An emotion-laden symposium sponsored October 7 by the Oneida Indian Nation in Washington, D.C. highlighted the voices of many people aggrieved by the Washington NFL team’s racist Redskins name and mascot.
“No matter what the history of something is, if it is offending people, then it’s time to change it,” said Ray Halbritter, Oneida Indian Nation representative and CEO of Nation Enterprises, parent company of Indian Country Today Media Network, in his introductory remarks. “It’s a dictionary-defined offensive term.”
Held at the Ritz Carlton in Georgetown, the event featured many more American Indian leaders and citizens explaining that the term is a racial slur that does not honor anyone. There was also a psychologist detailing the harmful emotional social and psychological effects of such mascots on both Indian and non-Indian children (backed up by recent scientific studies); there was a Smithsonian director discussing the negative historical and contemporary roots of the word; there were high school youth who had taken on similarly offensive school names in their school districts and gotten them removed; and there were congressional legislators, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-Washington, D.C.) and Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota), working their political pathways to drive change.
But there was no Daniel Snyder, owner of the Redskins since 1999 who made news in May when he said he would “never” change the team’s name, despite the growing criticism of it. And there was no Roger Goodell, commissioner of the National Football League, who spotlighted Snyder’s position when he said on a radio program in September, “[I]f we are offending one person, we need to be listening and making sure that we’re doing the right things to try to address that.”
Halbritter said at the event that he was disappointed that no NFL representatives chose to attend. He said they had been invited, and the symposium was held in D.C. to coincide with the NFL’s fall meeting in the city specifically to make it easier for NFL representatives to be there. He also noted that his tribe has been a sponsor of the Buffalo Bills, and it supports the football league financially as a business partner.
“We made it as convenient as possible for them to attend, but no one is attending,” said Halbritter, whose tribal nation is currently carrying out a large publicity campaign, called "Change the Mascot,” which is featuring radio ads in D.C. and other NFL cities that explain why the name offends so many Native Americans.
“We have not been in contact with Dan Snyder, but we would welcome any conversation on this issue,” Halbritter added.
Suzan Shown Harjo, an American Indian activist who has been battling for decades to get the team’s trademark revoked, told ICTMN at the gathering that she had sent Snyder a letter in 1999 when he first took over the team, requesting a meeting on this issue. He did not respond to her request, which surprised her, especially in a town where perfunctory form letters are the norm.
“Dan Snyder has acted like a petulant child,” Harjo said. “He has dug in his heels, like a child. He’s being a big baby.”
Does Harjo think all the current attention, including the recent message from President Barack Obama that he would change the name if he were in Snyder’s shoes, will cause him to reconsider?
“I think he has to,” Harjo said. “It’s going to be not worth keeping it at some point.”
NFL leaders beyond Snyder are getting the message and feeling the pressure. Soon after the conclusion of the symposium, well covered by local and national media, a spokesman for the league announced that it would send a representative to meet with Oneida Indian Nation leaders. Adolpho Birch, the NFL's senior vice president of labor policy and government affairs, plans to meet with the tribe this fall, according to a spokesman. Birch has requested that that the meeting take place somewhere in New York, either on the tribe’s homelands in upstate New York or in Manhattan.
Halbritter said he is looking forward to the meeting. “It’s the right direction,” he said. “I think there is a real tipping point happening on this issue right now.”
But he cautioned that he will not negotiate: “These mascots need to end because they are disparaging. As we saw today, there is scientific evidence that it damages not only Native children, but all children. That cannot go on anymore.”