Redskins name change demanded at Smithsonian forum

Critics demanded the Redskins nickname be boycotted at a symposium on racist stereotypes in American sports at the Smithsonian National American Indian Museum on Thursday. (Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)
February 7, 2013

No one mentioned ticket price increases or jettisoned cornerbacks. And there was only a single reference to RGIII’s knee.

But the conversation Thursday at the National Museum of the American Indian kept returning to the Redskins — the name, not the team.

The symposium on “Racist Stereotypes and Cultural Appropriation in American Sports” was a day-long assault on the use of Native Americans as sports mascots. It was a thorough prosecution, delivered by a dozen or so mostly academic speakers before an audience of more than 300 people.

The speakers took issue with the standard defense offered by past Redskins owners that the name is a way of honoring Native Americans.

“Honors like that we don’t need,” said Robert Holden, deputy director of the National Congress of American Indians.

The name was intended to honor one man, former head coach William “Lone Star” Dietz, said Linda Waggoner, a lecturer at Sonoma State University in California. As the story goes, in 1933, co-owner George Preston Marshall renamed the then-Boston Braves the Redskins after Dietz, who adopted the identity of a Lakota man as part of his persona. The Redskins name followed the team to Washington.

Waggoner said Dietz may not have been Sioux at all but initially passed himself off as so to avoid military service.

Several speakers discussed how demeaning the term is considered. Manley Begay recalled being taunted as a “dirty redskin.”

“Those words have stayed with me,” said Begay, co-director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development and one of the plaintiffs in a 1992 lawsuit challenging the Redskins trademark.

Over the decades, the team’s owners have opposed a name change, citing tradition and poll results that showed a majority of Native Americans surveyed did not find the term insulting, including a 2002 Sports Illustrated poll.

“I have spoken to many, many Indian chiefs who say they have no objection whatsoever to the nickname. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a dead issue. I’m not even interested in it. The name of the Redskins will remain the Redskins,” late owner Jack Kent Cooke said in 1994.

Dan Snyder has taken a similar stand and has declined to meet with Suzan Shown Harjo, the lead plaintiff in a 1992 lawsuit challenging the Redskins trademark. The case ended in 2009 after the Supreme Court declined to review a federal court’s decision to toss the lawsuit out on a technicality.

A new lawsuit challenging the trademark was filed in 2006 and is scheduled to be heard by a U.S. Patent and Trademark Office panel on March 7. If the new suit prevails, the team could still use the name but the NFL would stand to lose revenue from the sale of team merchandise.

The team is the fourth most valuable sports franchise in the world, according to Forbes, worth an estimated $1.6 billion, twice as much as the amount Snyder paid to buy the team 14 years ago.

Philip Deloria, a museum trustee and history professor at the University of Michigan, urged people to boycott the team and its sponsors, write NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and insist that The Washington Post stop using what some called the “R-word.”

Newspapers in other cities, including the Kansas City Star, no longer use “Redskins” when referring to the team.

The Post does not have such a policy. Columnist Mike Wise, who supports a name change and appeared on a panel, said he would like to see The Post stop using the term. He said Snyder, who is Jewish, would not like it if the team were named “the Hebrews” and had a logo with a man holding “the Dead Sea Scrolls in one hand and a menorah in the other.”

The audience Thursday was overwhelmingly supportive of a name change. Opponents have made their feelings known in other ways.

Harjo said she still gets death threats.

If Snyder were to change his mind, Harjo said, it would be a symbolic victory of national significance.

“It is the worst name we can be called in the English language,” she said. “And it’s in the nation’s capital.”

Annys Shin has been a staff writer at the Washington Post since 2004.
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