In 2013, students at Cooperstown Central High School in New York persuaded the local school board to change the team’s mascot, which the student body argued denigrated and stereotyped Native Americans. The name they wanted to drop was the “Redskins."
For decades, tribal organizations and activists had been trying to persuade Washington’s NFL franchise, known as the “Redskins” since 1933, to change its name too. So the students’ efforts caught the attention of Ray Halbritter, a leader of the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, whose tribal headquarters are located just an hour away from Cooperstown. If high school students could change that mascot, Halbritter thought, why couldn’t Washington’s franchise do the same?
On Monday, seven years after Halbritter and Oneida helped launch an aggressive campaign against the Washington team name, the change finally came: The franchise announced in a statement that at the end of a review that is currently taking place, it would no longer use the racist moniker.
The announcement didn’t surprise Halbritter, who has long viewed the demise of the most racist team name in American sports as inevitable. But it still felt a bit unreal.
“I thought that it was going to happen,” he said in an interview on Tuesday. “I just thought it might not be in my lifetime.”
The NFL team’s announcement was a massive victory for Halbritter and the Change the Mascot campaign, which Oneida launched in 2013 alongside the National Congress of American Indians, the largest tribal organization in the United States. Native American leaders have succeeded in convincing hundreds of high schools, colleges, and pro sports franchises to stop using nicknames and logos that caricature Indigenous peoples since the 1970s, but the various men who owned Washington’s NFL team had always remained intransigent, even as tribal groups pointed out the harmful psychological, sociological and political effects such mascots have on Native American communities. Twice, the team lost lawsuits seeking to invalidate its federal trademark protections, but both decisions were overturned after appeals.
Halbritter, Oneida, and Change The Mascot built on those efforts, with a different approach: They took the fight into the court of public opinion, running a grassroots-style political campaign that targeted NFL sponsors, fans and the team itself. Together with NCAI and other tribal groups, they staged protests, and ran ad campaigns that put Washington owner Daniel Snyder, who bought the team in 1999, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on the defensive.
Finally, in early July, the campaign won the support it needed. FedEx, which holds naming rights to Washington’s stadium, and Nike, which manufactures NFL uniforms and apparel, came out against the name amid the nationwide racial justice protests over the police killings of Black Americans like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. That left Snyder, who in 2013 had said he would “NEVER” change the name, with no choice but to do just that.
On Tuesday, HuffPost spoke with Halbritter about the long campaign against the Washington franchise’s name, what it means for Native Americans and especially tribal youths, the campaign’s links to ongoing racial justice protests and the issues they have raised, and if Snyder and the NFL deserve credit for finally changing their stance.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
You’ve been at this for six-plus years now. Was there ever a moment where you thought we’d never have this conversation, about the name actually changing?
I thought that it was going to happen. I just thought it might not be in my lifetime. But the NFL and Dan Snyder have really made the right call here to change the mascot, and we’ve got to commend them for it.
You launched Change The Mascot in 2013, but the fight to change the name began decades earlier. What drew you into it?
Back when we launched our campaign, we re-energized initiatives of other Native leaders, like Suzan Shown Harjo, Amanda Blackhorse, and the National Congress of American Indians, which had spent decades calling for change.
[Ed. note: Harjo, whose Morning Star Institute has long campaigned against Native American mascots, was the face of the lawsuit against the team’s federal trademark protections in 1992, and effectively launched the modern movement against it. Blackhorse was the lead plaintiff on a similar suit that followed Harjo’s, which was eventually overturned on appeal.]
We were so inspired by these Cooperstown kids. We went out and met with them, and they were so inspiring, because they’re the youth, they’re the next generation, the new leadership coming behind us. And as Native leaders, we are all about the future. We’re all about our children and creating a better future for our children.
Sometimes that is so important ― that you’re just listened to. We see that in our young people. They’re just trying to be heard. Ray Halbritter
The Oneida Nation goes back to the founding of this country. We were friends with George Washington. We fought with them during the Revolutionary War, we have a real and unique interest in the name Washington because we’re friends with George Washington and we fought side by side to make this country what it is today. And so it’s the right call to change the name of the Washington team, which plays in our nation’s capital and represents to this country, and to the world, a racial slur. And now, they are standing on the right side of history by changing the team’s name.
Change The Mascot and other groups have always argued that the use of a racial slur as a team name has an adverse effect on Native Americans, and especially Native youth. What does it mean for this name to change?
It means that it ends a very painful and disrespectful chapter in our country’s history, and in this sport in particular.
What was inspiring about those students is that they got it. They might not have experienced being treated in a racist fashion ― it might not be possible for them, if they’re not minorities, to know what that’s like. But they understood.
That’s part of what’s so challenging for us, and has been for us for many years, and I see it in the Black Lives Matter movement: just getting people to try to understand just what’s being said. When people make the change, you understand, you know, and you feel that you’ve been listened to.
They listened to what we’re saying, and sometimes that is so important ― that you’re just listened to. We see that in our young people. They’re just trying to be heard. That is what makes this nation an exceptional nation. That’s what makes America, America. We have always learned from our past, and we are constantly struggling in the present to create a more perfect country, a more perfect union, for our future. That’s what it’s all about: It’s our youth, it’s our children, it’s their future that we’re talking about.
There have been meetings with Dan Snyder, with Roger Goodell, over the past six or seven years where it was clear they weren’t listening. How much credit do they deserve for making the change on something they should’ve heard and understood years ago?
We know that sometimes in life, we don’t always listen until something happens, or something really occurs that gets our attention. And that’s why we’ll nonetheless commend them, because sometimes it does take pressure, sometimes it does take an event.
Unfortunately, in this situation it took a tragic series of events: George Floyd’s death, the Black Lives Matter movement, protests and confrontation. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable, sometimes it makes you feel very upset, but sometimes that’s what’s required to make change.
It’s so much better if people just really listened. But when people are listening and trying to understand, even though they might not fully understand, that makes such a difference. And here, because of the protests and the moment in time we are in, people are listening and seeing things that they might not have seen or realized. You’re seeing these videos, you’re seeing these movies and you’re seeing the experience that many people have been experiencing for years, and the frustration that is coming out.
The pressure, the economic pressure ― that’s what’s made the difference. FedEx, Nike, Pepsi, Target, Walmart, all putting the pressure on the NFL and the team to change is what it took to get them to listen. And then they made the right call and they made the change.
Your campaign deliberately, and from the beginning, targeted sponsors and investors in teams and the league. Was that always the tipping point — no matter how much work activists put in, it was going to take the people with big money to force a change?
That’s why we took the tack we did. We didn’t take the legal route. We went to the court of public opinion.
George Preston Marshall, the avowed segregationist who gave the team its name originally, tried to get the NFL to not integrate any Black players. It was the last team to integrate, and he only did it under pressure from the government. But finally he did it.
That pressure occurred [when FedEx and Nike came out against the name]. We’re glad that the economic interests listened and responded. That domino fell, and now the team realizes, “This is important, and we need to do something.”
When people say, for example, about our issue about the name, ‘Well, what’s the big deal?’ ― it’s a symptom. It’s not everything. But it’s a symptom.
It’s amazing that Black athletes really stepped up to use their power of their position to make a difference, and it’s fantastic that the NFL started listening. Now they see what Colin Kaepernick was doing.
[Ed. note: Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, kneeled during the national anthem to protest racial injustice during the 2016 NFL season, and was blackballed from the league for doing so. Goodell, the NFL commissioner, admitted the league hadn’t listened to its Black players in a video the league released amid the protests and encouraged a team to sign Kaepernick, although players have spoken out to say he still hasn’t gone far enough.]
I remember somebody [in the NFL] saying, when they saw the videos of George Floyd, with a police officer with his knee on his neck, actually we’re watching a murder take place. And I remember someone saying, “Now I understand why Colin was kneeling.” They didn’t understand it. And somebody said, “Now I get it.”
Sometimes, it’s better late than never, you know?
It’s interesting that you mention Kaepernick’s protest, because the response was similar. People would dismiss the protests by asking, “Why are you protesting?” “What is this protest, or changing the name, going to accomplish?” Or, “Don’t Black people,” in his case, or Native Americans, in yours, “have bigger problems?”
Absolutely. And, you know, people will say, “Well, it’s political correctness run amok” or something. For people who are on the opposite side, that is a way of tuning out. Those are code words: “Well, I’m tuned out, and I don’t even want to listen.” It’s dismissively saying words that tell you that they’re not listening.
But there are things in this country that need to be addressed. What we’re seeing now is that that systemic response is frustrating, and you can’t suppress people but for so long. When people say, for example, about our issue about the name, “Well, what’s the big deal?” ― it’s a symptom. It’s not everything. But it’s a symptom of not being heard and not being listened to. When people are listened to and heard, then people understand and then they can respond in the right way.
Have you had any conversations with Snyder or Goodell?
No, we have not, but we would welcome that discussion. That’s what’s very striking in all of this, that these organizations really should have a conversation with the people that their decisions are impacting. You need to do that if you’re making a decision and you’re affecting a group of people.
American Indians are the only ethnic group in America that has team names and organizations named after them. If you’re making a decision and you’re affecting a group of people, it’s important to have a discussion. So we would welcome a discussion.
What would you tell them?
I would tell them that they did the right thing. We’re glad they did, and we commend them for it. And we’d like to move into the future, considering issues that will benefit our youth and our future generations. Our youth are going to play football, our youth are going to watch football, our businesses are going to want to be part of the American economy in a way that we can all benefit, and there’s no reason why that can’t happen. But it is mutual. It isn’t just unilateral.
If we learned anything from this episode with the Washington team, it should be that it’s not up to the teams to define what is and isn’t honoring Native people.
That’s the problem with these organizations: They unilaterally make the decision and appropriate culture in a way that, first of all, they profit from it. And then they turn around and tell you, “We’re going to respect you” ― without any input, without any listening whatsoever.
The statement still had several mentions of the name, and no quotes from Snyder. Is it important for him to acknowledge the racist history of the franchise and of the name, or is changing it enough?
I’m more forward-looking. We’re gonna change the name, let’s move on. If he wants to do that, I think he’d be a better man for it. But we’re not seeking that.
There has been talk of the team adopting a name like “Warriors.” Do you fear they might still lean on Native American imagery?
Well, first of all, there needs to be a broader discussion about usage of Native imagery. That requires discussion, certainly with the people impacted. But as far as specifically that name and changing the name, that is not a racial slur. But I do think it’s important that there be a broader discussion about usage like that, and we would welcome the opportunity to have that broader discussion. [Ed. note: The Washington Post reported this week that it’s “unlikely” the team will include Native American imagery in its new name or logo.]
Is there a way, in your eyes, for a mascot or team name to honor Native Americans?
I think so. I mean, quite honestly, it’s flattering to think they want to use Native American imagery, because they wouldn’t use it if they didn’t think it was something you could be proud of. But that’s where the discussion comes in. That’s where you need to discuss these issues with the impacted people. The Florida State Seminoles, they went and they met with the Seminole Nation. They worked out the understanding and now it’s a resolved issue, and the Seminoles are satisfied with that. So there is a process and a way to do it, but if you want to do it, you have to have the will to do it.
[Ed. note: After our interview, Halbritter expanded on this answer in an email, the full text of which follows.]
In response to your question about whether or not a team could appropriately honor Native Americans ― it would require an organization to go through a legitimate, transparent process to do so. Meaning the team would actually need to meet with the democratically elected leadership of Indian Country ― groups like the National Congress of American Indians, among others, to get their input, and they would need to be able to reconcile the social science that clearly states these names do real harm to Native youth. It cannot be a unilateral decision made by the NFL.
If we learned anything from this episode with the Washington team, it should be that it’s not up to the teams to define what is and isn’t honoring Native people.
NCAI and other groups have attempted to get other pro sports franchises that use Native American imagery to change their names. What’s next for Oneida and Change the Mascot? Do you plan to join those efforts too?
I think if the opportunity to have that discussion presents itself, we would be part of that discussion. Primarily, our focus has been on the Washington team because it is a defined racial slur, and there’s no gray area in that use.