For Native American Activists, Washington Name Change Was ‘a Long Time Coming’

Activists have spent decades pressuring professional sports leagues, college programs and high schools to abandon Native American names and imagery for their teams.

The first domino fell in 1970, when the University of Oklahoma retired its mascot, a Native American named “Little Red.” Over the ensuing years, Division I schools like Stanford, Dartmouth and Syracuse — and thousands of high schools — dropped their mascots or changed their names.

But the biggest lightning rod was always Washington’s N.F.L. team, the “Redskins.” Its owner has been recalcitrant about changing the name of one of football’s oldest and most valuable franchises, and its name does not just appropriate Native American imagery, as do the N.F.L.’s Kansas City Chiefs or N.H.L.’s Chicago Blackhawks, but is considered by many to be a slur itself.

On Monday, those at the forefront of the fight finally won. The Washington team announced that it would soon drop its 87-year-old name and its logo, for a yet-to-be revealed new name, becoming the oldest N.F.L. team name to ever be retired.

“This is part of a much larger movement going on that Indigenous peoples are situated in, and it is a long time coming,” said Carla Fredericks, the director of First Peoples Worldwide and a longtime advocate against Native American mascots. “I think that for anyone that is associated with the movement for racial justice this is a significant gain, and this is a significant moment.”

That movement for racial justice is, in part, propelled by the Black Lives Matter movement, and the widespread re-examination of systemic racism — not to mention statues, flags, symbols and mascots that celebrate racist history — that was prompted by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May. On Monday the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights advocacy group, said in a statement that it “welcomed the decision of the Washington, D.C., football team to drop the racist ‘Redskins’ name.”

But despite the collective power of formerly disparate movements, not to mention the half-century of activist pressure, what finally triggered the name change was not an acknowledgment of Native people’s concerns or a rumination on the name’s offense. Instead, Daniel Snyder, the owner of the Washington N.F.L. team for more than 20 years, was seemingly driven by a simpler motivation: money.

In a letter sent to the Washington team dated July 2, FedEx, which pays about $8 million a year for the naming rights to the team’s stadium in Landover, Md., said if the name wasn’t changed, it would back out of the deal. The threat carried extra weight, considering that Frederick Smith, the chairman of FedEx, owns a minority stake in the team, which he had been quietly attempting to sell for many months.

FedEx was among several corporate heavyweights to take action to convince Snyder to act on the name. Bank of America, Pepsi, Nike and other N.F.L. sponsors issued statements asking the team for a name change, and retailers like Walmart, Amazon and Target stopped selling the team’s merchandise on their websites and in their stores.

Donald Dell, who represented Snyder in brokering the $205 million, 27-year stadium naming rights deal in 1999, said: “He saw, if Fred turned on it and didn’t want to stay involved in the stadium and the name, that was a really big point to him, and others would follow. And they did.”

Suzan Shown Harjo, who was formerly the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians and is the most well-known activist against Native American team names, was cleareyed about the order of concerns for Snyder.

“He had to satisfy first, his FedEx and other managerial and promotion partners,” she said. “Second his merch partners. Third, the franchise’s 40 percent owners.” But ultimately the credit belongs to “the longevity and persistence of our no-mascot movement,” Harjo said.

Now that their biggest target has budged, activists have pushed for much work to ensue in Washington.

Earlier this month, a letter, signed by nearly every national American Indian group and representatives from over 150 federally recognized tribes, was sent to N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell. The letter made several demands, including that he “require the Washington team to immediately cease the use of racialized Native American branding,” which seems on the verge of happening.

But it isn’t yet clear if one of the letter’s asks, that the team’s burgundy and gold color scheme be changed, will be acceded to.

“One thing we have seen where there have been shifts like this in the past is there can be a faction of fans that refuse to retreat from stereotypical names and logos, and not changing the colors would allow for that behavior,” Fredericks said. Changing the name and logo doesn’t mean as much if tens of thousands of fans stream into FedEx Field wearing their old team gear.

Fans have long worn headdresses, war paint and other stereotypical imagery to Washington games, and sung along to the team’s fight song, “Hail to the Redskins,” which contains references to “braves on the warpath” and is played after touchdowns at home games. The team may get to delay making those decisions if fans are not allowed to attend games this season because of the coronavirus.

Fredericks referred to the campaign to change the name of the University of North Dakota athletic teams, the Fighting Sioux. In 2015, the nickname was changed to the Fighting Hawks, but the green color scheme endured. “There is still an opportunity for some further leadership here by the team.”

Fifty years is a long time to be fighting for one issue, to get so far but also to have so far to go. The Chiefs, Blackhawks, and Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves still exist, and more than 2,200 high schools still use some form of Native American imagery. Those that have been in this fight made it clear that it was always about the future, never the present or past.

“A lot of the work that she did was the attempt to create an environment that was better than the one I grew up in,” said Duke Ray Harjo II, who grew up in the Washington area, about his mother Suzan.

For Fredericks, the goal goes beyond the next generation. “A lot of us have a philosophy that the work we do is not only for the current moment, but for seven generations in the future. A lot of decision making is taken with that value in place.

“We are not going to give up ensuring that our humanity and dignity be respected.”

Category Latest Posts