More than 150 protesters turned out at the University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday, to rally against the Washington NFL team’s continued use of the name “Redskins” and to demand that the team Change the Name.
As one of the organizers of the rally, our intent was to increase exposure of the diverse communities of Native American people who oppose the theft of our culture and identity for use as mascots, and to raise awareness that the issue is deeper than just the name of a team.
The rally was well attended with approximately 150 advocates in attendance from the Tohono O’odam Nation, Akimel O’otham, Onk Akimel O’otham, Mohave, Chemehuevi, Acoma, Diné, Hopi, Hunkpapa Lakota, Zuni Pueblo, along with many non-Native supporters.
The morning started with representatives from the Traditional O’odham Council offering a prayer, followed by a welcome by Amanda Blackhorse, a Diné social worker and lead plaintiff in Blackhorse v Pro-Football, Inc.
Organizers were aware the Washington NFL team provided game tickets to leaders and community members from Zuni Pueblo and the Navajo Nation, and to students at the Red Mesa High School, a state-managed school located on the Navajo Nation. In her welcoming remarks, Blackhorse said, “We’re not here to fight amongst ourselves, we’re not here to call them bad names… we’re here to let people know and to raise awareness.”
As protesters marched on Maryland, a street north of the UOP stadium, game attendees were walking towards the stadium. The group chanted sound bites such as “Humans are not mascots,” “What do we want? Respect. When do we want it? Now,” “Hey-hey-ho-ho, redface has got to go,” “Game over for racism,” and “R-word is a dictionary defined racial slur.” This is because cognitive dissonance can shake up a person’s preconceived notion with new information that they may not have considered before, making a person rethink and potentially challenge their own position and way of thinking.
During the rally, the speakers – including Blackhorse and renowned Acoma poet and writer Simon J. Ortiz – touched on different aspects of the mascot issue, including the current legal environment surrounding the team’s trademark, and the history behind the 40-year fight and national efforts to educate the public.
Dennis Welsh, a councilman from the Colorado River Indian Tribes in Arizona and California, and treasurer of the National Congress of American Indians, explained how the issue is deeper than the team’s name.
He drew the links to racism, colonialism and the structure of oppression, and emphasized the negative impacts on the self-esteem of Native youth, and protecting Native culture and identity.
Our goal was to raise awareness, and we did, on national television to millions of viewers as reporters took note of the protest and controversial name.There were fans from the Cardinals and Washington teams who gave fist bumps, thumbs up, and spoke words of encouragement. One particular Washington fan engaged in a civil, educational exchange with advocates and later said he supported the cause, but that he wasn’t aware of the controversy until recently.
Other Washington fans called Native advocates names, and told us “to go back to where we came from,” throwing the middle finger. One Washington fan was getting in the face of a Native protester, but was pulled back as police approached to intervene.
Though we knew that team owner Dan Snyder had bussed in Zuni and Navajo students to attend the game at no cost, nothing could have prepared me to see the direct exploitation of youth.
I cried. Not because I was scared or fearful. I let tears fall because my heart truly ached for those Diné youth who were dragged into Snyder’s debacle. Shame on Snyder for exploiting youth with signed t-shirts, caps, game tickets, iPads, and money. They are not your mascots.
I believe Snyder’s strategy is to divide Native communities, as he hides behind Native youth, so the pressure is off of him. He didn’t even have them bussed to the back entrance, he made them walk by the protest line. This is what aches in my heart, that our Native youth were used as pawns in Snyder’s game to justify his racial slur of a team name.
As the youth walked by, I talked directly to them through the bullhorn, “Shi ei Nicholet Deschine yinishye, to the Navajo students walking by, “we” have failed you and for that I am sorry. Our culture and identity as Navajo people, as Native people, is important, sacred, and should be guarded. Humans are not mascots. I am not a mascot. My identity as a Lakota-Navajo woman is not a mascot. My culture is not for sale. We are here to protect our identity.”
The students stopped to watch the rally and to hear us speak. Even though Snyder was playing a political game, seeing and hearing their own people speak of racism and exploitation sparked curiosity in those students to learn more about what their fellow Natives were so passionately defending: we are not your mascots.
I was raised on the Navajo Nation, and my first experience dealing with stereotypes was as a teenager when I briefly lived off the reservation in a different state. Adult strangers would walk up and touch my hair, ask me if I was an “Indian.” Even students would be shocked because they thought we [Native people] were dead. I would get the questions that I’m sure other Native people are asked when they are off their homelands: if I lived in a teepee, if I had a spirit animal, and if my family still hunted for food. I was referred to as being red-skinned and a good “Indian” and faced discrimination when I would shop or eat at a restaurant.
This is why our work to advocate for the removal of mascots and racial slurs about Native people is so important, along with increasing accurate representation of our people in national media and the mainstream America. Native youth, especially those who may leave their homeland for higher education or other opportunities, will encounter these stereotypes and discrimination.
While we know that changing the name of the Washington team will not magically erase racism, it is a step in the right direction to reducing oppression, to gaining back control of how we are perceived and represented in media, and to protecting our cultures.
At the conclusion of our event, we learned Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly was in attendance at the game sitting next to Snyder. I was saddened but not shocked. Shelly’s apparent support of the term “redskin” is in conflict with the Navajo Nation Council’s resolution which opposes the use of the term and calls on the President of the Navajo Nation to similarly oppose the term. Shelly’s behavior distracted from the initial focus, which is that Snyder continues to manipulate the conversation about Native identity.
During the rally, Ortiz said, “We say that the game is over for racism and we must say this over and over again. The game is over for racism because racism destroys, destroys, and destroys.”
The three groups that organized the October 12 rally in Glendale were: Arizona to Rally Against Native Mascots, Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry, and Indigenous Action Media. The rally was part of a series of rallies around the country organized by grassroots efforts to oppose the racist Redskins name. Rallies and protests are taking place when the Washington team visits the Cowboys, Vikings, 49ers, and when the team plays in its home stadium.
Nicholet Deschine Parkhurst, Hunkpapa Sioux/Diné, holds a Master of Social Work and is currently studying public administration and policy. Nicholet is a member of the grassroots organization Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry.