Taking on the persona of a free-ranging Indian warrior can be a welcome and seemingly harmless seasonal escape. I’ve been there, whooping it up from the stands at RFK Stadium in the 1970s to FedEx Field – until 2000, the year of my epiphany.
You might even say we were honoring Native Americans by ingesting the spirit of the “noble savage,” taking revenge on their behalf by figuratively scalping the Dallas Cowboys on a Thanksgiving afternoon.
In an intensified effort to shore up the discredited fantasy, team owner Daniel Snyder has taken to conjuring Indian support – trotting out fake Native Americans and manufacturing facts about the glorious origin of a team name widely regarded as a racial slur.
To my friends who still embrace the Washington football team, especially those with whom I huddled in front of TV sets on many a game day, do not be fooled. The fight over the team’s name is not some politically correct reflex to overly sensitive Native Americans, as Snyder would have you believe. It is a rallying point, symbolic of a larger struggle against the most pernicious and enduring kind of American exploitation – racism in service to capitalism, the truly shameful principles upon which the nation was founded. To carry out the genocide of Native Americans and enslave Africans to work stolen lands, white capitalists facilitated the portrayal of both groups as less than human.
Respect, dignity and justice for all – that’s what the fight is about.
In a letter sent last week to more than 2,700 NFL players, the National Congress of American Indians and the Oneida Indian Nation called on the players to take a stand against a name that “does not honor people of color.” Instead, the letter says, the name “seeks to conceal a horrible segment of American history and the countless atrocities suffered by Native Americans.”
In garnering support for an unprecedented condemnation of the team name in the Senate last week, Sen. Maria Cantwell. D-Washington, showed some of her colleagues a two-minute YouTube video about Native Americans. The video, produced by the NCAI, humanizes not just Native Americans, but all who watch it.
“It’s hard to explain just how insulting the team name is to people who don’t know the Native American population,” said Cantwell, whose district includes 29 tribes. By partnering with the economically powerful tribes, the Seattle football team came up with a symbol – a traditional native design of a seahawk – that does both the city and the world-champion franchise proud.
The governing body of United Church of Christ congregations in the Mid-Atlantic has proposed boycotting the Washington football games and not buying products with the team logo. That is the way to go. Snyder’s efforts – such as changing the color of the Indian on the helmet from bright red to mud brown – just don’t cut it.
In 1970, more than 3,000 schools and sports teams had Indian mascots; today, there are fewer than 900.
“We’ve had better luck with teams affiliated with schools because kids are involved and people have priorities other than money,” said Suzan Harjo, a Washington resident and Cheyenne and Muscogee Indian who had been the lead plaintiff in a decades-long legal fight to change the name of her hometown football team.
My attitude about the team name changed after meeting Harjo at a rally for the team more than 14 years ago. Chief Zee, a black man who dressed in fake Native American garb and played the role of a mascot, was whooping it up and came over to greet her.
He did not notice her Native American heritage and the authenticity of her dress, jewelry and identity. His very presence was mocking. Harjo responded with a polite smile, far more tolerant than I would have been if a white man in blackface had done the same to me.
When Snyder tweeted for fans to show their pride in the team name last week, opponents tweeted back their disgust, using the hashtag #rightsideofhistory.
Better that it read #rightnow.