Ben Norman, a member of the Pamunkey tribe of Virginia working the museum’s front desk Thursday afternoon, looked at me quizzically.
“The majority of the native people are against the name; you know that, right?” he said. “I mean, the museum is not supposed to have an official opinion. But for me, the way I look at it is, if you’re going to be taken seriously you can’t be a cartoon or somebody’s mascot.”
To my wonder, many people, native and non-native, shuddered when asked.
In fact, every time I mentioned the team name to visitors or museum workers — about 70 percent of whom are not American Indian — they became uncomfortably quiet, as if I’d uttered an ethnic slur or something.
Maybe it was my questions. “Where’s the Redskins exhibit?” did not go over well, for example.
“There is none,” a woman at the front next to Norman replied, stone-faced.
Outside the museum I asked Josh, the informative and amiable native tour guide with the headset, whether great Washington professional football players of yore were featured on the fourth floor with the rest of the great warriors, a place where portraits of Sonny Jurgensen, Joe Gibbs and Art Monk could hang next to Ten Bears, Chief Joseph and Sitting Bull. Josh looked at me like I had 10 heads.
“About 90 percent of native people are against the use of mascots and imagery that plays into native stereotypes,” he said.
Realizing the rest of the group was cringing at my line of questioning, I moved on.
Doesn’t anyone understand that the nickname of Washington’s NFL team “honors” the bravery of the American Indian?
Before it was removed from the media guide, the team used to give a Reader’s Digest version of where the name came from: “The term redskin . . . was inspired not by their natural complexion but by their fondness for vermilion makeup.”
Three African American security guards at the museum surely would understand.
“People don’t even like that name used around here,” said a black gentleman who stood between his two female co-workers. (Most employees asked that their names not be used, citing a no-media policy.)
What, pray tell, could be wrong with the name “Redskins”? I asked.
“The name came from scalping,” the security guard said, demonstrating by running his hand over his forehead. “In the old days, they took the skin off the head — blood and everything — to prove they killed an Indian. You learn being here what that name means to a lot of the people here.
“Now imagine going to Kentucky or somewhere and asking someone at the local museum, ‘Where’s the redneck exhibit?’ Same thing.”
David Grimes, the N.M.A.I. assistant building manager and part of that 3 p.m. tour on Thursday, said contractors hired to work on repairs and exhibits at the museum are actually told not to wear jerseys, hats or any paraphernalia of any team who uses native mascots or images.
“Anything Redskins-related or even [Kansas City] Chiefs stuff is not allowed in here,” Grimes said. “Workers are told to be sensitive to that issue.”
On this hypersensitivity goes. No Orakpo-signed jerseys or “The Redskins Encyclopedia” are sold at the museum store, just some Acoma pottery and a book called “The Ojibwa Woman.”
The third floor has an exhibit dedicated to the contemporary faces of the American Indian. Portraits of LaRon Landry and Chris Cooley were nowhere to be found.
Before I left, I was told there was an exhibit in the works that planned to address the mascot issue. When I asked whether this exhibit would include tributes to Sonny and Sam and other great players from the Burgundy and Gold Nation, I was asked if I was being facetious.
Truthfully, I was. I have written about this issue before. My views on the nickname crystallized somewhere between visiting the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota — where the word “Redskins” was equated to the n-word — and having a Redskins player tell me if the team was called the Blackskins, “you think Clinton Portis is suiting up for Dan Snyder on Sunday?”
And you can bet that on Sunday afternoon, the American Indians disturbed by the nickname — they’re not political, just correct — will be rooting harder and more fervently for Sam Bradford than you can possibly fathom.