The Native American tribe leading the fight to change the Washington Redskins name is locked in a dispute — one that includes accusations of lying, bribery and exploitation — with the foundation that team owner Dan Snyder created to help Indians in need.
On one side is the Oneida Indian Nation, backed by millions of dollars in casino money, and on the other is the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, backed by millions of dollars in Snyder’s money.
In the middle is the Indian National Finals Rodeo, a volunteer-led organization in constant financial trouble that hosts what is essentially the World Series for Native American cowboys and cowgirls. Self-described as “the largest and oldest Native American sporting event in America,” the five-day November rodeo in Las Vegas draws more than 20,000 spectators and about 500 of the top competitors from the United States and Canada.
A year after accepting a $200,000 sponsorship from the Redskins foundation, the rodeo’s leaders announced this month — “after much soul searching” — that they would take no money this year and declared the Redskins moniker a racial slur.
The Oneida asserted that the decision was one based entirely on the group’s moral convictions and proclaimed it a major win for their cause, lauding the news on Twitter and in the news media.
But what led to that decision is more complicated than activists first acknowledged, according to interviews and documents obtained by The Washington Post.
The former chairman of another Oneida tribe flew to Montana last month to meet with rodeo leaders, offering to help connect them with wealthy donors in Indian country if they would stop using the Redskins logo.
The commissioners voted unanimously to do what he asked — just four days after they had sent the Redskins foundation a letter seeking $527,000 and, in exchange, offering to plaster the logo of the National Football League team on trailers, coats, footballs, T-shirts, flags, screens, banners and programs.
“We are excited and honored,” the letter said, “to continue our journey with the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation as we share in our common goal to improve the quality of life for Native Americans.”
Foundation officials said in a statement to The Post that what truly motivated the rodeo’s turnabout was a valuable quid pro quo from the Oneida: Drop the Redskins affiliation and denounce the moniker, and we’ll give you money or help you raise it. Both the rodeo and the tribe vehemently deny that accusation, insisting that the rodeo’s decision was ethical, not financial.
Who is telling the truth remains unclear, but the incident illuminates the aggressive battle being waged behind the scenes for the support of Native Americans caught in the intense debate over the football team’s name.
For the foundation — which has spent millions of dollars on playgrounds, vans and other support for dozens of tribes — the rodeo was a key partner in 2014, providing the newly founded Redskins organization access to a high-profile event in Indian country.
And the rodeo, still recovering from a 2010 bankruptcy filing, needed the money. After accepting the $200,000 in 2014, the rodeo welcomed the foundation to “our family of partners” and later displayed the logo at the year-end event.
The backlash was severe, though, as some Native American activists sharply criticized the deal and accused the rodeo of selling out.
But that did not deter the group’s leaders. This summer, according to documents provided by the Redskins foundation, the rodeo pursued greater levels of support, starting with a proposal in early August for a $350,000 sponsorship.
In exchange, the foundation’s logo — with the mascot — would hang on banners in the arena and concourse at the November rodeo event. Redskins footballs and T-shirts would be tossed into the crowd. The Redskins flag would fly twice during performances.
Later in the month, the rodeo asked for enough money to cover about half of its annual budget — $527,000, which would pay the contestants’ registration fees, an idea that event organizers said came from foundation chief executive Gary L. Edwards. He declined to be interviewed.
In the proposal sent to the foundation, the rodeo’s general manager included a mock-up of a jacket with the Redskins logo on one sleeve. The message asked for a “time frame of when you believe we can have an answer” to the request for support.
Four days later, when the rodeo’s commissioners met in Montana to consider the sponsorship, everything changed.
In attendance was Gerald Danforth, a businessman and former chairman of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. While his tribe and the Oneida Indian Nation in New York are separate groups, they share ancestry and language, and they have cooperated on cultural issues in Indian country.
Rodeo commission vice president Michael “Bo” Vocu said he had asked Danforth to “draw up a business plan” — essentially outlining other ways for the rodeo to raise the necessary funding.
Danforth said in an interview that he told the commissioners he was willing to help raise the money in Indian country — but only if they refused to accept any sponsorship from the Redskins that included the controversial mascot.
Danforth said he outlined a number of Indian tribes and organizations that could offer financial help, but he initially denied mentioning the deep-pocketed Oneida Indian Nation, which in recent years has brought in annual casino revenue ranging from $200 million to $400 million.
After being told that Vocu specifically recalled his referring to that tribe, Danforth acknowledged that he had done so, adding: “I did not bring them up in the sense that they had made any monetary promises.”
The commissioners voted not to accept Redskins foundation money, but Vocu and Danforth insist it was not because of a financial quid pro quo with any party — the Oneida in Wisconsin, the Oneida in New York, no one.
In its statement, the Redskins foundation said a rodeo “source reported to the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation that the Oneidas of New York had interfered and met with board members of the [Indian National Finals Rodeo], essentially requesting that the INFR pass a resolution to not accept sponsorship funding from the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation (as it had done in 2014) and to proclaim the Redskins’ name as a slur.”
What would the rodeo get in return?
“The Oneidas of New York would give or otherwise help the INFR raise $500,000,” the foundation statement said.
That allegation, Vocu says, could have stemmed from a misunderstanding in a conversation between Gary Edwards and rodeo commission president Sam Bird.
“Gary’s a quick talker,” Vocu said. “And Sam’s not.”
Oneida Indian Nation spokesman Joel Barkin denied that any agreements had been made.
“I can understand why the foundation would try to suggest that we orchestrated this, but there’s simply no truth to it,” he said. “Otherwise, they have to confront the fact that there are a large number of groups and individuals within Indian country that are not supportive of this name, [critics] which they claim don’t exist.”
Bird, the rodeo commission president, also denied that any money was offered and, in a follow-up interview, said that he had never mentioned a financial arrangement with the Oneida to the Redskins foundation’s Edwards. When asked what he had said about the Oneida in their conversations, Bird refused to answer and hung up.
The rodeo and Oneida Indian Nation did, in fact, work together closely.
After the vote against accepting the foundation’s money, Barkin, the Oneida Indian Nation spokesman, contacted media organizations on Sept. 1 to share news of the rodeo’s move.
Three days later, the foundation received a letter from Vocu announcing the rodeo’s decision to stop accepting Redskins money. The message was dated Sept. 1, the same day the story was first pitched to the media.
The letter called the foundation’s financial support “not truly philanthropic” and said Snyder’s organization was “deliberately named to invoke this slur and to ultimately make legitimizing that slur the consequence of accepting the foundation’s support.”
Barkin helped write the letter. “They asked for help in messaging, and I provided some suggestions,” he said.
Vocu said he asked for Barkin’s guidance because the rodeo is a “bare bones” operation that has little experience dealing with such communications issues. Its five commissioners are all unpaid, and it has just two full-time staff members. The rodeo has at times so struggled to raise money that commissioners have taken out personal loans to cover costs.
With just two months until this year’s event, Vocu said he’s not sure how the commission will pay for it.
Vocu acknowledged that the rodeo’s course change — from begging the foundation for money and embracing the logo to condemning them both — seemed erratic, but he said the commissioners had not been screening the proposals their general manager was sending to Edwards at the foundation.
“We all have regular jobs, too,” he said.
Meanwhile, anti-name activists are celebrating what they have described as the rodeo’s righteous stand against Snyder.
Last week, Indian Country Today — which is owned by the Oneida Indian Nation — tweeted a cartoon of a horse bucking off the Redskins mascot. With the cartoon was a headline: “National Indian Final Rodeo: You Can’t Buy These Cowboys and Cowgirls.”