The debate over the use of the term Redskins to describe the Washington football team has grown heated over the last year. Most, if not all, of the debate has focused on Dan Snyder, and his intractable nature. Snyder has made it very clear he has no plans to change the name, in spite of growing opposition, and this makes it easy to focus the blame on just him.
Recent events however, show why this is a league-wide issue that all NFL owners, including our own Jed York, need to address. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell appears to be siding with Snyder on this issue, but there are 31 other owners who have the power to force change. Generally speaking, the owners have chosen to stay out of the debate because of its very public nature. And yet, they are slowly being forced to address the situation.
The University of Minnesota, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, and the Minnesota Vikings
The University of Minnesota created a stir in the NFL realm by asking the Minnesota Vikings to eliminate the use of "Redskins" from "promotional and game date materials" for the November 2 game at TCF Bank Stadium. TCF Bank Stadium includes a Minnesota Tribal Nations Plaza at the main west entrance. It should be noted the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community contributed $10 million, the largest single private gift endowed to the university, to assist in the building of the plaza.
The Vikings are playing the next two seasons in the stadium on the University of Minnesota campus while the team builds a new $975 million stadium on the site of the team's old home, the Metrodome. On August 1, university president Eric Kaler responded to a letter authored by U.S. Representative, Betty McCollum (to which he was carbon copied) to the Vikings owner Zygi Wilf, urging the team to condemn the Redskins' team name.
In his response, Kaler wrote, "I agree that the current name is offensive and should be replaced." In the original letter urging the owner to condemn the name, McCollum argued the Vikings needed to take a stand against "that hateful slur" because all of the NFL teams split the sales of their licensed merchandise equally. It was an interesting point, given that much (if not all) of the onus has been directed solely on Washington owner, Dan Snyder.
Over a year ago, our moderator David Fucillo sent an e-mail to all front page writers. It was a somber directive. In light of the Washington team being a dictionary-defined slur, it was expressly directed to all Niners Nation writers to cease using the word Redskin to refer to the NFL Washington football team.
It was clear this website was joining a simultaneous voice of many in the sports and political sphere taking a stand against the Washington team name. It seems everyone from the President of the United States to the average NFL fan has an opinion on the subject. To me, the recent mainstream attention to the name is both encouraging and unsavory.
While this subject is red hot in the sports world, among Native people, this subject is not new. See, most native people do not sit around wishing the Dan Snyder would change the team name. There are some that don't care. There are some that do. There's been those in the native communities who have encouraged this dialogue for decades. In any event, despite what many of you may have heard, there is no consensus one way or the other in the native community.
My own background
By way of background, my grandmother was of the Seneca Nation. She married an English man, my grandfather, and they had 11 children. My father, half native, stood 6'5" and played basketball his entire life. He grew up extremely poor and because of his mixed race, he faced discrimination. In the '50s, despite his strong athletic ability, my dad was prevented from starting and saw very little playing time. It still is a raw subject for him to speak about. He was typically referred to as a redskin.
Later, my dad accepted a full basketball scholarship to attend a private high school, and he then received a full basketball scholarship to college. My dad was eventually drafted into the NBA by the then-St. Louis Hawks. It was a different NBA in the '60s and the money was certainly not what it is today, so he elected to go into education.
My dad thrived around sports and it was a significant part of my life growing up. We did not watch television series like other families. We watched sports. We watched any and every game that was on. Seasons revolved around baseball, football and basketball. When San Jose finally got a hockey team, we watched that too.
As a young girl, and I will never forget this, we were watching a Washington game. For some reason, I really liked the realistic and handsome Indian (unlike the ridiculous big-nosed, big-toothed Cleveland Indians mascot) on the helmet. Only 1/4 of my blood runs native. My mother had a dark complexion, but I am Caucasian. I suspect, as a kid, it reminded me of members of my family. I have fond memories of my grandmother's ruddy skin rubbing against my cheek.
When I told my father I liked the Washington mascot, he asked me to go get a dictionary. He explained how it was the bigoted remark of choice when he made a good play on the basketball court. He explained the origin of the redskin scalp bounty. And, then plain as day, "you think people would cheer for the team if it were the Washington Niggers?" It was shocking, but it resonated with me.
Hopefully, that last sentence made most of you uncomfortable. It was not a word allowed in our home. Yet, my father made his point. He clearly emphasized that while nigger was uncomfortable and painful to most people, the word redskin was equally offensive and cut him deep. I use the actual racial slurs in this article to emphasize the fundamental power of the words.
It is easy to see why some natives gravitate to Washington's handsome, strong mascot. Native people are among the poorest people in this nation, despite the casino stereotype many non-natives hold. As most impoverished groups do, we have serious issues with fatherlessness, alcoholism, and suicide. As a whole, we have a lot more to worry about than a football team's mascot. Still, there is a legitimate group of native people who are very concerned with the name. The Oneida Nation, for example, has gone to great lengths to change the name. Likewise, the National Congress of American Indians has slammed Dan Snyder and the NFL over this issue. And, it does not help that natives themselves are divided on the issue.
Most people in my native community have no inherent problem with Indian mascots. However, what matters is the presentation of that mascot and name. The presentation of the name "Redskin" is problematic for many natives, because it identifies us in a way we don't identify with.
What bothers me most about non-native NFL fans having this debate is how little dignity the NFL gives actual Native Americans. Every other ethnic group gets the opportunity to self-identify in the way they choose. But, non-natives tell us about the origin and how it "was not inherently racist to begin with" and is "not racist now."
Ownership of words
Years ago, African Americans were known as negroes and niggers. It began innocuously, based on the Spanish word for black. The term began as a neutral descriptor, but over time it developed into the racist term we know it as today. However, people respect the choice of African Americans not to call themselves that and people don't call them by those names anymore.
And yet, it's different with Native people. Somehow NFL fans of all races feel that it's OK to identify Natives their own way, even though they respect the choices of other races. It may not be directly racist, but it is incredibly racially insensitive.
Just as there is some internal value to the word "nigger", there is internal value to the word "redskin". Like the word "nigger," some Native people used the word "redskin" as an identifier. Some tribes identified with the term "redskin" and it even predates the redskin scalp bounty. Some tribes still do. But, like the word "nigger", "redskin" picked up offensive connotations as it passed through history for a lot of tribes.
As hurtful as the word "nigger" is, a certain percentage of African Americans use the word and its derivatives as a term of endearment (or sometimes simply as an identifier). People argue passionately about whether or not the word should be used, but it has internal value to some of the African American community. Not all Natives use the term "redskin" or its derivatives, just as not all black people use the word "nigger" or its derivatives.
There is a huge debate within the African American community as to whether or not the word "nigger" should be used. It has power. It is painful. But, it is the African American community who is debating the subject. It is understood that "nigger" belongs to them. It's theirs to do with as they wish, and it's simply racist when other groups use it. If black people choose to use it, they've paid a heavy price to own that word. Similarly, "redskins" is the Native people's word. To me, it's sad that either group chooses to use racial slurs. But, I understand native nations paid the price for the racist and loaded term the same way African Americans have.
But unlike the black community, Native Americans have a bunch of white people telling us that it's not racist. And, even some black players think that it can't be racist, because there's black men wearing the jerseys. And, you know, it's "just a football team" after all.
If people cannot see the disconnect, I do not know what else to say. Nobody takes a poll in the black community to see whether or not blacks are offended by the word "nigger" and then holds it up as proof that the word is not a slur. It is silly to even point to percentages of the native communities feelings on the word. We're divided on it, just as the black community is divided on the word "nigger".
Non-black people do not use the divided opinion of the black community as an excuse to somehow exonerate the word. Yet, the NFL uses this exact argument for their entitlement to call an oppressed race, an entire ethnicity, by an offensive slur. At the same time, the NFL bans black players from using the word "nigger" on the field. Apparently, the NFL believes it has the moral high ground to now legislate how minorities use the words that have been used internally for centuries; but, by doing so, the NFL demonstrates how racially disconnected it really is.
My impression of Dan Snyder is not a good one. Yet, it speaks volumes when Roger Goodell backs up the name on behalf of all 32 NFL teams. Goodell speaks for the owners and that makes every team owner culpable on this issue. Each owner shares in the profitable revenue that comes from this racist team name. They make profit on it and even as a 49ers fan, it is no longer acceptable for me keep silent and pretend the onus is solely on the Washington team and its owner.
As an NFL and a 49ers fan, I urge all 31 other owners, including Jed York, to take a stand against the use of the term "Redskins". While many owners prefer to look the other way and pretend this is not a real controversy, it is not their choice. This is not the NFL's word. It is not their word to profit from. It is not their word to use as a mascot. It is not their word and NO, it is not just a football team, Roger Goodell. Until the NFL owners come out against the racial slur, every owner who profits from the team name is providing tacit endorsement of the team name. Jed York and 30 other NFL owners have a chance to show true leadership and bring an end to this high profile use of a racial slur.