Last Sunday, I stood in downtown Phoenix with 100 other Native American protestors chanting “No More Victims, No More Stereotypes” and praying for Indigenous women—our sisters—who have fallen to domestic violence, rape, and murder. Around us blared party music and across the street a giant inflatable Bud Light party tent beckoned to the hundreds of thousands Super Bowl fans that had descended upon the city of Phoenix. Somewhere in “the valley” at the ESPN Super Bowl headquarters, or the Glendale stadium, or in one the glittering buildings near us, was the NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Our prayers were for our hurting and departed mothers, daughters, and sisters but our message was for him.
“There is definitely a connection between violence against women and the NFL. I’ve experienced it myself, ” said Navajo psychiatric social worker Amanda Blackhorse, the lead plaintiff in the successful case against the Washington NFL team’s trademark.
She was referring to the hate mail and comments she’s received for standing up on the mascot issue, which she recently recounted in Indian Country Today Media Network: Blackhorse: The Hate Mail I Receive is Hostile, Aggressive, Racist and Sexist.
At the protest, I took a photo of her with her daughter at her feet writing in chalk on the sidewalk “I am Not Your Mascot” surrounded by Native protestors of all ages who covered the sidewalk with similar sentiments. I was there to support my friend, Nicholet Deschine Parkhurst, a doctoral student at Arizona State University who organized both the vigil and the protest, attended by many other protestors from all over the West Coast and Canada.
At a vigil held in Phoenix’s Civic Space Park the night before, mere blocks from the giant Super Bowl party, a small assembly of Native American advocates and survivors of domestic abuse had held tea lights in the shadows below the park’s giant lighted sculpture that someone described as “a giant electronic dream catcher.” Many of those who spoke echoed a meme that our organization, Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry, put out on social media that said, “To our Native sisters who are missing or murdered or victims of violence or rape or feeling disrespected or hopeless…No More. You are not forgotten. You are loved.” Protestors held up signs spelling out “No More,” the NFL’s domestic violence campaign hashtag.
Some of the assaults on Native women are due to jurisdictional gaps on reservations. Our tribes cannot prosecute non-federally enrolled people. This limitation on our jurisdiction is a result of racial stereotypes held by U.S. elected officials who believe Natives cannot be trusted with jurisdiction. Some of these gaps were addressed by the passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013. But the desire to exploit these gaps and go “hunting” for Native women to abuse and murder is clearly tied to lingering stereotypes held about Native American women which permeate American culture.
Native women have the highest rates of domestic violence in the country, bar none. According to the Department of Justice, one in three Native women will experience rape, and Native women have 2.5 times the sexual assault rate and three times the murder rate of all other American women. In some counties, the murder rate for Native women is ten times the national average. These assaults are committed 78 percent of the time by white men. Native women are the only group more likely to be victimized by someone not of their race. As I said in the Think Progress article about the protest, “How white men view us matters.”
Most Americans have little contact with Native people outside of the stereotypes that the Washington team promotes through its Redskins mascot. The flip side of the “warrior” stereotype includes “Indian princess” and the “squaw” stereotypes displayed by female fans who dress up in “Pocahottie” outfits. They don our regalia, even faux eagle feather headdresses reserved for our leaders, to make themselves more sexually alluring to drunk male fans.
Commissioner Goodell was quoted in August saying, “The public response reinforced my belief that the NFL is held to a higher standard, and properly so. Much of the criticism stemmed from a fundamental recognition that the NFL is a leader, that we do stand for important values, and that we can project those values in ways that have a positive impact beyond professional football. We embrace this role and the responsibility that comes with it. We will listen openly, engage our critics constructively, and seek continuous improvement in everything we do. We will use this opportunity to create a positive outcome by promoting policies of respect for women both within and outside of the workplace. We will work with nationally recognized experts to ensure that the NFL has a model policy on domestic violence and sexual assault. We will invest time and resources in training, programs and services that will become part of our culture. And we will increase the sanctions imposed on NFL personnel who violate our policies.”
And yet, despite these strong words concerning domestic violence and the release of the NFL’s anti-DV ad during the Super Bowl, Goodell refuses to see the connection between Washington Redsk*ns and the promotion of stereotypes about Native people by the $2.2 billion franchise. The NFL promotes its “No More” campaign against domestic violence, yet does not address how stereotypes promoted by their fans in redface and Pocahottie outfits affect how our fellow Americans view us. So, here we were on Super Bowl Sunday protesting and handing out flyers to Super Bowl fans explaining our hashtag #StereotypesNoMore.
Leanne Guy, executive director of the Southwest Indigenous Women’s Coalition, an event co-sponsor, said in her presentation at an ASU panel on “Masking Stereotypes with False Honor: Race, Sports and Violence Against Indigenous Women”:
“In order to understand why there is violence against our women and why the rates are so high,
we need to make the connection of actions that led to the marginalization of our Indian nations, and specifically our women, that perpetrate the belief, the myth that we are not real, that we are objects of possession … that we are rapeable, beatable, and can be discarded.”
The motif of the “dirty Indian” can also be seen in how the word “redskin” was used by white Americans, as seen in an 1885 ad for Ivory Soap that perceived the “dirtiness” of Native people:
We were once factious, fierce and wild,
In peaceful arts unreconciled
Our blankets smeared with grease and stains
From buffalo meat and settlers’ veins.
Through summer’s dust and heat content
From moon to moon unwashed we went,
But IVORY SOAP came like a ray
Of light across our darkened way
More examples of this depiction of Native people can be seen in the examples submitted in the U.S. Trademark case that led to the cancellation of six trademarks the Washington NFL team has on the word “Redskins” including the “Redskinettes,” the teams cheerleading squad that originally dressed in redface and wore fake black braids and skimpy “squaw” outfits.
The NFL’s continued merchandising of a term that explicitly describes attacks on Native people through the sale of our ancestors’ body parts for bounty (called “redskins”) and the slaughter of Native men, women and children for trophies cannot be divorced from the historical stereotypes that are central to America’s conception of Native people. These racist images have been encoded in Native mascotry for 250 years and are still promoted today not only by the NFL but by nearly 2,000 high schools across the United States.
Andrea Smith, in her book Conquest, said, “When a Native woman suffers abuse, this abuse is an attack on her identity as a woman and an attack on her identity as Native. The issues of colonization, race, and gender oppression cannot be separated. This fact explains why in my experience as a rape crisis counselor, every Native survivor I ever counseled said to me at one point, ‘I wish I was no longer Indian.’
Ollin Kin, a young man who had traveled with AIM Orange County to attend the vigil said, “We deserve to be protected, we deserve to be respected.” Another speaker said, “Every Indigenous person who has spoken represents thousands of women who are not here. We need to be louder than the Super Bowl.”
We have a petition at RH Reality Check demanding that Goodell “truly show your commitment to stopping domestic violence by retiring the use of the ethnic slur ‘RedskIns’ and supporting Native women’s domestic violence programs.” At the writing of this article we have 9,301 signers. Please add your name. After you sign you will be asked to donate to one of three Native American women’s organizations helping Native women who have been victims of domestic violence.
Let’s show Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redsk*ns, that we can help our own without being subjected to stereotyping on national television every week. We will be presenting the petition with all the signatures to NFL commissioner Goodell in person with a printout more than 90 pages long. I hope he hears us.
Jacqueline Keeler is a Twitter activist (@jfkeeler) and one of the founders of Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry.