Boyd Gourneau doesn’t care about the name of Washington’s football team. What matters to him is that after the team’s owner, Daniel Snyder, visited his South Dakota tribe in November, the girls and boys high school basketball teams received new Nike sneakers. School-age children and elderly residents, many from homes on fixed incomes, now sport brand-name coats. And a small popcorn company run by the tribe was told that it could soon expect to see its product sold at FedEx Field.
“Dan didn’t come with a bribe,” said Gourneau, the vice chairman of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe. “He came and talked with us. Talked with us about our needs and offered services after.”
On Tuesday, Snyder told fellow NFL owners at the league’s annual meeting in Florida what he announced to fans in a four-page letter the night before: The team has created a foundation to benefit Native Americans and address the many needs that he and other Redskins officials witnessed during more than two dozen trips to reservations in 20 states. Snyder also introduced Gary L. Edwards, the chief executive of the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, to fellow NFL officials and solicited their support.
Snyder declined to comment about the meeting and the charitable organization. But Edwards and team general manager Bruce Allen said the announcement was met with support from other owners.They also dismissed criticism from some Native Americans that Snyder is trying to buy favor for keeping the controversial team name at a time when the pressure to change it is unprecedented.
“I find that to be insulting,” said Edwards, a Cherokee, who retired as deputy assistant director of the U.S. Secret Service and serves as the chief executive of the National Native American Law Enforcement Association. He cited the NFL’s diversity policy, “where it talks about respect, where it talks about inclusion, where it talks about opportunities for all people in America, to all races in America, and probably one of the ones that have been left out the most is Indian Country, and Dan . . . realized, ‘Hey, we can do more.’ ”
At Snyder’s request, Edwards said, he conducted a survey of 100 reservations, asking residents about their most pressing needs. Already the foundation has provided 3,000 coats to tribal members and purchased a backhoe for a tribe in Nebraska. Forty more projects are underway, he said.
Some of the efforts will include donating Kindles and iPads to students, digging new wells on reservations that lack running water and improving the living conditions of elderly Native Americans.
Neither Allen nor Edwards would say how much money will be invested in these projects. But Allen said the foundation will have nonprofit status, so all records will be public.
Allen said the foundation was created in response to the reaction Snyder received after he wrote an emotional letter to fans in October, explaining why he didn’t intend to change the team’s name. What followed was an outpouring of more than 7,000 letters and e-mails, including more than 200 from people who identified themselves as Native Americans or relatives of Native Americans, team officials said. All but seven of those were in support of keeping the team’s name.
In recent months, the team has sent out a series of e-mails, titled “Community Voices,” containing quotes from some of the correspondents.
“As a family who is part Cherokee and Blackfoot, we wholly support the Washington Redskins,” reads one from Elizabeth and Adam Bradshaw in Hampton, Va. “It is the name and portrayal of the Native Americans who have been through so much over the decades, we not only feel it would be wrong to change the name of the team, but would also be doing a disservice as well.”
The letters reflect the results of a 2004 Annenberg Public Policy Center poll showing that 90 percent of Native Americans were not offended by the team’s name, Redskins officials said.
But the push for change from those who describe the name as an offensive slur has grown in the past year to include civil rights groups, religious leaders, politicians and sports commentators. A New York tribe launched a national radio ad campaign challenging Snyder, and the United Church of Christ is considering a resolution asking its members to boycott the team.
On Tuesday, the National Congress of American Indians issued a statement saying it is glad that Snyder is dedicating time and resources to Native American issues.
“However, this Foundation will only contribute to the problems in Indian Country if it does not also address the very real issue of how Native people are consistently stereotyped, caricaturized, and denigrated by mascot imagery and the use of the R-word slur,” the statement read. “For Mr. Snyder and the Foundation to truly support and partner with Indian Country, they must first change the name of the D.C. team and prove that the creation of this organization isn’t just a publicity stunt.”
Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), co-chairman of the Congressional Native American Caucus, echoed those sentiments.
“For almost eighty years the National Football League and its Washington franchise have exploited a racist Indian caricature, turning it into a billion dollar brand while completely ignoring the needs of real Native American children, families, and elders,” she said in a statement. “Now, team owner Dan Snyder wants to keep profiting from his team’s racist brand and use those profits to attempt to buy the silence of Native Americans with a foundation that is equal parts public relations scheme and tax deduction.”
Gourneau said the tribe’s chairman made clear at the beginning of Snyder’s visit to the South Dakota reservation that not everyone there supported the team’s name or, like Gourneau, felt neutral about it.
“He said: ‘As for your name, we feel it’s derogatory, and I feel we can agree to disagree on that. But if we can get something going to help better the quality of life for our people here, we’re all for that,’ ” Gourneau recalled.
Gourneau said he sees the foundation as offering a needed “hand up,” not a handout. On the reservation, where about 2,500 tribal members live, families double up in homes because of scarce resources. The popcorn plant currently has seven employees, but during better times it has had as many as 24.
“The tribes that are not self-sufficient,” he said, “are the tribes that aren’t going to be around in the future.”
Jones reported from Orlando.