For many, the key take away of the recent survey conducted by the Washington Post is that the vast majority of American Indians do not take offense at the name of the local professional football team. In fact, for some, the poll sounds a death knell for the movement against the slur at the heart of the franchise and has even convinced at least one vocal opponent on staff at the Post to rethink his position. To my mind, all of these readings miss the mark. Most importantly, they miss the harms it excuses and perpetuates.
While heralded as new, the poll actually repeats in content and execution previous surveys, making many of the same errors in how it approached the issue, asked questions, and selected participants. In common, with several other similar surveys over the past two decades, it works to minimize and misconstrue anti-Indian racism and its histories, reducing them to personal feelings. It limits itself to offensiveness, the conscious reaction of an individual, turning attention away from the established impacts of stereotypes and slurs. Social scientists have demonstrated that American Indian mascots and monikers harm Native Americans. Exposure to them increases psychological distress among American Indians, lowering their self-regard, depressing their sense of community worth, and negatively impacting their assessment of future possibilities. Recognizing “the catastrophic effects of prejudice” associated with Native American mascots, in 2005, the American Psychological Association issued a position paper denouncing them. More than a decade later, the Washington Post continues to make excuses for the team and the anti-Indian racism anchoring it.
Perhaps more troubling, the most recent survey underscores that the paper actually shares much in common with the local NFL franchise. Let me briefly clarify.
First, both display a pronounced entitlement to Indianans. Like, most Americans, both seem to take for granted a kind of ownership of things Indian—symbols, images, opinion—and the capacity to impart their true significance. Had the Post worked in pollsters, consultants, and scholars in Indian Country, one imagines the approach and findings would have different.
Second, the franchise and the Post seem to only want American Indians when they serve their ends. The former has found it increasingly convenient to point to its tenuous connections to Native Americans, while laboring hard to secure support (often through philanthropy) in indigenous communities. The latter, which could have used its resources to take up any of a number of issues and solicit indigenous opinion about them, opted instead to restate a familiar refrain based on a flawed survey. In fact, it seems both have little patience for critical work in Indian Country. The Post’s failure to discuss the work of Adrienne Keene (Cherokee), a post-doctoral fellow at Brown University, who has compiled an archive of nearly 6,000 Native Americans against the slur, and James Fenelon (Dakota/Lakota), Director of the Center for Indigenous Peoples Studies at California State University, San Bernardino, who found in small study that the majority of tribally enrolled American Indians opposed the moniker, is especially noteworthy in this regard.
Third, both profit on a public ignorant of American Indian peoples and policies, actively trading on the misrecognition of Native Americans. From its inception, relying on an appetite for imagined Indians, shaped by centuries of displacement and violence, the franchise played off misconceptions and stereotypes to create a successful brand. Similarly, the most recent survey misconstrues Indians and Indianness. Less than half of the participants identified as tribal citizens, meaning, in the words of the Native American Journalist Association, “more than half of those interviewed were likely not Native American.” Consequentially, its findings only represent the opinion of American Indians by distorting who and what an American Indian is. Furthermore, to do so, it trivializes the political standings of tribes and tribal members, dismissing the import of citizenship, nationhood, and sovereignty. Misrecognition by the Post, in turn, encourages a misrepresentation of the issue, a trivialization of the long-standing and increasingly visible opposition to the team, and the invasive claims of non-natives to place, culture, and identity.
In the end, the team and the paper dehumanize indigenous people. Where the NFL franchise uses slurs and stereotypes, the Post encourages misrecognition and misunderstanding. In distinct ways, both institutions continue the vanishing of Americans Indians.
The recent survey by the Washington Post is a big deal. It affirms the pervasiveness of anti-Indian racism today. As such, it should remind us that the racial slur and the sport brand built around it are only the beginning of a much larger and more enduring struggle.
C. Richard King is a professor of comparative ethnic studies at Washington State University. He is the author or editor of more than a dozen books, including Team Spirits: The Native American Mascots Controversy (Nebraska, 2001) and Native Athletes in Sport and Society: A Reader (Nebraska, 2006).