FROM MY Indian elders, I learned the stories of our difficult Native American history -- how our way of life was uprooted, our culture and religion almost completely destroyed. I learned about our defeats in battle over land and about how our numbers dwindled drastically through disease brought to our native land by European settlers. Five hundred years ago, the Native American population numbered in the millions; now we consist of less than 1 percent of the U.S. population. Banished to small, scattered reservations of hardened wasteland, American Indians are fighting to save the last vestiges of our pride and heritage.

Even today, it is not easy growing up Indian. Young American Indians have to fight battles against alcoholism, chronic unemployment, suicide and poverty. In lives of hardship, they must also contend with the feeling among too many people that they are uneducated and uneducable savages.

To survive and prosper, the young American Indians need respect and self esteem. I tell them that they should look to our proud heritage for strength and inspiration, as I have. But I can't tell those same boys and girls to look with pride on the name of Washington's professional football team -- despite what team officials say.

With the football season upon us, Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke and his supporters will again be heard claiming that the use of the name "Redskins" is a tribute to the strength and courage of American Indians. But I've never heard of Cooke or his supporters making such a claim to an Indian in a face-to-face meeting. Indeed, Cooke has not yet accepted offers from the Native American communities to discuss how the recipients of his intended compliment feel about it.

To me and, I think, most other people with Native American ancestors, "redskins" is a term that purports to describe the color of American Indian skin but says nothing about character or courage. It certainly does not feel like homage to my heritage.

That's why I recently introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate about the federally owned land in Northeast Washington where Cooke hopes to build a new football stadium. The bill would prohibit leasing of the land to any person or organization that uses derogatory or offensive ethnic or racial stereotypes in their names or slogans. I could support the construction of the new stadium on one condition -- that the federal contract turning over use of the land contain provisions urging the name change.

The site north of Robert F. Kennedy Stadium that has been set aside for the proposed stadium is owned by all Americans. If the Redskins organization chooses not to respect that fact, then it cannot expect to be granted the privilege of using federally owned land.

There is good precedent for sticking to this principle. In 1961, the federal government, in the person of Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall and several members of Congress, threatened to prohibit the use of federal land as the site of a new stadium unless the owner, George Preston Marshall, hired black players. Marshall was the last owner in the National Football League to do so. Only the threat of imminent action of the federal government persuaded Marshall to abandon his bigoted hiring practices. I'm not alone in thinking that pressure on the Washington football organization must be increased. Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly recently said in response to a caller's question on WPFW-FM, "As an American, I know how I'd feel if I heard something equivalent {to 'redskins'}. And I think that we, as people who have been traditionally disrespected, have an obligation to be up there in the front lines to support others who have been disrespected."

In endorsing my legislation, City Councilman Bill Lightfoot noted, "The District of Columbia is not only a multicultural community, but it is the nation's capital and, as such, we should set the example by not being passive participants in perpetuating racial or cultural stereotypes."

As a Coloradan and a Denver Broncos fan, I can understand how important the Washington team is to its fans and to the community. To say that the name "Redskins" is an anachronism that should be changed is no slight to the players or the fans. Neither those players nor those fans would approve of team names such as Spics, Niggers, Greasers, Spearchuckers, Wops, Kikes, Nips, Krauts or Pollacks. Just as the use of those terms makes many Americans feel exploited and degraded, so the name "Redskins" is offensive and uncivil to Native Americans.

My intent is not to change every single team name that refers to Indian culture. Many Native Americans, myself included, do not have a problem with the use of specific Indian tribal names, if the affected tribe agrees. There is a world of difference between calling a team "the Seminoles" and calling a team the "Redskins." There are teams that use appropriate Indian names but employ offensive logos or caricatures. In the case of the Washington football team, the team logo is not offensive but the name is. Our guide should be common decency.

The debate over this issue reminds us there is still much racial insensitivity in our country. More than a few of my constituents have questioned my decision to spend time on this issue. My response is old-fashioned: Just as cutting the budget deficit, creating jobs and reforming our health care system are important to our country's well-being, so is fighting mindless bigotry and racism.

Ben Nighthorse Campbell (D) is the junior senator from Colorado.