On Thursday evening October 24, hundreds of Native Americans and their allies gathered across from US Bank Stadium before and during the Minnesota Vikings football game to protest the Washington team name: Redskins.
The rally was preceded by a march to the stadium from Peavey Park. Protesters carried signs and chanted slogans that voiced their displeasure. Traditionally dressed dancers performed at the rally on the chilly fall evening. Speakers included longtime Native rights activists and Minnesota Lt. Governor Penny Flanagan. Flanagan told the crowd that her six-and-a-half-year-old daughter told her, “We are not mascots.”
The crowd gathered holding signs with phrases like “I am not a mascot” and “NFL Racist.” Many of them also donned the long-sleeved t-shirts that were handed out bearing the message “#notYourMascot” on the back.
Among them was Anne Haines, an Indian advocate, from the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) Law Center. Haines, who is African American and Native, said, “What brought me to the protest is the heinous name of the Washington football team that White culture continues to appropriate and misappropriate and abuse my people.
“Simply put,” said Haines, “if it is that offensive and you do a little bit of research and history about why it’s offensive, any decent human would immediately disregard using that name, that logo [or] that imagery.”
While the origin of the word “redskin” remains heavily debated and controversial, some believe that it relates to the scalping of Native Americans by White settlers during earlier U.S. history. An article from a Minnesota newspaper printed in 1863 included this: “The State reward for dead Indians has been increased to $200 for every red-skin sent to Purgatory.”
Others have argued that the original use of “redskin” was not offensive and a reference to the Beothuk Indians who painted themselves red, causing others to refer to them as “red men” or “red Indians.” A fan of the Washington team wrote in 2008 in Bleacher Report, “I don’t use the term in a derogatory way. I don’t conjure up negative images of Native Americans when I think about my team; I picture proud warriors who would fight to the last.”
David Glass, president of the National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media (NCARSM) and a member for 30 years, attended the protest. The Coalition has been working for three decades to change sports team names across the nation. “We’ve been responsible for helping to change the names of over 3000 [K-12] schools, college, universities, that have appropriated Indian imagery and/or regalia as costumes,” he said.
NCARSM’s primary focus is raising awareness. Glass explained that once they are made aware of a sports team with a name they find offensive, they contact the school board, the principal, dean, or the university president with a letter explaining who they are, the work that they do, and why the organization finds the name offensive, why it’s disrespectful.
“We provide them all kinds of documents, psychiatric mental health reports that talk about the damage being done to our kids and our youth,” he said.
According to a report by Dr. Michael A. Friedman, the more prominent the team, the larger the negative impact upon the community. “That increases the likelihood of Native Americans experiencing prejudice and discrimination by being exposed to harmful stereotypical slurs in every aspect of their lives: on television or radio, in newspapers or magazines, at work, in stores or in schools,” stated Friedman.
Consistent stereotyping against Native Americans may lead to worsening mental health within their communities. Studies demonstrate that “prejudice and discrimination worsen some of the most serious mental health issues among Native Americans. Specifically, prejudice and discrimination is associated with increased depression, substance use, and suicidal ideation among Native Americans, as well as health symptoms and health behaviors that influence well-being.”
Speakers at the protest called upon team owner Dan Snyder to change the name. Snyder, who bought the team in 1999, has refused to change the name. He was quoted in a USA Today article in 2013 saying, “We’ll never change the name.”
The director of communications for the Washington NFL franchise, Sean DeBarbieri, in a statement responding to the protest, wrote, “Our organization has always believed the name represents honor, respect and pride; ideals we work to uphold each and every day. As we’ve shared previously, we have significant local support to keep the name and a 2019 Washington Post poll reconfirmed this sentiment.
“Not only are Native Americans not offended by our use of the name, they are proud of it—and our organization is and will remain proud to carry the Redskins name.”
It is likely that controversy over the team name will continue for years to come, but protesters remain adamant about the racist connotations connected to the term. “That’s a dark piece of our history,” said Glass. “It’s not honoring us.”
Aleeza Hasan welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.