A recent Washington Post poll, which found that 9 out of 10 Native Americans didn’t find the NFL’s Redskins team name offensive, may have dealt a significant blow to the movement to have it changed. Prior the widely publicized poll, several prominent Democratic lawmakers – including President Barack Obama, likely 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid – have called on team owner Dan Snyder to change the name, as did a barrage of sports writers, and the Washington Post’s editorial board. Even after their recent findings ignited a firestorm, they wrote: “We still consider the word to be a slur and we will still do our best to avoid it.”
Yet the poll’s results (which were based on interviews with 504 Native Americans across all 50 states) were enough to persuade the Post’s Fred Bowen and Robert McCartney to back down from previous calls for a change, and ESPN’s Michael Wilbon, who has in the past compared the term to the n-word, to say that “I think this shuts the door on the issue for the short term, and maybe the long term.”
But does it? NBC Sports analysts and longtime critics of the Redskins moniker, Bob Costas and Peter King, certainly weren’t swayed by the polls results. Neither were many Native American activists, some of whom have already signed a petition saying they do take offense, while others have shared the hashtag #IAmNativeWasNotAsked.“My initial reaction to poll was mostly just wondering why it was necessary,” Adrienne Keene, a citizen of Cherokee Nation told MSNBC on Wednesday. Her blog Native Appropriations hosted the petition. “I feel like the work of Native activists on this issue has really raised the level of conversation, and to me this poll just felt like dragging the whole conversation back to 2004. So I was really frustrated.”
In 2004, an Annenberg poll produced similar results, but Keene and many others have pointed out that the methodology behind the Washington Post’s findings is faulty at best, and misleading at worst. Reportedly, 56 percent of the polls respondents were not members of a tribal nation, which means they may have been self-identified American Indians. Most of those polled admitted to not being familiar with the team name controversy (although 21 percent of those that replied called the Redskins term “disrespectful”). With states like California, which is home to over 100 tribes, there are sure to be regions of the country that were woefully underrepresented in the results.
“I have frankly been surprised as how quickly people have picked it up as a reason to stop fighting,” Keene said. ”People who have fought for decades won’t stop. But to see reporters and apparent allies throw up their hands has been very frustrating.
“Activism is hard, activism is not something that is easy and it never has been. Trying to get majority consensus on any kind of moral issue is impossible,” she added, citing past widespread U.S. opposition to integration and miscegenation as examples.
Dr. Myrt Running Wolf, a Blackfeet and Wasco Indian with a PhD in performance scholarship from Stanford University, believes that the Redskins’ financial clout (they were ranked as the 10th most valuable sports franchise in the world, according to Forbes) coupled with fatigue over the issue, may be a factor in some Americans’ desire to rally behind the Washington Post poll.
“Our second largest service expert is intellectual property, behind education,” he told MSNBC Thursday. “It’s more than just entertainment, if you look at the numbers. These depictions, these representations amount to a quarter of a trillion dollars.” Research has also shown that exposure to stereotypical mascots and other imagery can have the adverse effect of making racially biased views more pervasive.
“We think it’s about ‘liking’ or ‘not liking’ but the real issue is what effect does it have on children,” American Indian psychologist Stephanie Fryberg said. “Every study we have done have shown negative effects. [The poll] doesn’t add up. It’s a bunch of adults arguing about whether we get to play with someone’s identity.”
For Native American children, there is so little representation of their culture in the public sphere that these pop cultural symbols can have a bigger, and ultimately more detrimental impact, according to Fryberg. “It’s one of the few ways in which we are represented in contemporary society and it locates native people as historical, rather than embracing us modern people,” she said.
Running Wolf believes the Redskins and their allies are “expert” at obfuscating and diminishing the team name as an issue, and that he anticipates hearing cries of overkill whenever it comes up. On the other hand, he says there are American Indians who earnestly wonder: “If we change the names what would come out of that? Would it really change the conditions we live in or public sentiment?”
According to Running Wolf, the victory would be a psychological one and it would represent a single step in a much bigger process to “include American Indians in the national conversation in a real way.”
“When we engage with Native America there is a ton of guilt there, and we actually have to face the guilt, but that doesn’t have to be the only way,” he said. “As a matter of fact, there’s an incredible sense of humor there and connection to family … we’re not as different as we think we are.”
The problem is that many Americans are, in his words, “addicted” to maintaining the cultural status quo. Running Wolf likens the appeal of clinging to insensitive stereotypes to the consumption of fast food. ”Most people like it, but we all know it’s not good for us,” he said. “[This poll] is like asking, ‘Who likes McDonald’s?’ Is it interesting? Sure. But is it important?”
“The response to the mascot issue demonstrates the way that native peoples are positioned in society. This is something that is harmful to us and everyone just dismisses it,” Keene added. “We are seen as not being authorities on our own identities and our community and other people know what’s best for us.”
Dan Synder has long been accused of being of those condescending appropriators. He has stubbornly insisted that the Redskins term is an “honor,” not a slur, has said he is “gratified” by the poll, and that the team “will proudly carry the Redskins name.”
“I’ve read a number of Dan Snyder’s comments … he’s really missed the boat,” Fryberg said. “[He says] ‘Native people have more important things to worry about, but when you look at all of those more important things mental health, physical health … one variable that is key is identity, you start by protecting people’s identity. It’s actually a piece that’s contributing to all of those bigger issues.”
California appears to recognize that. The state has banned teams from using the name or its mascot. Meanwhile, the FCC has weighed punishing broadcasters who utter the team’s name on air and the U.S. patent office denied the team permission to renew its trademarks in 2014, calling its name “disparaging,” a decision which a federal judge upheld last July. The Redskins are appealing.
That move may wind up bringing the controversy all the way to the Supreme Court. The feds had revoked the Redskins’ trademark under the Lanham Act, which allows the government to exercise discretion when a title is deemed offensive. However, a case involving an Asian-American band who call themselves The Slants tested the limits of that provision in federal appeals court and won.
Now two separate petitions have called on the Supreme Court to weigh in. But even if they do, with the bench’s current 4-4 split between conservative and liberal justices, the appeals court decision could stand, and by extension, so could the Redskins name.
“The big thing with all this is we just want native peoples to be seen at the vibrant, real and diverse humans we are,” Keene said. “Representations truly matter. We’re not just a disembodied head on the side of a football helmet.”