For activists who have long pushed to change the name of the Washington Redskins, a Washington Post poll showing that 9 of 10 Native Americans are not offended by the moniker spurred outrage, frustration and a reinvigorated sense of fight.
The leaders of the movement vowed not to back down, with some questioning the validity of the poll and others arguing that the name — a dictionary-defined slur — should be changed even if only a minority of Native Americans find it disparaging. A hashtag on Twitter, #IAmNativeIWasNotAsked, quickly took hold.
“This Mohawk will never be a Redskin,” James Barraford tweeted. “I’m a human being, not a marketing prop.”
“I am an enrolled member of the Colville Tribes,” Michelle Shining Elk tweeted, “and I stand in complete opposition to the racist Washington @NFL team.”
Tara Houska, a tribal lawyer who lives in the District, helped organize a protest of more than 4,000 Native Americans at a Vikings-Redskins game in Minneapolis in November 2014 and led a protest of more than 100 at Fed-Ex field a month later. She has no intention of retreating on the issue.
“We are not mascots,” said Houska, a member of the Couchiching First Nation. “A poll is not going to change my mind. A poll is not going to tell me I’m not offended. A poll is not going to tell me that this doesn’t harm the self-esteem of Native American children.”
Several psychological studies have documented the negative effects of Native American mascots and sports imagery on Indian youth. Houska noted that the second leading cause of death among Native Americans ages 15 to 24 is suicide.
“And you’re going to tell me you’re going to prioritize a football team over that?” she said. “I find it very frustrating and very upsetting that people are going to point to the poll and say this is not offensive to Native Americans when we know this is harmful to Native American youth.”
Tribal leaders throughout Indian Territory have denounced the moniker. Led by the National Congress of American Indians, the Oneida Indian Nation in New York, and others, the activists won a string of high-profile victories over the past three years. President Obama, 50 Democratic U.S. senators, dozens of sports broadcasters and columnists, several newspaper editorial boards (including The Post’s), civil rights and religious leaders called on team owner Daniel Snyder to act.
National Congress of American Indians Executive Director Jacqueline Pata said in a statement Thursday that more than 100 Native American organizations have spoken in opposition to the team’s name.
“It is true some Native people do not find the word offensive,” Pata said. “However, thousands of Native people across the country have voiced their opposition to the name and the historic, disparaging connotations it carries to this day.”
Wade Henderson, the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which represents more than 200 national organizations, stood by a resolution the group passed in December 2013 calling on the team to drop the “slur.”
“The fact that we’re poll-testing racial slurs against Native Americans shows how much we’ve ignored their basic humanity to begin with,” Henderson said. “A slur is a slur is a slur. . . . Celebrating and commodifying stereotypes should have no place in 21st century America. Even if the poll’s results about this slur are accurate, that wouldn’t give license to Dan Snyder to cash in by appropriating it.”
Snyder, who purchased the team in 1999, has vowed never to change the name and has long justified his stance by pointing to a 2004 poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center that found the exact same result as The Post’s poll released Thursday. The new poll, conducted over a five-month period, surveyed 504 self-identified Indians across every state and the District. The results remained consistent regardless of age, income, education, political party or proximity to reservations. More than 7 in 10 said they did not feel the word “Redskin” was disrespectful to Indians, and 8 in 10 said they would not be offended if a non-native called them that name.
The first response of many activists reached by phone after the poll’s release was to question its methodology and the validity of surveying people who self-identify as Native American.
Amanda Blackhorse, 34, the lead plaintiff in the group of Native Americans asking the government to revoke the team’s federal trademark registrations, found the poll infuriating.
“The act of polling a human rights issue is absurd. It trivializes the reports and experiences of those native people who’ve been hurt and damaged by native stereotypes and by the Washington team name,” Blackhorse said. “There’s no validity to this poll.”
In a written statement, Oneida Nation Representative Ray Halbritter echoed those sentiments.
“When you have states, school districts and federal legislators listening to independent objective experts on the damage caused by this name to Native American children, then taking action to end the promotion of this racial slur, the notion that a single newspaper poll will reverse that progress we’ve made is absurd,” Halbritter said. “We will continue moving forward on every track we’ve been working on because we believe in the 21st century Native Americans don’t deserve to be treated as mascots or be targets of racial slurs.”
Rev. Graylan Scott Hagler, the senior minister of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ who has been at the forefront of the local name-change effort, said religious leaders who have joined the cause will continue their fight. He is scheduled to hold a workshop on the issue in June for the United Church of Christ, which voted to boycott the team’s games and gear until the name is dropped.
“Polls do not decide justice,” Hagler said. He said the results should also be looked at in the context of other movements. “Everybody today will tell you they marched with Martin Luther King when most folks were on the sidelines.”
Jordan Wright, the granddaughter to George Preston Marshall, who gave the team its name, said as early as 2014 that the time had come to change it.
“If even one person tells you that name, that word you used, offends them, then that’s enough,” she said at the time. “That should be enough.”
She said Thursday that going forward, more education on the issue is needed “so that people know that by accepting the name, they are perpetuating these racist stereotypes.”
“We shouldn’t go back to those dark days,” Wright said. “They don’t serve the national dialogue at all. I hope that people reach out to educate themselves and others about the detrimental effects of these racist stereotypes, so they don’t let this poll be the last word.”
Ian Shapira contributed to this report.