When I heard Redskins’ owner Daniel Snyder recently I couldn't stop thinking of Alabama’s segregationist Governor George Wallace.
Synder’s recent use of the N- word- “never”- was so offensive, for a moment I felt myself hurled into that infamous day in 1963 when Wallace stood on the doorsteps at the University of Alabama and thunderously vowed: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.”
In the backdrop of an upcoming case before the U.S. Supreme Court involving the Redskins trademark, which some Native Americans have described in the complaint as offensive, Synder was asked about changing the name of the team. ‘We'll never change the name,’ Snyder told USA Today defiantly. "It's that simple. NEVER -- you can use caps.”
To me. Snyder’s “never” is like Wallace’s “forever”: “Never” is a terminal sounding word, void of hope, any appeal to reason, disgusting, de-humanizing, a situation that will not change.
Never is not a 21st Century word. Too many groups—blacks, Hispanics, women, gays and the physically challenged —heard the word “Never,” and with agitation, protest and lobbying “Never,” dissolved to maybe, to not yet, and finally to Right Now.
So why should Native Americans be forced to exile in Neverland, a hostile environment where symbols, images and mascots stereotype them and are disrespectful of their culture, tradition and values according to resolutions of the American Sociological Association.
When Synder was asked why he was so resolute, he stressed the value of history and tradition as major reasons for not giving up the trademark, which, of course, would cost the team millions in revamping souvenirs and sporting equipment.
Yet it is for that very reason—history and tradition—the quest for respect and the right of self-identification for Native Americans—that is the real issue hidden in this saga of the “Redskins” and a name change. What is at stake is the right to protect their culture, their identity and sense of humanity. And the overall question is whose history is being protected?
If Native American history and tradition were important to black Americans, they would be the major ones fighting for the rights of the Native Americans. You should never see the ridiculous spectacle of a black man as the Redskins mascot and African-American fans showing up at games in red face, doing war whoops and in feathered headdresses. “These behavioral practices do not honor us, they trivialize us,” says Clyde Bellecourt, director of the American Indian Movement. “The psychological impact is devastating, especially to our children.” Yet the behavior continues even after in 2009 the NAACP filed a resolution calling to an end to American images, symbols and mascots in sports.
In the recent movie about Jackie Robinson the first black to play in major league baseball, blacks re-lived the humiliation of how it feels when whites jeered and threw bottles at one of their own. Of all people why is it so hard for black Americans who have suffered decades of racial stereotyping to “get it” now when others feel demeaned? And what about Synder, who is Jewish? Would it take his being strapped in a stadium seat with crowds cheering “Go Hymie, go Kike,” for him to “get it?”
The reason for the lack of support among blacks for Native Americans is that their union and unity is largely neglected ignored by historians, says Mary Dempsey in a 1996 article written for American Visions Magazine. It is a little known fact that Native Americans, some of whom were slave owners, also adopted many runaway slaves into their tribes and set up stations of refuge on the Underground Railroad, according to William Katz author of Black Indians, A Hidden Heritage.
“The first paths of freedom taken by runaways were to Native American villages. They intermarried and became known as Black Indians or maroons. In fact, runaway slaves became Florida’s first settlers, who with later arrivals from the Creek Indian Nation formed the Seminoles. When slaveholders came to retrieve their slaves they met resistance by red and black armed forces, a united front.”
Blacks and Indians have a common heritage. Millions of the populations of both groups were destroyed by whites who enslaved blacks, murdered Native Americans and seized their lands. Unity between the two groups against a common problem at this stage seems a reasonable comeback. And today the majority of African-Americans have a Native American in their family tree based not on the rape of slavery but often by invitation and legitimate marriage.
Katz reminds that the first person to die in the American Revolution in Boston on March 5, 1770, was a black Indian from Nantucket named Crispus Attucks. Paul Cuffee, a Dartmouth Indian with African heritage became the first black man to sponsor a migration of U.S. blacks to Africa to protect them from discrimination in 1815 and Langston Hughes, the prolific poet laureate and novelist traced his roots back to Pocahontas.
It is not only the vital link between blacks and native Americans that are important in this “Redskins saga” but the little known contributions of Native Americans to the USA as a whole that should give them an engraved invite into the Big Tent of America. They should not be outside looking in.
So the fuss over the NFL and the Redskins is much bigger than what is in a name. It is about history, it is about tradition, loyalty, about betrayal and broken dreams. The bigger story is when will Native Americans fit in the Big Tent called Home in an environment where billionaires like Synder still answer: Never.