"We're honoring you!" "Get a life!" "It's not racist." "Get over it."
The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) has been hearing these reactions and excuses in response to any suggestion of changing the name of the Washington football team for years. Somehow a word that is on par with the n-word and other racial slurs is acceptable as an NFL team name.
No racial group would stand for a team name that denigrated their cultural identity, but Native Americans are expected to stand by and accept this treatment just because some don't see the word as offensive.
Let's be clear: "Redsk*n" is a racial slur, no matter how many weak justifications defenders try and come up with to keep using it.
"Redsk*n" Doesn't Honor Anyone
There is nothing honorable about the word. Native peoples are not honored by the slur, the image, or the mockery of "war dances" on the sidelines.
The word isn't a benign classification of a person's skin tone. Not only is it a term that has been uttered with scorn and hatred, it also refers to the literal "red skin" bounty hunters would collect in order to be paid for the number of Natives they slaughtered. These men would kill Native people then rip the skin from their bodies in order to receive payment. It isn't a term that honors the "strength, courage, pride, and respect" so many argue it does. It is a term born of the violence Native Americans have been experiencing for hundreds of years.
Use of the word is recognized as racist in many scenarios: if one child called another child a "redsk*n," it would be bullying; if one adult referred to another as a "redski*n" at work, it would be harassment; if "redsk*n" was used in the course of a crime or scrawled on someone's home, the perpetrator would be charged with a hate crime. Most readers probably would never consider calling a Native American a "redsk*n to their face. Yet, the name is defended because it is the name of a football team.
Team Spirit Is More Than A Name
Longtime supporters of the DC team often recount memories of cheering for the team with family members, singing the fight song, and being proud of their home team. In his letter to fans, team owner Dan Snyder argued that those traditions and early experiences are part of his identity: "it mattered so much to me as a child, and I know it matters to every other Redsk*ns fan in the D.C. area and across the nation. Our past isn't just where we came from -- it's who we are."
But is it team spirit, sportsmanship, enjoyment of the game, and cheering for the home team that matter, or is all that secondary to the name itself? More and more fans are coming to the realization that memories, traditions, and identity are not so fleeting as to be marred by using a different name.
One avid fan wrote of her fond childhood memories of the DC team and of becoming a fan while a young child in El Salvador before coming to the United States. She has loved the team longer than she has been an American. Yet, when she faced the real offense felt by many Native people and the fact that no other racial group would be forced to endure a team name that denigrated their identity, she came to the obvious conclusion - tradition or not, the name has to go.
About Those Polls
Defenders of the name frequently refer to laughably unscientific polls that say Native Americans are not offended by the name. Of the many problems with the methodology of these polls, the most egregious is that at no time were respondents asked any details about their Native heritage. No questions were asked about tribal citizenship/membership, about cultural knowledge, or about connections to tribal lands or families. It is entirely unclear exactly who was polled or whether they are, in fact, tribal citizens.
During NCAI's 70th Annual Convention and Marketplace in mid-October, thousands of elected tribal leaders and Native peoples representing hundreds of Native nations, gathered to work for a better future for our tribal nations and the United States. A resolution was passed unanimously "Commending Efforts to Eliminate Racist Stereotypes in Sports" to publicly declare the support of tribal nations in the work to end this era of racism in sports. This is all the evidence necessary to know that Native peoples, raised in and living with their own traditions, find these types of mascots disparaging.
The numbers are clear: Native peoples want the name to change. Those asking for a change are not a small minority. From all walks of life and across the political spectrum -- from the president to NFL hall of famers and fans -- there is public acknowledgement that the name needs to go.
"More Important" Things To Worry About
As so many have pointed out, the Native American community does have problems other than the names of sports teams. Poverty is rampant in Indian Country. Sexual assault is a daily problem for men and women -- and nearly 70 percent of the aggressors in these attacks are non-Native. The Indian Child Welfare Act is ignored and Native children continue to be separated from their families. Elected tribal leaders consistently strive to make changes for their people as do the elected leaders of other communities across the country.
These issues are usually ignored by the media and policymakers. Threaten a football team's name, though, and these problems are used to deflect and trivialize the use of stereotypes and racism. Mocking Native cultures is not trivial. Ending the casual use of racism is important.
It is also important that this debate over mascots and names continue to open doors to conversations that introduce Washingtonians and the American people to the 5.2 million Native peoples in America today. Our peoples face daily problems and have always made positive contributions to American society: as governments and business leaders, veterans, first responders, elected officials, entertainers and sportspeople -- not just as caricatures on a team logo. This debate isn't an opportunity to defend racism by pointing to "bigger problems," it is an opportunity to confront racism by creating awareness and better understanding about this problem.
Change The Mascot
Native peoples are everything Washington Redsk*n apologists want their team name to represent but doesn't. We are strong. We are brave. We are proud.
We are not mascots. It's time for a change.