To Seattle Native Americans, Redskins Are the Shame of the Game

By Mike Wise
Saturday, January 14, 2006


As haters go, Kateri Joe is fairly tame. She does not want the team facing her hometown Seahawks in the NFC playoffs Saturday to be embarrassed or humiliated. In fact, she does not care much about football at all.

"But I'm dreading them coming," said Joe, a member of the Swinomish tribe, which resides about 70 miles north of Seattle. "I really don't want to hear how their nickname honors us.

"It's like we're slipping back in time. The fans with the war paint on their faces, the feathers, the bad costumes -- I mean, don't they know how that looks and makes us feel?"

Here atop Beacon Hill, on the south side of Seattle, is the nation's first and only urban Boys & Girls Club for Native Americans. It is called Iwasil (pronounced ee-wah-sil), which in the native Lushootseed language means "positive change."

At Iwasil, where Kateri Joe works as a tutor, none of the children wear baseball caps with pigmented Indians on them.

"You don't see any other ethnicity 'honored' this way," said Charlie Goodwin, 19, an intern and student at Iwasil. "You don't see people dressing up as Zulu warriors in cheetah loincloths. The NAACP would be all over that one, wouldn't they?"

Said Jena Paypay, 15: "How does one group of people decide for that group what honors them? If they would ask us, we would tell them, 'To us, "Redskin" is the "N" word.' "

Washington is part of the U.S. Census Bureau's Pacific States region, which has the country's second-largest concentration of Native Americans. There are roughly 30 tribes based in the Seattle area and about 75,000 Native Americans in the state. Nowhere but Arizona will Coach Joe Gibbs's players compete closer to the people who represent their controversial nickname.

Leading up to the game, the issue has grown into its own thread on Web sites devoted to the Seahawks and to Washington state news. The Seattle Times, honoring its 15-year policy of keeping Indian nicknames out of headlines and captions, allowed its writers to use the Redskins nickname only on first reference. All other references must read "Washington." At least one Seattle writer got an e-mail from an insulted District fan, who spelled out the nickname dozens of times. "See how easy it is to type?" it read.

The group of Iwasil teenagers stood in a half-circle Friday in the Boys & Girls Club's administration office. Among them were Karissa Chico, from the Pima and Papago tribes in Arizona. Paypay of the Cheyenne River Sioux in South Dakota. Siblings Amy and Chris Johnson, in his New York Yankees cap, from the western Paiute, Tlingit and Shoshone tribes. And Goodwin, from the Blackfoot and Keetoowah tribes.

The teens do not consider themselves activists or leftists or social engineers; some are barely old enough to wear makeup and hold jobs. But they have grown up with images of white kids in war paint patting their mouths, making a "woo-woo" sound at high school basketball games. At West Seattle High School four years ago, Joe and three girlfriends from the Native American Club decided to fight an 85-year-old tradition: the use of the Indian nickname and mascot at their school.

The girls got 650 faculty, students and members of the community to sign their petition to abolish the nickname. At 15 years old, she took the microphone in front of the Seattle School Board in the spring of 2002. "No PowerPoints or presentation material; it just came from our hearts," Joe said. "We basically said it's not okay for us to be depicted in that way."

In July 2002, the Seattle School Board abolished the use of all Indian nicknames in its public schools. The ruling was upheld in 2003 by a King County Superior Court judge.

Four girls, convincing an entire school board in an American metropolis to change.

"So you wonder, 'Why can't a team in the nation's capital do the same?' " Joe said. "Do they just not see that it's wrong?"

The kids of Iwasil said they would like to meet with Daniel Snyder, the owner who has remained steadfast in his desire not to change the name of Washington's NFL team.

"It would be a challenge to get through to someone who already has their mind-set," Joe said. "But if he could feel just a small glimmer of what it would be like to live in the experience of having your people portrayed as a mascot, at least he would know. At least he couldn't act like he didn't know anymore."

Snyder's spokesman, Karl Swanson, did not return a phone call or respond to an e-mail request for comment.

It's not just the kids who feel this way.

Charlene Teters, who grew up in the Spokane Nation east of Seattle, was a graduate student at the University of Illinois. She launched a national campaign to do away with Chief Illiniwek, the school's longtime mascot.

Teters was the main character in a documentary titled "In Whose Honor," which featured a particularly disturbing scene. In front of RFK Stadium in 1991, Teters confronts Chief Zee, aka Zema Williams, an aging Washingtonian who has dressed up in Indian garb for the past three decades, replete with war bonnet. Local fans probably know of Williams, who happens to be black. He is usually parading around FedEx Field during home games. He was at the Cowboys' game in Dallas in September, congratulating Santana Moss in the end zone after a touchdown.

In the documentary, Teters asks Williams: "How would you like it if I put on blackface? Would that be okay?" Williams can't answer her, except to say he has no problem with "her kin." The conversation grows uglier until Williams finally walks away, unable to find a good argument in his defense. Teters is weeping at the end, crushed she cannot get through to her African American brother.

"It was one of the few times I lost it," she said by telephone earlier this week from Pomona, Calif., where she is serving as an endowed chair of interdisciplinary knowledge at Cal Poly Pomona. "He just didn't get it.

"I cannot speak for the whole Spokane Nation in this matter, but I'm definitely not honored by that team coming to my home state," she added. "It insults my intelligence to say this honors me."

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