When the Washington Redskins played the Arizona Cardinals near Phoenix on Oct. 12, one group of fans rolled in with free bus rides and tickets thanks to Redskins owner Dan Snyder: 150 students and faculty from Red Mesa High School, most of them members of the Navajo Nation whose school mascot is the Redskins. Once the Red Mesa students began walking toward the stadium, they said that other Native American protesters on site started calling them pawns in Snyder’s public relations campaign to defend the name. School officials and students dismissed those claims, arguing that the free NFL tickets presented a rare opportunity for their low-income community.

But the Washington Redskins didn’t just give free tickets to students from the low-income Red Mesa High School. The team also gave free tickets to 650 more Native Americans, many of them from the Navajo Nation, a tribe that Snyder has been courting for quite some time.

According to Maury Lane, a Washington Redskins consultant, the ticket giveaway is just one of many things Snyder has been doing to help build a fan base in the Navajo Nation, which has an estimated 330,000 registered members, more than half of which live outside the nation’s borders in more urban areas. “The relationship has been ongoing for years and many people haven’t heard of it,” Lane said. “It’s a symbiotic relationship that benefits both cultures and allows an integration of ideas that wouldn’t occur otherwise.”

Some of the recent things Snyder has been doing with the Navajo Nation:

  • The Washington Redskins recently struck a deal with the Navajo Arts and Crafts Enterprise, a Navajo Nation-owned entity that buys and sells art from locals. The deal will allow local Navajo artists to create Redskins-themed art that can be sold at Washington Redskins games at FedEx Field in Landover and possibly other retail outlets. “The agreement is basically that the enterprise will receive orders from the Redskins, but we want to expand this deal to all the NFL teams in the country,” said Deswood Tome, special advisor to Ben Shelly, the outgoing president of the Navajo Nation. ” If you’re a pot maker or silver maker, now you have another outlet. We’ll probably get a space inside the stadium.”
  • Earlier this year, the Washington Redskins’ Original Americans Foundation agreed to sponsor the annual charity golf tournament hosted by KTNN, the Navajo Nation’s radio station. The Redskins sponsored the tournament to give money to Native Americans for college scholarships, according to Lane, the Redskins consultant. But news of the sponsorship sparked a backlash, prompting some Navajo organizations to withdraw their support of the tournament, according to Indian Country Today Media Network.

But Red Mesa’s free tickets to the Washington-Arizona game earlier this month generated perhaps the most controversy, mainly because the overture put high school students in the center of the controversy. Amanda Blackhorse, the lead plaintiff in the legal case threatening the Washington Redskins trademark protections, told fellow protesters at the game that Red Mesa’s administrators — not its students — should be blamed for accepting the tickets.

What else did the kids get aside from tickets? They gained entry to a free tailgate, got $20 concession cards for popcorn and pizza, free Redskins hats and T-shirts. They even got to meet and pose for pictures with Redskins legend Gary Clark. The photos wound up on many pro-Redskins sites. One of Red Mesa’s coaches was also interviewed on camera, footage that was tweeted out by the web site RedskinsFacts.com.