The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Redskins conduct name review, Native American groups say they haven’t heard from team

Native American leaders protest the Redskins' team name outside U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis before an October game against the Minnesota Vikings. (Bruce Kluckhohn/AP)

He had waited his entire life for this moment, yet as David Glass read through the Washington Redskins’ announcement of a review of the team’s nickname Friday, elation was met with pause. He had spent more than three decades fighting this issue as a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe in northwest Minnesota, and he knew not to let his emotions get the best of him.

So he read it over and over again: Washington’s owner, Daniel Snyder, had written that the team would listen to the organization, alumni, sponsors, the local community and the NFL in determining whether to change its name. Washington’s coach, Ron Rivera, added that the team wanted to continue “honoring and supporting Native Americans and our Military.”

But any optimism Glass felt collided with a familiar, painful question: Would the voices of the indigenous community be heard?

That is still the question many Native American activist groups are asking this week as the team continues its review, which could mark a breakthrough victory for advocates such as Glass who have been fighting for a name change for years. But there is concern that Native Americans won’t have a seat at the table during the transition.

More than a dozen Native American activists signed and delivered a letter to the NFL on Monday imploring the league to force an immediate name change by the team, and nearly 450 advocates and groups later endorsed the petition. Also Monday, President Trump tweeted that Washington and baseball’s Cleveland Indians were considering changing their names “to be politically correct.”

A Redskins name change could happen soon. But the process might drag on for a while.

As a national movement to eliminate racially insensitive symbols continues, Native American advocacy groups are fighting to be heard. In New York, the Oneida Nation — which for years has led a national grass-roots campaign called Change the Mascot — has continued to rally support even though it has yet to hear from the team or the league. In Minnesota, the epicenter of the country’s racial reckoning in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, Glass and his organization, the National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media, sent a letter to Snyder on Monday urging to be included in the name change deliberations.

“Failing to include our community would be a grave injustice considering the impact the team’s name and logo, as well as a plethora of other sports names and logos, have had on our communities,” stated the two-page letter, which ended with the recommendation that the current team name be retired with a pipe ceremony and traditional prayer by spiritual leaders in the community.

Neither the Redskins nor the NFL immediately responded to a request for comment Tuesday on whether they plan to consult Native American groups on the name change.

“They need American Indian people in that discussion,” said Glass, who helped organize protests in Minneapolis when Washington visited to play the Minnesota Vikings in 2014 and 2019. He said he met with NFL officials in Minneapolis in November to advocate for a change of Washington’s name, though Snyder and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell were not present. He left the meeting hopeful but not completely satisfied, which had become a theme in his organization’s fight against the name over the years.

While many Native American activists are confident that the review is likely to lead to a name change, little else is known about the direction the team might be heading. Rivera said in the team’s statement that Washington plans to recognize Native Americans and the military, and he also revealed in an interview Saturday that he had been in discussions with Snyder for weeks.

“We came up with a couple names,” Rivera said. “Two of them I really like.” Rivera did not disclose what those names were, but he did express during the interview that he hopes the organization will communicate with Native American leaders as part of the review process.

The Oneida Nation has “a subdued sense of excitement,” Representative Ray Halbritter said in an interview Monday. Halbritter has established himself as one of the most powerful voices in the name change movement, but he has not heard from Snyder or the league recently, he said. This is an opportunity for Snyder and the NFL to be on the “right side of history,” Halbritter said, but he still wondered how a potential name change could proceed without Native American voices weighing in.

“I don’t think it’s too much of a challenge to find a non-racist epithet, a non-racist name to call the team,” Halbritter said. “It would be met with some welcome, some discussion about that. If you’re talking about a people, it is probably a good idea to have a conversation with them. It seems reasonable. If I was the owner of a team, I would feel it is my right to name the team what I would like to name it. Our point is simply that it needs to be a name that is not dehumanizing and racist and denigrating to us. It’s about respect.”

As the Redskins consider a name change, Daniel Snyder’s inner circle is smaller than ever

In response to Washington’s announcement of the review, Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said in a statement that she was also seeking to meet with the league.

“NCAI looks forward to immediately commencing discussions with the league and team about how they will change the team’s name and mascot, and a prompt timetable for doing so,” Sharp said. “Indian Country deserves nothing less. The time to change is now.”

As social unrest continues to grip the country, other sports teams with names based on Native Americans are facing pressure to reexamine their names and imagery. Just hours after Washington announced it would launch its review, baseball’s Indians announced they would do the same. Glass said he has fielded more than a dozen calls from people wanting to advocate for name changes at their schools. The push to change the name at the NFL level had led to this moment.

“There’s still going to be work to do,” Glass said.

Like Glass and Halbritter, Louis Gray, a member of the Osage Nation and former president of the Tulsa Indian Coalition Against Racism (TICAR), had devoted nearly two decades of his life speaking out for a name change for Washington’s NFL team and the many schools across Oklahoma that still use Native American mascots. He had always attended schools that used those same names and mascots, and by the early 2000s he was leading TICAR’s fight against Union High’s use of the name Redskins, including in 2003 when the school board voted to keep the name.

“We tried to educate people,” he said. “Even educating was considered hostile by those wanting to retain the mascot. It’s been tough.”

His friends are still skeptical that the name of Washington’s football team will change, he said, because they have been disappointed so many times before. But Gray believes it will happen, in part because of corporate sponsors pulling support of the franchise over the name in the past week. “They can’t afford not to,” he said.

As for what Gray wants the team to be called in the future, he has one hope: that Native American voices will be heard in the process.

“We don’t want it watered down. We just want it gone,” he said. “Take us out of your team history, because we didn’t belong there in the first place.”

Les Carpenter contributed to this report.

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