Political Matters: The "R" Word
Monday, November 04 2013
Written by Mordecai Spektor,
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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.

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