Notah Begay calls Redskins nickname ‘institutionalized degradation’

February 25, 2013

When white columnists like Mike Wise or Robert McCartney write about the Redskins nickname, a whole bunch of Skins fans say they aren’t interested in hearing from the guilt-ridden liberal white media, that this isn’t their cause. When media members covered the Smithsonian symposium on Native American nicknames in sports, a whole bunch of Redskins fans said they were only interested in hearing from actual Natives, and not “activists.” When a Native American congressman from Oklahoma said the nickname was “very offensive,” a whole bunch of Redskins fans said he was only saying so because he was a Cowboys fan.

So here’s four-time PGA Tour winner Notah Begay, a full-blooded Native American (and new member of the NBC Sports and Golf Channel broadcast team.) I do not know what NFL team he roots for, nor his politics, but he was part of ESPN’s look at the Redskins name issue on Outside the Lines last week.

(Full disclosure: Two different ESPN bookers asked me to appear on the show and defend the team name. I told them both that I don’t really have a strong opinion on the issue one way or the other. But I helped put them in touch with Son of Washington blogger Ray Smith, who wound up appearing on the show as a defender of the nickname. He was heavily outnumbered.)

“If you ask me, it is offensive,” Begay said midway through the segment, when asked about the Redskins name. “And I think it’s just a very clear example of institutionalized degradation of an ethnic minority, that being the Native American people. To classify it as simply a matter of political correctness only seeks to trivialize it a little bit, to an extent that it undermines the very human foundation of the people itself. I mean, if you look further and deeper into the issue, it’s about the culture, it’s about the identity, it’s about the history of our people. And that in and of itself is something that I think needs to be looked at further.

“I don’t ever see myself going to a Redskins game,” he continued. “Or I should say, if I were to take my kids to a Redskins game, and we were to see a non-native dressed up in traditional regalia, with eagle feathers in a headdress, dancing around, basically mocking the culture and the tradition, it would be very difficult to explain to my children. And not only to my children, but children of many families across this country. I mean, this country was founded on the premise of equality and human rights and civil rights, and I don’t know at what point we decide what our tolerance levels are for discrimination. And who gets to decide? I think that’s the compelling question here, is who gets decide what is discriminatory and what isn’t?”

Host Bob Ley later raised another common complaint offered by defenders of the nickname, which he said had been brought to him by several Native Americans on Twitter: that the community has far bigger and more serious issues to deal with than an NFL team’s nickname.

“Yeah, if you look at social indicators related to addiction, related to childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes, related to graduation rates, yeah, there [are] much bigger issues that I think tribal leaders have to deal with,” Begay agreed. “But the fact of the matter is, if Native Americans can’t be viewed as an equal in this country, then we can’t afford our children the same opportunities as they seek to go to college and seek to participate in mainstream corporate America, competing for jobs. It all starts with the basic elements of who we are as a country. And I think there’s an existential issue here as well as a cultural issue. We all have to ask ourselves, how much discrimination are we willing to tolerate as it pertains to issues like this?”

 

2004 Washington Post photo by John McDonnell.
2004 Washington Post photo by John McDonnell.

 

Smith, the Redskins blogger, later argued that the name is intended to honor Native Americans, not to offend them or encourage discrimination.

“I think that’s a farce. It’s a reach at best,” Begay said. “I just don’t know at what point we’re going to figure it out, and say any sort of dehumanization or degradation of a people — in whatever way shape or form — should not be tolerated in this country. I mean, we’re in the 21st century.”

You can listen to the full segment here.

Meanwhile, ESPN.com’s Paul Lukas recently pointed out “that there are some Native Americans who are fine with the use of Native imagery in sports. In central Michigan, for example, the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe recently announced that it had no problem with a local high school whose teams are called the Warriors.” Lukas interviewed the tribe’s PR director, Frank Cloutier, who spoke at length about why his tribe is okay with such mascots. One excerpt:

“Our position is that if it’s not derogatory and it’s being used appropriately, with an opportunity to share or cross-share our culture, then it’s fine,” Cloutier said. “There’s nothing derogatory about ‘Warriors’ or ‘Braves.’ There’s nothing derogatory about ‘Indian.’ But terms like ‘Redskin’ or ‘Half-Breed,’ those are derogatory terms to us.”

I do not know what NFL team Cloutier roots for.

Dan Steinberg writes about all things D.C. sports at the D.C. Sports Bog.
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