Indian Country is abuzz over the Washington Post poll that purports nine in 10 ordinary Native Americans are not offended by the Washington Redskins’ name. Indian Country has displayed the full range of emotion, including laugher at the Post for thinking it has really captured accurate attitudes of Native people, to anger and outright dismissal of the results. Some non-Indians have taken this data as significant evidence that Native people should be honored by the Redskins moniker (like the Post effectively endorsing the moniker, announcing it would no longer support the “Change the Mascot” movement), and some Indian allies have tried to unpack the true motive and intent of the survey. But before we all rush to judgment and laugh, cry or unleash a siege of fury, let’s put this so-called damning information into context.
Issues of race and ethnicity have always been prominent within public opinion research. Some scholars even trace the evolution of demography and social statistics to the need to define racial and ethnic groups and understand differences between populations. Today, almost every survey asks respondents about race and ethnic classification and probes about in-group and out-group attitudes to assess levels of hostility and tension. For example, during the 1940s, survey polls asked American citizens about segregation in the U.S., where public opinion overwhelmingly favored these discriminatory policies. Similar polls about other racist, sexist and discriminatory policies and events have existed throughout history.
But does favorable public opinion make it right?
No doubt we live in a data-driven society – a society where many believe that (quantitative) data is the unbiased and objective truth to many of today’s complex problems. Public opinion data gives us a snapshot of how people feel about certain issues at a specific point in time. But data is not unbiased and is not always objective. Void of context and narrative, data can be misleading, misinforming and sometimes just wrong.
History tells us that many public opinions have been on the wrong side of history regarding many social events and issues. But despite public opinion, things like segregation and other discriminatory public attitudes do change, especially when government, business and other actors are compelled to act in the best interest of what is just within society. Unfortunately, these actors typically do not move quickly and do not act without public pressure. So despite the Post suggesting scandal with their survey results, the results do not and should not brand the use of Native Americans as mascots as morally or ethically right.
What does this new data tell us?
When I first read the data appendix published by the Post, my immediate reaction was, “Wow, Indians can teach non-Indian pollsters new tricks!”
The Post’s methodology was impressive. They did not simply rely on self-reported racial/ethnic identification like previous studies. This poll probed further and asked the (self-reported) Native American respondents for tribal affiliations. Post pollsters interviewed 504 individuals who self-identified as being Native American, but only 182 could name a tribal affiliation. Of these 182 individuals, pollsters did a zip code match back of respondents, so it appears the majority of these 182 individuals lived on or near a reservation boundary. This is interesting since larger census data would have us believe that the majority of tribal citizens do not live within reservation boundaries. Moreover, despite the lack of reported landline and cell phone access across reservations, the Post was able to miraculously reach these 182 (self-identified) tribal members living on or near a reservation boundary by phone. Remarkably, the Post was able to poll Indian Country in just four months’ time and reach a representative sample that live on or near a reservation and have phone access (contrary to purported broader trends of Indian life).
Moreover, this is one of very few studies to survey Native American public opinions and there are still a lot of unknowns when it comes to the reliability and validity of the survey instrument and other kinds of potential survey bias. I don’t mean to suggest anything duplicitous by Post pollsters, but survey literature is ripe with issues related to survey bias, especially in the context of surveying complex racial and ethnic identities, like Native American identity and tribal citizenship. Since Native American public opinion research is relatively new, we don’t know how things like interviewer bias and social desirability play into this kind of questioning. We also must wonder if the questions themselves are misleading. Would the survey results have changed if questions were more encompassing to understand feelings of offense or complacency when it comes to other racial and ethnic identity categories? These are essential and relevant questions we must continue to ask.
Statisticians may no doubt call these issues of reliability, validity and design minor and not damning enough to dismiss the overall Post results. After all, the Post does have a long and prestigious history of public opinion data collection.
What does this data mean for Indian Country?
This is but one of only three studies that have looked at Native American public opinion on this subject (the others being the 2004 Annenberg survey and Fenelon’s 2014 California State University study). So the Post data only tell us that Native public opinion on this issue may be contested and unsettled. The data do not offer evidence that Indians should be depicted as mascots as the Post, its pollsters and Redskins’ team owner Dan Snyder would like the general public to believe.
Even if we are to take the Post and its results at their uncritical word, we must not forget that these unfortunate citizen attitudes do not mean very much. No doubt there are varying attitudes on this issue in Indian Country. But just because public opinion sways in one director or another at a given point in time does not mean public opinion is right, moral or ethical. This may be yet another unfortunate example of public opinions falling on the wrong side of history.
The reality is that unlike other racial and minority groups in the U.S, Indian people are citizens of nations. And despite the individuals purported to be surveyed, Native nations have spoken and they find the term offensive, degrading and have demanded the name be changed in D.C. and other places around the nation. Not only have individual tribes like the Navajo Nation and Oneida Nation in New York spoken out and passed political resolutions against the use of Native Americans as mascots, but many other Native nations and organizations have signed resolutions against their use or otherwise rallied against this degradation, such as the National Congress of American Indians, the 26 member tribes of the United South and Eastern Tribes, and others.
The reality is, the tribes have spoken … and that is what really matters.
Raymond Foxworth (Navajo), Ph.D., is vice president of Grantmaking, Communications and Development at First Nations Development Institute in Longmont, Colorado. First Nations is a 36-year-old nonprofit organization working to restore Native American control and culturally-compatible stewardship of the assets they own.