Native Americans Tackle Redskins at Press Conference

On the heels of an NFL conference, the Oneida Indian Nation confronts the organization for its use of what the deem a racial slur as a mascot

  • Share
  • Read Later
Carolyn Kaster / AP

Ray Halbritter, National Representative of the Oneida Indian Nation, speaks during the Oneida Indian Nation's Change the Mascot symposium.

Washington’s National Football League team was called many names during a Monday symposium and press conference at the Ritz Carlton in Georgetown, but “Redskins” was not often one of them.

Throughout the morning, phrases like “Washington’s football team,” “the R-words,” and “our hometown team” replaced the team’s proper name. And that’s because the event, which was hosted by the Oneida Indian Nation, was focused on bringing attention to the their “Change the Name” movement and urging the NFL, whose fall conference meeting begins Tuesday in the same hotel, to drop “Redskins” from the capital’s franchise.

“The Oneida Nation has a vested interest in the league being a unifying force in communities throughout America,” said Ray Halbritter, representative of the Oneida Indian Nation. “This name is not a unifying force. It is a divisive epithet.”

Since the beginning of the football season, the Onieda Nation has been sponsoring advertisements that urge the Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder to change the name, which they consider a racist term.  Over the weekend, even President Obama showed support for the movement against the name, telling the Associated Press that if he was the owner he would seriously consider a name change due to its offensive nature. “All these mascots and team names related to Native Americans, Native Americans feel pretty strongly about it,” Obama told the Associated Press. “And I don’t know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real, legitimate concerns that people have about these things.”

Synder has said before that he will not change the name, which the team has carried since they came to Washington in 1937. A representative of the Redskins issued a statement that said the name is not meant to disparage. “We at the Redskins respect everyone,” the statement by Lanny Davis read. “The name ‘Washington Redskins’ is 80 years old—it’s our history and legacy and tradition.  We Redskins fans sing ‘hail to the Redskins’ every Sunday as a word of honor not disparagement.”

Team representatives also cite polls that suggest Americans, and American Indians, do not consider the term offensive. A 2004 Annenberg Public Policy Center poll said 90% of American Indians did not feel the Redskins team name was offensive. In April, the Associated Press conducted a telephone poll that showed 4 in 5 Americans did not think the name should be changed.

But Halbritter, and many of the other panelists, who included Congresswomen Eleanor Holmes Norton and Betty McCollum, said these citations are a distraction. “It’s all rubbish,” McCollum said. “And it’s a corporate spin to keep their profits flowing.”

Michael Friedman, a clinical psychologist, said the NFL has also show an “unbelievable disregard for decades of research,” which he said has shown the use of stereotypical and degrading images have a negative affect on the people they represent, regardless of whether the image is seen as positive or not. Friedman added that their disregard equivalent to the NFL saying, “the American Medical Association has said that concussions are damaging, but we did a poll of several people and they said that it was okay.”

Another panelist, Kevin Grover, the director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, and a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, said there were other reasons to change the name. “We are anxious for people in the United States to connect themselves to the native heritage of this country,” Grover said during the question and answer portion of the event. “But using us as mascots is not the appropriate way.”

Though  NFL officials were invited, a spokesman for the organization confirmed to TIME, they were unable to attend due to their fall meetings. In an email statement, Brian McCarthy, vice president of communications for the NFL said, “We respect that people have differing views. It is important that we listen to all perspectives.”

That statement reiterates what NFL Commissioner Roger Goddell said during an interview on a Washington radio program in September, where he told the hosts the NFL needs to start listening to fans, especially those who express offense to team names like the Redskins, moving away from his previous stance on the name. “If one person is offended, we have to listen,” Goddell said, before adding. “Ultimately, it’s Dan’s decision.”

Members of the American Indian community are hopeful that the name change will come soon. McCarthy confirmed to TIME that a representative of the organization is scheduled to meet with members of the Oneida Nation on Nov. 22 in the NFL’s New York office and Adolpho Birch, the NFL’s senior vice president of labor policy and government affairs, suggested to Peter Carmen, the COO of Oneida Nation Homelands, that the two groups meet sooner either in Manhattan or in Verona, NY, where the Oneida Indian Nation is based.

Suzan Shown Harjo, a Cheyenne and Hodulee Muskogee advocate for American Indian Rights, told reporters after the panel that like racial epithets before it, the term redskins will not “be permissible in polite society, even for bigots,” for much longer.

She said the name change might even change the luck for the troubled team, which has started this season losing three out of four games. “Something has to be done to bring some luck back to Washington team, they haven’t won a Super Bowl since we filed our lawsuit in 1992,” Harjo said. “[They have] changed everything except the team name. I would look at it as a matter of luck. Change the name and get back to the Super Bowl.”