Do us a favor, Mr. Snyder. Don’t pick a new, native-inspired name or mascot that references our culture. Being your mascot is not an honor, nor does it honor the bravery of native people. In fact, it would be doubling down on the way your team has mocked our history and culture, reinforced stereotypes and promoted prejudice. It would further harm the self-esteem of American Indian young people and undermine the educational experiences of all communities — especially those who have had little or no contact with indigenous peoples. And it would distract from real life-or-death challenges American Indians face today, such as the disappearance of an untold number of American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls under suspicious circumstances; the disproportionate number of our brothers and sisters affected by the novel coronavirus; and the fact that Native Americans are more likely to be killed in police shootings than other people.
Snyder’s about-face comes against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement and as the country confronts its shameful past relating to black Americans, indigenous Americans and people of color. It coincides with the removal of Confederate battle flags and statues, and companies retiring images that are based on racial stereotypes.
Let’s be honest: Snyder did not undergo some spontaneous moral enlightenment that moved him off his 2013 promise that he would “NEVER” change the team’s name. Rather, he had little choice once major sponsor FedEx asked the team to change its name and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser said the name is an obstacle to the team returning to a new stadium in the city. Pressure on the team continued on Saturday when The Post’s editorial board reiterated its previous call for a name change, saying “Every time the R-word is used, something disrespectful is happening.”
Reporting suggests that fans favor new names along the lines of “Warriors” or “Braves,” assuming they would honor Native Americans in general and native veterans in particular. But adopting any variation on that theme will actually have the opposite effect. It will embolden disrespectful fans of this team and other teams across the country to continue painting their faces, donning headdresses and participating in that despicable tomahawk chop. It will prolong the silliness of dressing cheerleaders in faux-native fashions. And it will perpetuate the unseemly practice of parading native veterans in front of rowdy fans during halftime shows. Enough is enough; our veterans are not your entertainment, and they are not your mascots. They are men and women who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces since the American Revolution and hold a special place in our tribal cultures.
Among the things we have learned from the Black Lives Matter movement is that merely speaking out against racism is not enough. We need to aggressively oppose racism every time we see or hear it. As a Native American director of one of the Smithsonian museums, I feel a special responsibility to practice anti-racism. As Secretary Lonnie Bunch III said when he became the leader of our institution: “It’s crucial for us to model the behavior, model the expectations, model the hopes that we want for the rest of the country.”
Snyder now has the opportunity to do something truly important leading up to this year’s NFL season — not just by changing the name and mascot of the hometown team, but also by setting an example for the Cleveland Indians, Chicago Blackhawks, Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Braves and the hundreds of schools across the country that continue to maintain their own teams’ racist names and mascots. Mr. Snyder, you can lead if you choose to do so.
Defeating racism is the work of generations. As individuals, we may not live to see the end of racism, but we can build on the work of our ancestors by devoting our lives to fighting it at every opportunity. Throughout my career — as a lawyer, as assistant secretary for Indian affairs and as a museum director — I have done what I can to spare my own children the pain of seeing professional sports make a mockery of our culture. While this moment of change may have come too late to spare them, perhaps the home team can do the right thing for my grandchildren.