I attended a Washington Redskins playoff pep rally the other day with Suzan Harjo, a Muskogee Indian who lives in the District, and I got to see the celebration through a different set of eyes.
It was like the state of Virginia getting to hear its old state song, "Carry Me Back To Old Virginia," through a different set of ears--the ears of African Americans--and finally realizing that something was not right.
One of the things I've always liked about having a winning football team is how it brings our community together. We could all root--black, white, whatever--for our side. Nothing like a common enemy--say, the Dallas Cowboys--to make us forget our differences.
But even this relatively harmless bit of fantasy is no longer possible for me, not after seeing how hurtful the pep rally at Union Station was for Harjo.
At one point, the team band began a familiar, Hollywood version of Indians-on-the-warpath music, heavy with bass drums. Zema "Chief Zee" Williams, a black man and team mascot who dresses in a white man's version of an Indian outfit, skipped through the crowd shaking hands.
Eventually, he made his way to Harjo, and the garishness of his get-up, complete with dyed synthetic head feathers, stood in stark contrast to her authenticity.
"Howdy, howdy, howdy," he said, oblivious to Harjo's beaded bracelets, the carved ivory spirit bird around her neck and thinly veiled look of disgust on her face.
"Having a good time?" he asked.
Harjo nodded politely, but when Chief Zee moved on she appeared alternately to want to weep and fight.
"I feel like he's mocking me, even though you know he's getting paid, just like some of these so-called 'fans' in here," she said. "Very little of this is from the heart. It's all economics. A black man gets paid to put on an Indian outfit and tap-dance for the white man. Nothing's changed. Same old deal."
When TV sports commentator Rick "Doc" Walker introduced Brian Mitchell, the team's star punt returner, a huge cheer went up and drowned her out. That was real, and she had to acknowledge it.
"I like the sound of enthusiasm; it's a nifty thing," Harjo said. "I would like to be a fan, too. But I am kept from that."
Growing up on a reservation in El Reno, Okla., Harjo learned how the ways and words of Native Americans had been twisted and destroyed as part of a systematic effort to demoralize Indians. And as a part of their wholesale slaughter, bounty hunters had come up with a new language designed to dehumanize, devalue and degrade.
"Redskins" was the worst such invention because of its direct connection to the genocide. Unable to store or dispose of the dead Indians fast enough, the hunters persuaded government officials to accept scalps instead of skulls as proof of a kill, or just the "redskins" instead of the whole bodies.
" 'Redskins' is so racist," Harjo said. "It's like the n-word to me."
At one point during the pep rally, a group of African American men dressed in burgundy and gold and wearing the team's logo began to sing.
Having been newly sensitized by Harjo, I could almost see redskins dangling from their teeth.
"I think there are a lot of African Americans who think they are siding with us, the Native Americans, when they are rooting for the Redskins. I really do," Harjo said. "And I would have thought that this new owner . . . would have something in his heart that would have made him more sensitive."
Asked by Washington Post writer Eugene Robinson last year if he'd consider changing the team's name, Redskins owner Daniel M. Synder spoke of tradition and how the name "honored" Native Americans.
That so-called tradition was started in 1933 by team owner George Preston Marshall, who had changed the team's name from the Boston Braves to the Redskins to keep it from being confused with the local professional baseball team. Soon after, the team moved to Washington and kept the name.
After being criticized as a racist, Marshall claimed that he had chosen the name "out of respect for American Indian heritage." Another team owner, Jack Kent Cooke, took the same tack, even after a survey found that 46 percent of the public considered the word Redskins "offensive to me."
"I understand that a lot of people cannot separate their enthusiasm for the team and the name of the team, so they simply deny that there is anything disparaging about the name," Harjo said. "But if they would just think it through, think about what message it sends to the children, I believe most people would change their minds."
As fans at the pep rally began unfurling their entries to a "best Redskins banner" contest, Harjo sighed.
"It would be so nice if this was a team name change contest instead," she said.
That's what Virginia has been doing lately, holding contests for a new state song because the old song contained references to "darkies" and "massas" that many African Americans found offensive.
Harjo's choice for a new football team name?
"Wild Hogs," she said, "because they suggest the real sport in Washington, which is pork barreling."
I could root for that.