Ever since I produced and directed the PBS documentary In Whose Honor?, released in 1997, about the controversy over American Indian mascots and nicknames in sports, I have followed the issue about as closely as anyone. And after all that time, there is one thing I can say about the mascot issue with certainty: I have no idea exactly what percentage of Native Americans approve or disapprove of these mascots and nicknames.
But I can guarantee something else with even greater certainty: neither does the Washington Post.
As some people may be aware, the Washington Post recently announced the results of a poll to measure how Native Americans feel about the NFL's Washington Redskins' nickname. The poll concluded that nine out of 10 Native Americans have no problem with the name "Redskins", a seemingly stunning reversal of what appeared to be a growing movement of opposition to the name and the term. While that result probably led to the popping of champagne corks around the office of Daniel Snyder, the owner of the Washington NFL football team, it has also led to a great deal of confusion about this issue in the media.
There has been a sudden period of soul searching, especially from sports reporters who were previously secure in their opinions that the term "Redskins" was insulting and offensive to Native people. Some have started to ask where is the disconnect between what they believed to be true and the results of the poll.
Well, the answer is simple. The disconnect is, no pun intended, the telephone.
The Washington Post poll was conducted exclusively by telephone. And just as most of us have warned our children, and even reminded ourselves, that people on the internet might not be who they claim to be, the very same thing is true of the telephone. The only thing you can be sure of from a telephone survey -- and even this is sketchy with improvements in voice automation -- is that the person on the other end is, well, a person.
So unless there is some Native American Yellow Pages that I am not aware of, the result of the Washington Post poll is not that 9 out of 10 Native Americans aren't offended by the name. The result of the poll is that 9 out of 10 people who claimed to be Native Americans over the telephone aren't offended by the name "Redskins". There's a big difference.
So who are these people who answered the survey and claim to be Native Americans on the telephone? In following the coverage of this issue over the past 20 years, I've seen a consistent pattern in the identities of those who frequently step up to be counted as Native Americans in order to weigh in with their opinions.
This undoubtedly includes people who identify themselves as Native Americans because, regardless of their race, they were born in America, which in their minds makes them native Americans.
And it most definitely includes people who identify themselves as Native American due to some mysterious, small fractional quantity of American Indian blood they believe they have from some distant, often unidentified ancestor -- one who they almost always claim was Cherokee. (It's a well-known and long-running joke among Native Americans that white people who claim American Indian heritage always say they are Cherokee).
And of course, it also includes people who just say they are Native American on the telephone because -- what the hell, nobody is going to know the difference anyway. In short, are all these people really credible representatives of Native American opinions?
So, instead of relying on an anonymous telephone survey, let's look at some other information? There's this resolution from 2001, signed by the Chiefs (and one governor) of what's known as the "Five Civilized Tribes," which includes the Muscogee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Oklahoma Seminole, and, naturally, the Cherokee Nations, opposing all American Indian sports mascots and nicknames. According to the group, these leaders now represent more than 500,000 Native American people (The Washington Post anonymous telephone survey, by comparison, had just over 500 respondents.) And that resolution was followed up by this one in 2013 that specifically called for the end of the Washington Redskins nickname.
While these resolutions don't guarantee that every member of the tribes is in agreement, what is beyond question is the authority of the signers to speak as Native American representatives of those nations. These are certainly not anonymous telephone responders.
The same is true of this resolution, from 2014, from the Council of the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American tribe with a population of just over 300,000, who joined in opposition of Native American mascots and nicknames.
And finally, the same is true of the many, many resolutions adopted over the past several decades by the National Congress of American Indians opposing Native American sports mascots and nicknames. In order to be voting member of the organization, one has to be able to prove his or her Native American heritage. Again, there are no anonymous voters.
There are many, many other such documents and resolutions from Native American nations and organizations, but I think I've made my point. While no one, least of all me, can say with total certainty what percentage of Native Americans approve of the Washington Redskins nickname, whose opinions do you want to believe: those of Native American leaders who can prove their identities, or those of 500 anonymous people who spoke by telephone to the Washington Post?
I know my answer.