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The False Binary of the 'Redskins' Controversy

Changing the Redskins name won't put food on one Indian kid's plate; it won't give one Native person a job in our economically vulnerable homelands. Those are facts. But that shouldn't be the test -- Native people shouldn't be forced to choose between living or racial discrimination.
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In one of Eddie Murphy's more underrated movie roles, he played a snake oil salesman conman who huckstered his way into being a U.S. congressman (I know, I know, sounds like every politician). It was actually a pretty incisive movie -- lots of good political commentary. The congressmen rarely ever voted on bills, and when they did, they usually didn't know what they were voting on. In one particular scene, a group of schoolkids took a field trip to the hallowed halls of Congress and they ambushed a few of the congressmen, including Murphy's character, right after a vote.

The schoolkids' teacher began quizzing the congressmen, "Was that a vote?"

Murphy responded, "Yes that was a vote. A vote was made," and tried to scurry out of the situation. The teacher persisted, asking Eddie Murphy how he voted and Murphy replied by saying that he voted "Nay" and he did so because it was "a terrible bill and it would have destroyed the fabric of American life." Again, he tried to scurry out of the situation. Before he could go, however, the teacher asked what the vote was about. Lo and behold, neither Eddie Murphy nor his fellow congressmen had any clue, but of course they couldn't say that to these starry eyed kids. Therefore, because they didn't want to say that they had no clue what they voted on, they made something up. Hastily, one congressman said the vote was about, "clean air" and another congressman said "school lunches."

The kids looked confused. Eddie Murphy, in typically charming/huckster fashion, steps in smiling and saves the day when he says, "Ah, you see the difficult choices we have to make here, kids, between clean air and school lunches...I feel that American students should be able to eat lunch and breathe at the same time..."

Happiness among the schoolkids ensued.

I know that this is a fictionalized account (sorta). Yet, it is indicative of the way that many non-Natives tell Native people what we are supposed to think (!!) about the current "Redskins" debate that has taken over much of the conversation in this NFL season. The political "Redskins" topic has been allowed to take over the sports Redskins discussion because, well, the team sucks.

As a result of that debate, many folks suggest that Natives are required to make a "clean air or school lunches" decision. See, a lot of non-Natives, who have never, ever been to Indian Country, smugly suggest, "Aren't there more important matters to talk about in Indian Country? I heard that most Indians live in poverty and are alcoholics and have really short life spans. Aren't those issues more important?" That's the million-dollar question -- and those smug non-Natives, who have never been to Indian Country, think that if the answer is "yes," then they promptly respond with a "Gotcha suckers!" (like another Eddie Murphy movie), thinking that makes the political Redskins discussion moot.

"Ah, see, the decision here, Indians, you have to choose between dying young or racial discrimination." A false binary.

The Redskins political issue was not a topic I cared at all about until pretty recently. Like many others, I also fell for the false binary. It made sense -- I am from the reservation, live and work on the reservation and am intimately familiar with those grim statistics that oftentimes accompany reservation life. Those social problems are very real and acute, as they are in most poor communities, and we are in need of real solutions; poverty; suicide, six times the national average; drug and alcohol abuse; crime (the unique legal character of reservation lands -- oftentimes non-Native criminals move there intent on doing bad acts because tribal law enforcement generally cannot enforce against them -- makes them a haven for drugs). Those things are real within our communities and we are in dire need of resources and advocacy. Those fundamental life issues should absolutely be a top priority for all Native people and if a Native person doesn't recognize the immediacy of those pocketbook/fundamental needs, then they need to spend more time in Indian Country. In fact, there will literally be Native people who are alive right now who will not be alive at this time next year because those fundamental needs weren't addressed.

I cannot say that about the Redskins political topic. And so the fundamental needs are more important to me.

Moreover, if the Redskins name changes tomorrow, those fundamental needs absolutely still must be addressed. Changing the Redskins name won't put food on one Indian kid's plate; it won't give one Native person a job in our economically vulnerable homelands. Those are facts.

But that shouldn't be the test -- Native people shouldn't be forced to choose between living or racial discrimination. "Clean air or school lunches." "Be alive or don't be discriminated against in a way that no other racial group is in the United States."

Those are false binaries.

See, as I pretty exhaustively laid out in a recent piece at Deadspin, whether or not a person supports Dan Snyder's absolute free speech right to name his team whichever racial epithet he chooses, the empirical, indisputable fact is that Natives are treated differently than any other racial group in America. That is a matter of public record. It's also easy to prove; simply put in other skin colors for "Redskin" and see if it would be an acceptable name for a professional team. Blackskin. Yellowskin. Whiteskin.

Wouldn't happen. Disparate treatment.

Therefore, whether a Native is like me -- I don't subjectively feel offense at the word "Redskins," and I generally think that it's a topic of privilege -- or not, is beside the point. The Redskins political debate is not whether one or many Natives feel subjectively offended, but why non-Natives objectively feel comfortable treating Natives differently than everybody else.

Subjective feelings aren't the point. Objective discrimination is.

Speaking of disparate treatment, there is another piece to this debate that causes me to think of another marginalized group that could also have a "clean air or school lunches" discussion, but isn't forced to: the LGBQT community. See, similar to the grim reservation statistics for Natives, the LGBQT has many health indicators that are alarming and scary. Suicides, hate crimes/gay-bashing continue to exist and even rise within the LGBQT community. As a result of these alarming statistics, it is safe to say that there are fundamental rights and needs that have yet to be addressed within the LGBQT community. Yet, despite these fundamental needs statistics, thank God there are those champions who said, "You know what? Even though these we must make sure that all of our people are physically safe and secure, that cannot be the end of our work! As important as that work is, we cannot only focus on our emergent needs. We've got to press on -- marriage equality for all!"

For most LGBQT folks within the United States (and indeed, worldwide), marriage equality must seem like pie-in-the-sky! "We're simply trying to stay alive and get treated like human beings!" In all but 15 states, our LGBQT brothers and sisters do not, as a matter of law, have the same human rights as every other person in the United States.

Yet, I have not heard the argument, "Clean air or school lunches, my LGBQT friends. You can only focus on marriage equality or fighting for fundamental rights for the rest of your community. You cannot do both. I suggest you not even think about marriage equality until you can safely say that there will never be another Matthew Shepard or case of gay-bashing."

Thank God our LGBQT brothers and sisters did not fall for the "clean air or school lunches" false binary.

Within both the LGBQT and Native communities there are undoubtedly more fundamental discussions that need to happen. Our ability to discuss marriage equality and the Redskins shows that we're evolving as a species; it shows privilege and evolution. The right to marry who you love and also the right to not be discriminated against are perhaps things that LGBQT and Natives probably couldn't expect 40 years ago, when the United States had different ideas of social justice. Yet, in 2013 those are privileges that everyone else enjoys in the U.S. and so calls for the question:

Why not us too?

Gyasi Ross is an author and lawyer and a member of the Blackfeet Indian Nation and also comes from the Suquamish Nation. Both are his homelands. He has a new book coming out, How To Say I Love You in Indian available for pre-order at

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