national rate. The life expectancy of indigenous people is about four years less than average, the high school graduation rate is alarmingly low, and the suicide rate among adolescents and young adults ages 15 to 34 is shockingly high -- 2.5 times higher than the national average. The millions of dollars Snyder has funneled to reservations through his OAF -- an unfortunately ironic acronym -- are sorely needed.

But what he fails to realize is the connection between the problems and the dehumanization perpetuated by his team and others. In "Missing The Point," a paper for the Center for American Progress, Erik Stegman and Victoria Phillips wrote, "Racist and derogatory team names have real and harmful effects on [American Indian/Alaska Native] people every day, particularly young people."

The authors cite an extensive study done in 2008 by Stephanie Fryberg, a psychology professor at the University of Arizona, in which she concluded, "American Indian mascots are harmful not only because they are often negative, but because they remind American Indians of the limited ways in which others see them. This, in turn, restricts the number of ways American Indians see themselves." Nicknames are not beside the point. They are the starting point.

It's an honor

It is an "honor" conveyed without prior knowledge or approval. "It's the bully telling his victims they should be proud of being abused," says Harjo.

This is what Joaquin Gallegos, a student from the Jicarilla Apache Nation, told Stegman and Phillips:

"It has been purported that using indigenous peoples as mascots honors them. I am unsure of how the word relating to the bounty of skin as proof of killing indigenous peoples is honorable. The issue is not one of political correctness but about promoting human dignity to those who have been denied it for all too long in this country."

That "honor" also puts Native Americans on the firing line when the teams named after them play their rivals. "Think about this," says Harjo. "The other fans are taught to hate you, to berate you. So we have to hear things like, 'Go home to your reservations, you lazy drunks,' and worse.

"We are not a profession, like Cowboys, Packers or Steelers. We are not a bygone people, like the Vikings. We are here, and we are now."

It's tradition

Whose tradition?

If it's the tradition of the purported honorees, it's usually an abomination. Gone are the days when the Atlanta baseball team trotted out Chief Noc-A-Homa and Princess Poc-A-Homa, but the Tomahawk Chop used by FSU and Atlanta fans is still sacrilegious to Native Americans, especially when the Chick-fil-A Cow uses it at Turner Field.

And don't assume that because the Florida Seminole Tribal Council gave its approval to FSU that what Chief Osceola does at football games, riding in on Renegade and planting his flaming spear in the turf, isn't offensive.

The majority of Seminoles live in Oklahoma, thanks to the forced migration known as the "Trail of Tears," and in 2013, the Seminole Nation passed a resolution that read: "The Seminole Nation condemns the use of all American Indian sports team mascots in the public school system, by college and university level teams and by professional teams."

The ceremonies performed in Doak Campbell and Arrowhead stadiums are really just minstrel shows with a Native American theme. "It's just insane the things that go on there," says Blackhorse of what's done in Kansas City.

If it's the team's tradition, then it's a legacy of bigotry.

It's the PC people making a big deal out of nothing

"PC stands for Plain Courtesy," says Harjo.

It's also often code for "Don't tell me what I can and cannot say." But there are certain standards, and those standards change over time. Think of the terms that used to be OK to describe minorities and women and the members of the LGBT community. The collective conscience changes, and our language reflects that.

You've probably heard this argument, too: What's next, no Fighting Irish, no Knickerbockers, no Vikings? Well, if a significant percentage of the members of the Irish-, Dutch- and Scandinavian-American communities find those nicknames offensive, then we should change them. In the meantime, let's do the right thing by the people who are truly victimized by this rhetorical version of Manifest Destiny.

Then there's this extension of the cavil: The next thing you know, big people will stop us from using Giants. The Latin phrase for that argument is reductio ad absurdum.

And if, as some might argue, these nicknames are not such a big deal, why not change them? Kevin Gover, the Pawnee who heads the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian, has suggested that Snyder change the team name to the Washington Americans to symbolize inclusion and acknowledge the original inhabitants of this country. "That starts to feel like an honor," he says.

A baseball team in Cleveland used to be called the Spiders. Kansas City has Pioneer Park, so why not the Kansas City Pioneers? The Atlanta Peaches? The NHL team in Chicago could even acknowledge what makes the Windy City special with a minimal alteration: the Chicago Hawk or Hawks.

It's a business decision

According to Forbes' NFL team valuation survey, the Washington NFL franchise is worth $2.4 billion, third on the magazine's list behind the Dallas Cowboys and the New England Patriots.

That might help explain Snyder's defiance, and the acquiescence of his fellow owners, who share in the revenue stream of his merchandise. But not so fast. There is an argument on the other side that he could make even more money if he changed the name, creating a new brand and eliminating the stigma attached to the old one.

Two marketing professors at Emory University, Michael Lewis and Manish Tripathi, brought up that possibility in an op-ed piece for The New York Times. They studied the impact that American Indian team names had on fan attendance and team revenues in both college and pro sports.

Colleges such as Illinois, Marquette and Stanford experienced significant revenue growth in the years after they dropped their Native American-themed names. While there were no such examples in the pros, Lewis and Tripathi did create a statistical model of team brand equity by comparing actual revenues with expected revenues based on such factors as team performance, market size and median income of the fan base.

They discovered that the two NFL teams with the most negative brand equity trends from 2002 to 2012 were Washington and Kansas City. Pointing out a survey in which 30 percent of the Washington fan base found the name offensive, and the growing number of media outlets that refuse to provide free advertising for the name, they concluded, "Retaining the Redskins name borders on managerial malpractice."

It's a point of civic pride

There's no denying the love for certain mascots. But that love is blind.

The last time the Cleveland baseball team won the World Series was 1948. The last Super Bowl for Kansas City came after the 1969 season. The Atlanta franchise has won a mess of division titles in baseball, but only three World Series: 1914, 1957 and 1995 (when it beat Cleveland). Washington's NFL team has won three Super Bowls, the last in the 1991 season, well before Snyder bought the team. Chicago has won two Stanley Cups in this decade, but it had a drought of 49 years before the 2010 Cup.

Those cities do have a legacy of equality of which they can be proud. Cleveland is the first major city to elect an African-American mayor: Carl Stokes in 1967. Kansas City is home to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum, two institutions that celebrate liberation. Supporters of the women's suffrage movement founded the League of Women Voters in Chicago in 1920. Atlanta was the birthplace and proving ground for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Washington is where he delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech on Aug. 28, 1963 -- a defining moment for the civil rights movement.

Perhaps those citizens could channel their pride in a different direction -- toward showing respect for Native Americans and away from turning them into merchandise. They could take pride in being at the forefront of progress.

If you check out the comments below any online story about attempts to change Native American mascots, you'll quickly see that the conversation degenerates into a proxy fight for other issues: Outsiders vs. Insiders, Nerds vs. Jocks, Blue State vs. Red State, Liberals vs. Conservatives. And when the debate becomes about something else, it obscures the real issue, which is spiritual restitution for the people who first called this country home.

As Dr. King once wrote, "Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race."

Says Harjo: "It's not about choosing sides. It's about doing the right thing. Besides, you would think conservatives would embrace our cause. No. 1, it's about property rights. No. 2, it's about the Constitution: We the people."

Did you know that the Founding Fathers modeled the Constitution on the democratic framework established by the Iroquois Confederacy in the 16th century? More than half of the 50 states have names of Native American origin? Or that the first president of the American Pro Football Association, the forerunner to the NFL, was Jim Thorpe, the Sauk long considered this country's greatest athlete?

In this day and age, the sports world thanks indigenous people by calling them a racial epithet, by drawing cartoons of them, by mocking their religious rites, by profiting off their identity without their permission, by dismissing their heartfelt calls for change as political correctness.

But there are signs of progress. The Kansas City NFL team is talking with local Native Americans about making its "traditions" more respectful. The Chicago NHL team has an ongoing outreach program with the American Indian Center. Cleveland management is de-emphasizing Wahoo in favor of a block C, while at the same time, a growing number of fans are joining a De-Chiefing campaign by removing Wahoo from their Cleveland hats and shirts, and thus leaving an obvious silhouette.

Native American organizations are helping that evolution along. The Oneida Indian Nation organized a symposium last October at the Ritz-Carlton Georgetown on the eve of the NFL fall meetings in the same hotel. Its Change the Mascot campaign is swaying opinions with its Proud To Be video, which has been seen on YouTube more than 3 million times.

It's a simple, beautifully filmed litany of words and names to describe indigenous people, and it ends with the line, "Native Americans call themselves many things. The one thing they don't ..." and a silent shot of a Washington helmet on the ground.

"We are opening minds, and there's a real victory in that," says Harjo. "I don't know if we'll see the end of Native American mascots in my lifetime, but I have no doubt that change will come."

Sports has long been a catalyst for social progress, be it the breaking of the color barrier in baseball, or the acceptance of an openly gay man in the NFL.

It's ironic that the Washington owner is actually helping Native Americans make their point with his tone-deaf intransigence. Eventually, Snyder will learn never to say NEVER. The pressure will continue to mount, from Congress, from the networks, from his sponsors, from his fans and players, from the league. Right now, he's just whistling in the wind.

"We sing 'Hail to the Redskins,'" he told Barr. "We don't say hurt anybody. We say, 'Hail to the Redskins. Braves on the warpath. Fight for old D.C.' We only sing it when we score touchdowns.

"That's the problem because last season we didn't sing it quite enough as we would've liked to."

No, that's not the problem.

Here's the problem, as expressed in "Missing The Point" by Dahkota Kicking Bear Brown, a Miwok football player for Argonaut High School in Jackson, California:

"One of our school's biggest rivals is the Calaveras Redskins ... Little do they know how damaging their game-time routines are... Worst of all, the most offensive stuff doesn't even come from the Redskins. It comes from their rival schools, mine included. I have heard my own friends yelling around me, 'Kill the Redskins!' or 'Send them on the Trail of Tears!'"

Where's the honor in that? Where's the feeling of home?