MINNEAPOLIS — At what was hailed by organizers as the largest-ever protest of the Washington Redskins’ name, a group of Native Americans stood outside the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium in a plaza built as a tribute to 11 of the state’s tribes. A man in the middle held up a sign painted in bold black letters: “RACIST.”
For more than an hour Sunday, hundreds of Washington Redskins fans on their way to the game against the Minnesota Vikings shuffled past the voices of condemnation, some with their Redskins’ caps stuffed in their pockets and their jerseys covered by zipped up jackets.
“Who are we?” the demonstrators yelled. “Not your mascots!”
On a broad grassy patch behind them, a throng of Native Americans, students and other activists chanted, sang, banged drums and waved banners: “Change the Name Now” and “Stop Racism in the NFL.” University of Minnesota police put the estimated crowd at 3,500 to 4,000. Organizers estimated it at 5,000.
More than two dozen speakers from across the country addressed the noisy but peaceful gathering. They consider the Redskins moniker deeply offensive, while team owner Daniel Snyder argues that it honors Native Americans and has vowed never to change it.
The interactions between protesters and Redskins fans never turned violent, but they were often tense and sometimes profane.
Samuel Wounded Knee, 35, a Crow Creek Sioux with square shoulders and long dark hair, carried a sign that read “Wake Up Snyder” and confronted nearly every Redskins fan he saw, cursing at one who cut through the rally and taunted protesters.
“We don’t want to be your mascot,” he yelled. “My son doesn’t want to be your mascot.”
Nearby, his 3-year-old sat on the grass in a maroon-and-yellow shirt that hung down to his ankles and said simply on its front: “REPLACE.”
Preparations for the rally were underway for months, with organizers determined to make it even larger than one held more than two decades ago. In 1992, when the Buffalo Bills played Washington in the only Super Bowl hosted in Minnesota, an estimated 3,000 demonstrators turned out at the now-demolished Metrodome to denounce the team’s name.
Last November, when the Vikings hosted the Redskins for the first time since 2007 at the Metrodome, more than 700 people protested outside. But the debate about the name has grown much more intense over the past year, with a parade of Native American leaders, lawmakers, civil rights activists and sports commentators condemning it.
The name retains its support among a majority of Americans, with 71 percent saying it should not be changed in a poll conducted for ESPN in September. How the nation’s 5.2 million Native Americans feel is impossible to know. A 2004 Annenberg Public Policy Center poll found that 9 out of 10 Native Americans were not offended by the moniker, but that survey is now 10 years old, and many activists question its methodology.
On Sunday, the speakers were united in their opinion.
“We are here to tell the NFL there is no honor in a racial slur,” Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) told the demonstrators. “Here in Minnesota, we have 11 proud tribal nations, but only 150 years ago, their ancestors, men and women, elders and children, were hunted and murdered for profit. This was a government-funded policy of genocide. The pain of this brutal and shameful history is still with us.”
She said, “If there is any decency in the NFL, the time is now — change the mascot.”
Vikings fan Larry Gibson, 54, a factory worker from St. Paul, Minn., was dismissive of the rally as he paused to watch, expressing his disgust to a Redskins fan beside him.
“It could be the Vikings next, who knows?” Gibson said.
Tony Cansler, who wore a custom Redskins jersey along with a Redskins hat, ear muffs and mittens, shook his head.
“I mean, how far do you go with this, you know?” he replied.
Cansler, a 53-year-old maintenance worker, had driven six hours from his home in Iowa to watch his beloved Redskins play.
“To me, the name is respectful,” he said. Native Americans “should take pride in the name.”
Controversy had swirled around the Vikings game since August because of demands by the University of Minnesota to limit use of the Washington team’s name and logo inside the stadium. But university administrators insisted that they could not dictate behavior to the Vikings organization, which is paying the university $300,000 a game to use the stadium while its new facility in Minneapolis is being built.
After the protest – as the public address announcer bellowed the name over and over inside the stadium – a school official told a group of reporters that the Vikings had ignored their repeated requests.
Unlike many NFL cities where Native Americans have little presence, their influence in the Twin Cities – and throughout Minnesota – is robust.
More than 1,100 students throughout the University of Minnesota system identify themselves as Native Americans, and TCF Bank Stadium was built with the help of a $10 million donation from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community. At the time, it was the largest private gift to Gophers athletics.
The stadium also honors Minnesota’s 11 federally recognized tribes with the plaza where, on Sunday, protesters confronted fans.
Joseph Keller, wearing a Chris Cooley Redskins jersey, walked through it, stopping in front of a group of screaming teen protesters. He blew them kisses, then dropped his cigarette on the pavement and stepped on it.
A young woman snatched it from the ground and dropped it down the back of his jersey. He stopped, reached back to remove it and kept walking.
“So I’m racist because I like the Redskins?” he said to his friend, a Vikings fan, as the two men stood in line.
Keller, a former Marine who lives just outside Minneapolis, said he doesn’t understand Native Americans’ issue with the name, insisting that it’s a tribute to their warrior culture.
“That’s the way I look at it,” he said.
Moments later, the national anthem boomed from the stadium, drowning out the chants of protest behind him.