The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Washington’s NFL team ditched ‘the r-word,’ but some high schools are resisting the change

Demonstrators protest the Washington NFL team’s name in 2013. (Gabe Silverman/The Washington Post)
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About 13 years ago, Ann Bollheimer’s son came home from his first semester at Ohio University, where a class on difficult dialogues had him thinking about the team name and logo at his local high school.

“I’ve learned a lot in this class,” Bollheimer said her son Zachary told her, “and you’re not going to want to hear it.”

In Fort Loramie, a predominantly White, rural community in western Ohio, the nickname “Redskins” was so ingrained that an Indian head was plastered on the town’s water towers and a life-size statue of a Native American sat atop Redskin Memorial Park.

But in her research, Bollheimer, sparked by her son, has learned the headdress adorning the statue was never worn by the Miami Indian tribe in this part of Ohio. The structure misrepresented the people many of her friends and family claimed to honor with the mascot.

So in 2020, amid the racial reckoning that followed George Floyd’s murder — and a week after the Washington Football Team announced it was moving on from the “Redskins” mascot and logo, leading to this week’s rebranding — she attended a Fort Loramie school board meeting to plead her case.

Her words were met by a stiff headwind. Dozens of mostly maskless people — it was the early months of the pandemic — crowded an overflow room to shout down any change, she said. After 14 people spoke, Bollheimer, whose husband and four children attended Fort Loramie, was disappointed to hear that “Redskins” was going to stay.

“It’s about education. It’s about empathy. It’s about respect. But my problem is that it is racist," Bollheimer said of the nickname. “This is something I know that I’m right on. We need to adjust how we think as cultures and communities. If it’s harmful, why would we keep it?”

When Washington’s NFL team, under pressure from corporate sponsors and shareholders, abandoned the nickname that the franchise had used since 1933, 49 school districts in the United States used it for their athletic programs, according to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). As the franchise prepares to unveil its new nickname Wednesday, that number stands at 40 — a drop that reflects both the impact of the Washington team’s decision and the stubborn reality that in many communities, “tradition” is still able to outmuscle calls for change. It also reveals the nuance of a debate in which some Native American schools are honored to use the term.

“We’re grateful that the team is finally on the right side of history,” said Crystal Echo Hawk, the chief executive of IllumiNative, a network of activists and tribal leaders who combat racist team mascots. “But there is still a lot of work that they need to do in the road ahead to really repair that relationship with native peoples.”

Following WFT’s lead

When Paul Flynn took over as superintendent of Sandusky Schools, in rural Michigan, in 2017, his was one of six districts in the state using Redskins. Sandusky is now one of just three, including one planning to change soon.

Flynn formed a committee last September to consider the future of the name. But it’s slow-going.

“We were one of those school districts that said, ‘As long as the Washington Redskins, a National Football League team, has that mascot, then we don’t have a problem having the mascot,’ ” Flynn said. “Then when the Washington Football Team made that big public change, it was, ‘Let’s take a bit more serious look at this.’ ”

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Erik Rodriguez, a spokesman for the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, will address the Sandusky school board this month to explain the negative racial connotations of a word defined as a slur.

“There’s zero tolerance for the Redskin name, and that’s the position that our tribe has taken over the last few years,” said Rodriguez, noting that some Native American nicknames can be tolerated without the Native imagery. Last fall, the Chippewa Indian Tribe worked with Chippewa Hills High, which kept the Warriors nickname but ditched its Indian mascot in favor of a knight.

When confronted with opposition, Rodriguez said, he hears the same arguments: “It’s ‘deeply rooted.’ It’s ‘tradition.’ It’s been ‘passed down from generation to generation.’ ”

But, he said, those traditions come with a steep cost.

“It teaches students it’s okay to perpetuate inaccurate misconceptions of our race,” Rodriguez said. “It establishes an unwelcome learning environment for not only Native American students but for all students. Oftentimes, we see it decreases Native American student self-image and it teaches all students to devalue a certain culture.”

Flynn predicts that if the school board supports a change, Sandusky could have a new nickname by the fall. But these changes rarely happen swiftly, or smoothly.

Another Michigan school, Paw Paw, endured decades of controversy over its nickname. In 2017, the school board voted 4-3 to keep the name. That merely intensified the fight.

The next year, a new principal, Rick Reo, who later became superintendent, kept pushing for a change. The Michigan Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media, a Native American rights group, put up a billboard on I-94 near the Paw Paw exit that had the definition of the word, “redskin,” noting that it was “disparaging, offensive.” And the ACLU of Michigan filed a complaint with the federal government in 2019 asking for an investigation because of a “pervasive racially hostile environment.”

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Finally, the board reversed course, and in July 2020, Paw Paw adopted Red Wolves. Reo said it remains “a sore spot” for some in his southwest Michigan town, where the nickname had been the same for nearly 80 years.

“You get called a lot of names when your nickname is the Redskins. Our kids didn’t deserve that,” Reo said. “It was causing a lot of problems, and our students were feeling the stress, our students were being targeted. And we were like, we need to end this.”

The wait is almost over at Tulsa’s Union High School, where a nearly two-year journey from Redskins to Redhawks will culminate later this month with the unveiling of a new logo.

Union had used the nickname since 1924. After decades of debate, the school created a non-indigenous mascot called Hyper in 2015. But that wasn’t enough for a diverse school district where only 25.7 percent of students are White — and 4.2 percent identify as Native American.

Superintendent Kirt Hartzler said he had been approached by students, from high school to elementary, about the need to change the name. Hartzler pushed to reevaluate the name in July 2020, and the board voted unanimously to drop Redskins that fall. For the past two seasons, the football program has gone by Union Football Team. Last November, the board voted unanimously in favor of the Redhawks.

“Anytime you go through a name change like this, you start polarizing people. There is certainly a die-hard group of Redskins fans out there, saying, ‘Well I’m always going to be a Redskin, you’re never going to change that about me.’ We understood that. I just felt like it was time,” Hartzler said. “We now have a mascot that’s going to be more of uniter than a divider. That’s what I’m happiest about.”

‘There’s no difference’

The roughly 6.8 million Native Americans in the United States aren’t a monolith, so not all take offense to the term Redskins. At least three majority Native American schools have adopted the nickname as their own, with no plans of changing.

At Red Mesa High in Arizona, located in Navajo Nation, the term isn’t widely considered a slur. Despite being met by opposition from activists, the community still features a sign near the high school with a logo almost identical to one once used by the Washington Football Team. Interim superintendent Amy Fuller wrote in an email that 99 percent of the students are Navajo. “Our Football Team is very proud to be the Redskins, and the community is equally proud of it.”

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In 2016, then-Washington state senator John McCoy, a member of the Tulalip Tribes, introduced a bill that outlawed the use of “Redskins” in public schools. But the bill provided an exception for Wellpinit High on the Spokane Reservation.

But for most schools, especially those with little to no students who identify as Native American, it’s those buzzwords — “tradition,” “pride,” “passed down for generations” — that keep the nickname in place despite condemnation. And many Native activists remain frustrated by steadfast commitment in some communities and think the Washington Football Team can do more to eradicate the term.

From his correspondence with Washington Football Team President Jason Wright, Rodney Butler, NCAI executive committee member and chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Council, said he believes the organization is “fully committed” to the educational component required to initiate more change within schools: “You don’t just change a name and that’s it.”

Amanda Blackhorse, a Navajo who served as the lead plaintiff in the legal case that challenged the NFL Redskins’ trademark protection, is among those activists. She hasn’t forgotten how the franchise posted articles referring to schools that used the nickname, using them as a shield to resist change.

“The Washington NFL team needs to clean up [its] mess and help get those schools to change their names,” Blackhorse wrote in a text message. “They gave money to those schools, created issues in those communities, and left them to fend for themselves.”

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Echo Hawk believes Native American students attending schools with such names and mascots are being bombarded with dehumanizing imagery from both sides at sporting events — from their own schools, which promote deliberately inaccurate depictions of their culture, with painted faces and turkey feathers, pounding drums and tomahawk chops; and from the opposition, with fans chanting derogatory phrases such as “scalp them.” Polls show the trauma triggered by these displays, but Echo Hawk wonders why they’re even necessary. No surveys are needed to explain that the n-word isn’t an appropriate way to address a Black person.

“The r-word is the n-word. There’s no difference,” Echo Hawk said. “It’s the same disgusting racist connotation that those words share, and they have no place in our culture, our society, and especially associated with our children.”

Time to change

In Ohio, where Bollheimer lives, Cleveland’s baseball team has retired its “Indians” nickname, and the legacy of Chief Wahoo, and will begin next season as the Guardians. Miami University in Oxford ditched Redskins in favor of Redhawks in 1997. But the “R-word” lives on in nine schools’ nicknames, more than in any other state.

Fort Loramie Superintendent Dan Holland did not respond to an email seeking comment, but he has previously expressed support for the Redskins name. “People see it as a sense of pride,” Holland told the Sydney Daily News after that school board meeting in 2020. “People see it as a reflection of hard work. People see it as a positive thing."

Bollheimer blames most of the resistance on a failure of the education system. While researching the Redskins nickname, Bollheimer found an old Ohio history paper she wrote in the seventh grade, in which she claimed that Indians were an impediment to European settlers. “Indians weren’t the problem for pioneers, the pioneers were the problem for the Indians,” she said. “We were brought up that we were who belonged here. Our ancestry, we’re entitled to this.”

Bollheimer grew up 15 miles from her current home, and she remains loyal to a community so tightknit that she has the same first and last name as her husband’s cousin who lives in town. But she is hopeful that more will eventually join her in understanding that the need for “tradition” and connection shouldn’t involve the belittling of other groups.

“It took me five years to change,” Bollheimer said. “How long is it going to take our community?”