We need a fresh, reliable opinion poll to show what Indians today think of ‘Redskins’ name

Robert McCartney
Columnist February 19

Would somebody please conduct an objective, thorough, scientifically valid opinion poll to find out what American Indians today think of the name of Washington’s professional football team?

I don’t need a poll myself to know the team should change its name. This ardent Washington fan and season ticket holder thinks it’s enough that dictionaries define the word as a racial slur and that national Native American organizations strongly object to it.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

But a poll is still necessary because team owner Dan Snyder and the National Football League are relying on a 10-year-old opinion survey of questionable value as pretty much their sole morally acceptable argument for keeping the name.

Practically every statement on the subject from the Washington franchise or NFL proclaims: Nine out of 10 Native Americans support the name! NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell recently cited this “fact” at his pre-Super Bowl news conference.

Goodell’s assertion was based on a single question posed in what was otherwise a U.S. political poll conducted over 12 months by the National Annenberg Election Survey of the University of Pennsylvania in 2003 and 2004.

The poll found 768 people who identified themselves as Indians and asked, “As a Native American, do you find that name offensive, or doesn’t it bother you?” Ninety percent said they weren’t bothered, while just 9 percent said it was offensive.

If true, that’s an admittedly potent argument against those of us who desire a new name. But it’s irresponsible to depend on that poll for multiple reasons.

First, obviously, it’s out of date. People’s views change, and they might have changed a lot since 2004. Look at how quickly opinion shifted on gay marriage.

“Like other surveys, that one reflected a moment in time,” Annenberg Director of Communications Michael Rozansky said. “If people are interested in knowing what Native Americans think of the issue today, it’d be best for someone to conduct a new survey to find out.”

In addition, it’s unusually difficult to survey Native American opinion. American Indians and Alaska Natives make up only 2 percent of the population, according to the Census Bureau, and they are a very diverse group.

For instance, do you poll anybody who claims to have Indian forebears, or only those recognized by the Interior Department as being enrolled tribal members?

Four law students at American University’s Washington College of Law cited these factors and others in a Web postingMonday titled “11 Reasons to Ignore the 10-Year-Old Annenberg Survey About the Washington Football Team’s Offensive Name.”

They also said the poll question was confusing, context was lacking and the telephone survey might have missed a large number of Indians on reservations who didn’t have land lines.

Now, I bet a lot of readers are asking: “What about you? Why doesn’t The Post conduct such a poll?”

I hope we do. I don’t know (really) whether we will, and I couldn’t divulge it anyway. Our pollsters keep their plans secret.

I know it’s expensive, partly because of the challenge of finding enough Indians to be statistically significant.

Post polling analyst Scott Clement estimated it would cost well into six figures and require many months to do a poll based on a fresh sample. It might be possible to reduce the cost considerably, however, by using a representative selection of Native Americans that had been assembled previously by another responsible organization.

Intriguingly, neither the team nor Native American groups that oppose the name are eager to see a new poll.

The team’s position is easy to understand. Why risk seeing new results that might undermine your best argument?

Resistance also came from Indian groups I asked, including the National Congress of American Indians, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Oneida Nation.

They said one shouldn’t rely on polls to settle a moral issue. They stressed that Native American leaders were overwhelmingly critical of the name.

“Changing the mascot of the D.C. team should not be determined by public opinion,” said the National Congress, which represents about three-quarters of enrolled tribal members.

“[National Congress] membership and tribal governments have passed numerous resolutions condemning the name of the DC mascot,” it said.

Even if interested parties on either side would prefer not to see current polling data, a lot of the rest of us would. Until then, don’t take at face value the defense that Snyder and Goodell are pushing.

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