SEATTLE – Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians and also president of the Quinault Indian Nation on the Olympic Peninsula, awoke at 3:08 on a recent morning. These words came into her head: “Today is the day.”
Sharp composed a social media post with that sentiment. And sure enough, a few hours later, the Washington football team, already under heavy pressure from sponsors led by FedEx, announced it would be conducting a review of its name.
That, in turn, led to the decision announced last Monday: That the team would be dropping the name “Redskins” after decades of criticism from Native American groups and others, and just as staunch resistance by owner Daniel Snyder.
It was a decision that caused joy among tribal leaders in the state of Washington. Sharp pointed out that the NCAI’s first resolution on the topic was in 1968.
“When the team officially announced they would no longer be using a racial slur as a mascot, it was just elation,’’ Sharp said. “Leading up to that ultimate decision, all the hard work, the resistance, and just knowing this is an opportunity that has been half a century in the making.”
David Z. Bean, chairman of the Puyallup tribe, said he was “beyond happy” about the news. He invoked a term that came up frequently in researching this column: historical trauma.
“We recognize the damaging impacts that negative stereotypes, that racial slurs, bring,’’ he said. “We’ve seen the harmful impacts on our youth as they work to find their way in life, working on their self-esteem. When you see yourself characterized as a racial slur, or a cartoon character from some Western, you witness the harmful effects that many of my elders have seen and spoken out against.”
T.J. Greene, chairman of the Makah Tribe, called Native Americans “the most regulated race in the country. Being the original inhabitants and caretakers of the waters and the land and the resources, it’s certainly good to see an organization within the NFL give that recognition to the first inhabitants.
“This nation was basically built on the resources we collectively took care of for thousands of years, making it the wealthiest nation in human history, basically. So I think from the Makah Tribe standpoint, we see the name change as a small but significant step, I guess I’d say, to restoring some of the values to the country.”
It was the first domino in a tumultuous week for the Washington franchise, which faced further scrutiny when The Washington Post detailed in damning detail a culture of sexual harassment in the organization. Some, including Post columnist Jerry Brewer, have theorized that Snyder’s knowledge of the pending Post investigation might have led him to pre-emptively announce the name change to dull the impact of the pending bombshell.
That could be true, but it’s also true the change was inevitable, one way or another, and it was about 87 years overdue. While in the short term it was financial pressure that pushed Snyder to back down from his defiant statement in 2013 that he would “never” change the team’s name, it was also clearly another outcome forced by the current social justice movement.
“I think the moment in time pushed the financial resources … so in the end for him, it was money,’’ said Mary J. Pavel, a Washington, D.C., attorney – and member of the Skokomish Tribe on Hood Canal – who worked extensively on the issue as staff director and chief counsel of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
“But I think the moment in time is what pushed the NFL. Because I know from the dialogues we had with the NFL, they had no desire to engage on this in any substantive way.”
Pavel also lauded Sen. Maria Cantwell, former chair of the Indian Affairs committee, for pushing hard on the issue.
“She taught me about fearlessness with this issue,’’ Pavel said. “And that people need to do the right thing. It was awesome.”
The NCAA passed a resolution in 2005 banning the use of Native American mascots by sports teams during tournaments, with the exception of those that have the consent of local tribes, such as the Florida State Seminoles.
In 2012, the Washington State Board of Education passed its own resolution urging school districts to discontinue the use of Native American mascots, but fell short of forcing schools to change their teams’ names.
With Port Townsend changing its mascot from the Redskins to the Redhawks in 2013, there is still one high school in our state (and fewer than 100 in the country) whose sports teams are named Redskins.
It’s Wellpinit High School, which serves the Spokane Tribe of Indians and whose student body is majority Native Americans. Wellpinit, located north of Spokane, has clung to the name for more than 100 years, citing pride and tradition.
It’s consistent with a famous poll by The Washington Post in 2016 that showed nine in 10 Native Americans weren’t offended by the Redskins name.
The methodology of that poll (which queried 504 people who self-identified as Native American; the U.S. has an estimated 6.7 million Native Americans) has come under question. But it’s worth asking: If Native Americans aren’t offended by the name, why should anyone else be? I got a lot of thoughtful answers to that question.
“We don’t have 100% consensus among all Native Americans, and who am I to say what’s right for one or wrong for the other?’’ said Bean of the Puyallup Tribe.
“But we’ve seen, as well as the National Congress of American Indians, various studies that show this racial slur has negative impacts on our developing children and our self-esteem, even adults who are still overcoming years of historical trauma. Decades of historical trauma. Generations of historical trauma. These are things, for us, that are part of the healing process. We can begin to close this chapter and continue working on our healing.”
Pavel believes some Native Americans are trying to “own” the term Redskins, “like many African American comedians own the N-word. … I understand owning the power of that word. If you own that power, that takes away the hate and the historical trauma of that word.
“I’m just not anybody’s mascot. If they want to be mascotted, that’s fine, but I’m not anybody’s mascot. I’m not going to judge an elder who has lived his own trauma and his own walk of life to survive. I’m never going to judge what they felt they needed to cling to, to have larger society recognize them as a human being. But I think we’ve moved beyond that.”
She added bluntly, “What Redskins really means, it symbolizes a time of hate. It represents a time when our people were bounty and could be killed as if they were worthless animals. That’s what the word means.”
Sharp pointed to the small sample sizes in such polls and said, “The ability to take a handful of people to measure the scale of millions of people, and the voices of 574 tribal nations, there’s just no comparison of that small, small number representing the views of sovereign tribal nations that work on these issues and know the multigenerational impact of systemic racism.”
Another thread that emerged in my conversations was the recognition that while eliminating the Redskins name has symbolic power, the Native American community has much larger issues to tackle. Perhaps this will be an opening to shine a spotlight on them and use this “moment in time” to foster meaningful progress.
“From an Indigenous perspective, we’re taught to look at things from a holistic approach,’’ said Greene of the Makah Tribe. “I think a lot of society is starting to do some of those things as well. We’re hoping it can certainly help broaden that education and outreach that needs to happen, and that recognition of where these lands and these waters and all these resources derive from, and certainly the promises that were made along the way.”
Sharp noted that “our victory opens the door to look at a broader array of issues in looking at injustices.”
She added, “We believe people have inherent rights gifted by our creator. We believe there’s equality and an attribute of humanity that has to be respected. So not only do I think it’s an opportunity for tribal nations to address the issues within our community, but much larger social and racial justice questions.”
Dr. Catherine McKinley, assistant professor in the school of social work at Tulane University, has extensively researched issues surrounding Native Americans. She said there are countless studies demonstrating how different forms of racism and discrimination negatively affect mental and social health – a major problem in the Native American community.
“Dehumanizing media images have really been used since the beginning of colonization to denigrate native groups,’’ McKinley said. “So this is just a continued form of historical oppression. What these dehumanizing images do, they directly negatively affect mental health in the form of anxiety, depression, distress, but also physical health, social health and economic mobility.
“So it perpetuates the oppression. The Washington team has directly benefited from this oppression of native groups. I see that last year their revenue was almost $500 million, which is in the top five of the NFL. It would make sense, since they’ve directly benefited from the denigration of Native Americans through perpetuating this dehumanizing image, that they would invest in the native communities with some of the profits they’ve gained.”
We’ll see what comes next for the Washington franchise – including its new name. But it’s clear that, as Sharp’s premonition made clear, it’s a brand-new day.
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