Newly disclosed information that the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation was sponsoring a fund-raising golf tournament organized by KTNN, the Navajo Nation’s radio station, on Friday sparked a firestorm of controversy, prompting Native organizations to withdraw from the event and Navajo citizens to scorch the virtual pages of social media with outrage.
The Navajo Nation president backed the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation’s (OAF) sponsorship, however, and encouraged his appointees to support the tournament, according to an executive office document received by Indian Country Today Media Network.
The news of the OAF’s involvement in the golf tournament broke just hours after an announcement that the Navajo Nation adopted a bill opposing the use of the name Redskins, a term that the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples called a “hurtful reminder. . .of the long history of mistreatment of Native American people in the United States” in a separate announcement on the same day. The Nation enacted the anti-Redskins bill in a 9-2 council vote Thursday.
On April 8 — two days before the council voted on the anti-Redskins bill — Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly’s Executive Assistant Michelle Morris sought support for the tournament from more than 70 executive office staff members and Division Directors (DDs) – presidential appointees whose mission, defined at NavajoPresident.org, is “to carry out exceptional performance and effectiveness in the respective divisions.” In an email sent at 11:22 a.m., Morris wrote, “ALL FYI, per our discussion at the DD Mtg, please see attached is the event that the President will need your support on! Thanks. Mich.” Attached was a PDF file of a brochure with the “Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation 1st Annual KTNN Celebrity Golf Tournament” prominently displayed. It is not clear what kind of “support” Shelly was seeking from his appointees.
Asked late Friday whether Shelly would withdraw his support of the tournament now that its sponsor’s name was officially deemed a racial slur and opposed in Navajo law, Communications Director Rick Abasta told ICTMN, “We have no comment at this time.”
Shelly’s support of the Redskins is at odds with the position held by the National Congress of American Indians, the largest representative of Indian nations and peoples in the country, and by two important Native organizations — and even a Navajo Nation organization — involved in the tournament.
The National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA), the Notah Begay III Foundation (NB3), and the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise (NNGE) said they were approached by KTNN months ago to donate to the tournament to raise scholarship funds for Native college students, but they were not told of the Redskins OAF involvement and would not have participated if they had known about it.
The OAF’s involvement was discovered Friday on a flyer on KTNN’s website showing the OAF as the event’s primary sponsor and featuring NIGA, NB3 Foundation and the NNGE as other sponsors. NIGA and the NB3 Foundation immediately withdrew their participation and demanded that their names be removed from the publicity materials. The NB3 Foundation is a charitable organization that funds programs aimed at improving Native American health. NIGA is a non-profit organization that represents 184 tribal nations and advocates for Indian gaming in Washington and elsewhere, but it also provides scholarships for Native students through its own of Sovereignty Foundation and through donations to events like the golf tournament.
The event page on KTNN’s website has been edited to reflect the lost sponsors.
“The Washington Redskins have found themselves an Indian,” NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. said, referring to OAF Executive director Gary L. Edwards (Cherokee), “and through this Indian they’re going to try to buy off Indian country and attempt to convince Indian country that something so racist and so horrible [as the Redskins name] is okay and good. Indian country is not for sale and all the scholarships in the world are not going to buy an allegiance to racism.”
Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s announcement in late March that he had formed the non-profit Washington Redskins OAF to help poor Indians and appointed Edwards to head it were met with harsh criticism in Indian country. Edwards, the chief executive officer of the National Native American Law Enforcement Association, helped clip the Bureau of Indian Affairs of $1 million in a botched contract that cost taxpayers an additional $600,000 in termination fees, according to a federal investigation.
“We’re glad that after a decade of owning the Washington team, Mr. Snyder finally says he is interested in Native American heritage, but this doesn’t change the fact that he needs to stand on the right side of history and change his team’s name,” Oneida Indian Nation Representative Ray Halbritter said.
NB3 Foundation Executive Director Crystal Echohawk told ICTMN that KTNN General Manager Troy Little asked her organization to participate in the fund-raiser in February and “we agreed to help with a silent auction donation for a charitable event.” She said NB3 would “never” have agreed to participate knowing that the Redskins were involved.
In a statement released late Friday, the NB3 Foundation said it “does not support the Reds*ins or its organization OAF. We are adamantly opposed to the team’s continued use of this derogatory name. The NB3 Foundation contacted KTNN’s general manager and asked that our name, any association and support with KTNN and its tournament be removed immediately. The NB3 Foundation is considering legal action as well. The KTNN General Manager Tony Little just confirmed via a phone call with the NB3 Foundation’s Executive Director Crystal Echo Hawk that the use of our Foundation’s name and any association with KTNN and its tournament will be removed immediately. He apologized for not informing the NB3 Foundation of their involvement.”
Little did not respond to a request for comment from ICTMN although an email receipt showed he received and read the request.
Derrick Watchman, the CEO of the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise, which was named Tribal Enterprise of the Year in 2013 by the American Indian Chamber of Commerce of Arizona, said in a statement that the enterprise was asked in March to raise scholarship money for Navajo students through KTNN’s golf tournament.
“We were unaware until yesterday, April 11, that the Washington Redskins had any involvement in this golf tournament. Had we known of its involvement, it would have led to us declining the sponsorship and likely affected other Navajo organizations’ involvement as well. We deeply regret not being told of the Washington Redskins involvement in advance of [the] tournament. “
By late Friday, KTNN’s Facebook page was smoldering with comments from Navajo citizens objecting to the KTNN-OAF partnership.
“This is wrong. I urge a reversal of this decision. Give the money back. Accepting this disgusting symbolism dishonors all of our Native people who died as the hands of those who used the symbol and pursued policies and practices of extermination! Shame on KTNN!” Shabah Nez wrote.
“Boycott KTNN!” Winona Dawn wrote.
Comments soon began to disappear from the page, as Nicholet Deschine noted. “Two sponsors have already withdrawn support from this event when KTNN only had to decline one sponsor, the Redsk*ns. The act of adding the Redsk*ns on as a sponsor at the last moment (or hiding the info from other sponsors), the withdrawal of sponsors who do not want involvement with the Redsk*ns, KTNN deleting comments on the FB page, RAISES concern on the intent of KTNN and the Redsk*ns to USE the guise of raising scholarship funds to further the Redsk*ns own agenda.”
By Saturday when the KTNN-OAF golf tournament took place at the Gila River Indian Community’s Whirlwind Golf Club near Phoenix, a group Navajo women had organized a protest rally online overnight under the hashtags #NOT YOUR MASCOT and #KTNNscandal.
“Race based stereotypes harm our children. KTNN Radio brings Redsk*ns Foundation on board to raise funds at the same time the Navajo Nation Council is opposing disparaging references of Native people. Additionally KTNN lacks insight, failed to consider there may be sponsors who DO NOT want to be associated with the Redsk*ns name resulting in the withdrawal of two sponsors, National Indian Gaming Association and the Notah Begay III Foundation,” they wrote.
Stevens said he wasn’t worried that people would think he condones the use of the racial slur because of the KTNN-OAF fiasco. “I have a longstanding record of opposition to blatant sports racism through my work in athletics and as a former officer and lifetime member of the National Congress of American Indians.” He pointed proudly to his son Brandon Stevens, a member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin, who has carried on his father’s work of testifying against sports racism to the state legislature.
But there’s a bigger issue at stake, Stevens said. “I think what happened here is going to continue to happen and the folks with this Redskins foundation are going to continue to try to utilize their connections, their resources and their audacity to go and offer money to buy folks onto their team,” he said. That’s a deceptive way to act and no good will come from it, Stevens said. But there is a solution, he said.
“What those guys at the Redskins should do if they have any genuine concern for Native America is make their donations anonymously and just change the name and be a part of helping Indian country without creating all this negative energy,” Stevens said.