Daniel Snyder’s announcement last month that he had formed a new foundation to benefit Native Americans was a clear acknowledgment of years of evasion of the most pressing concerns of Indian country by the pro football franchise he owns. While it was a positive first step, the creation of this foundation will only be significant if it remains standing long after the name of the Snyder’s team is retired.
In our past, Native communities have received blankets, coats, trinkets, donations and the uninvited sympathy of those who see us only as an inferior people. These contributions can be helpful, but they are like putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg — they do nothing to solve the underlying problem. We have learned to be suspicious of gifts that stem from selfish interests, come wrapped in claims of generosity and serve to distract from the real problems at hand.
We have many non-Native friends — businesses, organizations and foundations — that partner with us. Our greatest successes have come when our allies respect our sovereignty, listen to us and do what they can to support our self-determination. While some in Indian country may have been welcoming to Snyder, it is our way to be gracious to friend and foe alike. He should not confuse that with approval of his team’s name.
The invisibility of Native peoples and lack of positive images of Native cultures may not register as a problem for many Americans, but it poses a significant challenge for Native youth who want to maintain a foundation in their culture and language. The Washington team’s brand — a name derived from historical terms for hunting native peoples — is a central component to this challenge.
It seems quite clear that Snyder’s foundation will do little to address the problems that the R-word brand compounds daily: racial inequality and a lack of understanding of the place of native people in our society, especially youth.
These youth are an especially vulnerable population. Many are at a disadvantage because their communities lack basic infrastructure; before dealing with the challenges of career development and higher education, they must overcome life without phone service, Internet access or even running water. The rate of suicide among Native youth is the highest among all American young people. Studies show the use of American Indian-based names, mascots and logos in sports has a negative psychological effect on Native peoples and positive psychological consequences for European Americans.
Snyder has stated that his foundation will address issues facing Native youth, so we call on this new multimillion-dollar organization to advocate for a simple solution to address what many of the nation’s leading Native youth advocacy organizations have called for: the end of derogatory mascot imagery in our communities, media and culture. From that point forward, the organization will be able to spend its money even more effectively to address other institutional sources of racism and violence.
If the foundation does not address this issue, it will be clear that its works are window dressing to cover the team’s decades of racism against African Americans and Native Americans alike.
Snyder, his team and the NFL are welcome to join Indian country as allies and partners but only when they make their most significant contribution up front: Retire the name of this team. Only then will we truly know Snyder’s commitment to Indian country, to Native youth and to a future where tribal nations and our people are treated as equal to all other Americans.
Until the team’s name is changed, every week during football season American youth around the country — whether Native American or not — will watch Washington football fans dressed as “savage” Indians and wearing “redface” and conclude that it’s acceptable to defame and mock Native people. This will create another generation of Americans who think Native peoples are less than others, are characters and caricatures out of the past and are not due the rights promised to all.
Mr. Snyder, the NFL, the Washington football team and now Mr. Snyder’s foundation, we call on you to bring an end to the era of harmful Indian mascots. Change the name and join us in moving Indian country and America forward, together.
The writer is president of the National Congress of American Indians.