Political Matters: The "R" Word

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In the July 1993 edition of The

Circle, I wrote a story about “pro sports franchises

appropriating Native American people and their culture —

sacraments, rituals and symbols — as a prop for their multi-million

dollar entertainment sports extravaganzas.”

The article — which followed local

American Indian Movement (AIM)-led protests at the 1991 World Series

(Minnesota vs. Atlanta) and the 1992 Super Bowl (Buffalo vs.

Washington) — involved a visit to the Metrodome, where the Twins

were hosting Cleveland. The article was titled “Cleveland Indians:

Chief Wahoo’s Tribe?”

My approach was to talk to the

ballplayers about the controversial use of Indian names, mascots and

symbols in pro sports. I recall that Twins slugger Ken Hrbek agreed

to talk. Hrbek didn’t quite understand what all the fuss was about,

regarding the Cleveland Indians name and logo — the caricature of

Chief Wahoo. Hrbek said that he had friends in South Dakota who are

“of Indian descent.” They shoot birds together. “People are

proud to wear the Cleveland Indians logo, and people are proud to be

Atlanta Braves and stuff like that,” Hrbek told me. “So, I can’t

see it demeaning in any way.”

Over the past 30-plus years, I’ve

written many stories about “cultural appropriation,” the

exploitation of American Indian cultural symbols and rituals for

profit. I’ve explored the desecration of sacred sites and burial

mounds, the marketing of Crazy Horse malt liquor, the emergence of

“plastic medicine people” peddling sweatlodge and vision quest

experiences — and the use of Indian names and mascots in sports.

I’ve closely followed the recent flare of national press coverage

about the NFL franchise in Washington, and the new media attention

soon will focus on Minneapolis again. On Thursday evening, Nov. 7,

there will be a protest march from Franklin Avenue to the Metrodome.

Hundreds of Twin Citians will protest against the Washington NFL

franchise’s continued use of the name “Redskins,” a derogatory

and racist slur. In late October, I received an AIM press release

that “declares November 7 ‘R’ day, the beginning of the end”

for the Washington football team’s name.

Raising the profile of the issue, in

early October, President Obama weighed in on the growing controversy

over the name of the football team representing the nation’s

capital. “If I were the owner of a team and I knew that there was a

name of my team — even if it had a storied history — that was

offending a sizeable group of people, I’d think about changing it,”

Obama told the Associated Press.

Perhaps even more influential than

Obama’s comment, during the halftime of Sunday Night Football,

on Oct. 13, sports announcer Bob Costas rebutted the idea that Indian

monikers honored indigenous peoples: “‘Redskins’ can’t

possibly honor a heritage, or noble character trait, nor can it

possibly be considered a neutral term,” Costas told NFL fans. “It’s

an insult, a slur, no matter how benign the present-day intent.”

Costas apparently was addressing the

Oct. 19 letter that Daniel Snyder, the billionaire who owns the

Washington franchise, sent to fans. The team “was, and continues to

be, a badge of honor,” according to Snyder. “Washington Redskins

is more than a name we have called our football team for over eight

decades. It is a symbol of everything we stand for: strength,

courage, pride, and respect — the same values we know guide Native

Americans and which are embedded throughout their rich history as the

original Americans.”

Daniel Snyder, in his letter to the

fans, referred to a poll from the “highly respected Annenberg

Public Policy Center,” which found that 90 percent of “1,000

self-identified Native Americans from across the continental U.S.”

did not see the Washington team name to be “offensive.”

On this point, one might wonder if the

“self-identified Native Americans” surveyed are really Indians —

members of a federally recognized Indian tribe, or of actual Indian

ancestry — or just non-Indians who were told at some point that

they have a Cherokee princess for a great grandmother.

In fact, the National Congress of

American Indians (NCAI), which is comprised of tribal leaders from

across the country, issued a 29-page report in October titled “Ending

the Legacy of Racism in Sports and the Era of Harmful ‘Indian’

Sports Mascots.” The NCAI says that “the use of racist and

derogatory ‘Indian’ sports mascots, logos, or symbols, is harmful

and perpetuates negative stereotypes of America’s first peoples.

Specifically, rather than honoring Native peoples, these caricatures

and stereotypes contribute to a disregard for the personhood of

Native peoples.”

I’ll see you in the street on Nov. 7.