This past November I had a surprising opportunity to speak face-to-face for about 20 minutes with Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins football team. Snyder unexpectedly arrived with an entourage at the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center where I serve as director. Naturally, I saw his visit as part of a strategy to divert attention from the controversial and regressive “Redskins” mascot and team name.
I spoke to Snyder about A:shiwi heritage, our deep knowledge of cosmological processes, and of our artistic sensibilities and scholarly accomplishments as contributions to the universal human experience. Later I walked Snyder to his car, put my hand on his shoulder and told him I was not pleased with the Redskins mascot and team name and he snapped back with, “We are a football team.” I saw at that moment quite clearly, my objection did not concern Snyder.
Now a few months later, I am not surprised to hear about the establishment of the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation. While the foundation’s name appears charitable, I question whether it is genuinely altruistic because it grew from an unwillingness to understand and acknowledge the damage the Redskins mascot causes to Native American identity.
Zuni cultural leaders for years have diligently worked to correct misrepresentation of Zuni culture in museums throughout the world, concerned in part that young Zunis will be exposed to misinformation about their culture and identity. Identity is an enormous issue in tribal communities everywhere and I believe mascots, particularly the Redskins mascot undermines the work of the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center and deepens individual and collective confusion about identity while flaming the spread of misrepresentation of Native Americans as a whole.
Some of our own people are unconcerned about the issue of mascots. These folks say they are strong in their identity and traditions and belittle those that are offended by the Redskins mascot. If you consider yourself traditionally well adjusted then good for you. However, not everyone is so fortunate. Through the ubiquitous power of modern media many Native children are already associating with images that have little to do with their true tribal identity and I believe we should be concerned about that.
What about Native folks that are proud of the Redskins mascot? I still wonder why they could feel empowered by or proud of an image that denigrates Native peoples? Does association with a mascot image that suggests toughness or dominance make them feel better about themselves? Why not be proud of our Native educators, school principals, lawyers, doctors, military personnel, and engineers to name a few. This is 2014; we are not war whooping savages.
Tomorrow by invitation from the Zuni tribal council, representatives from the Redskins will come to Zuni to seek art made by Zuni artists, especially art that includes the Redskins logo and team colors. The visit is obviously part of spin doctoring the Redskins struggling image. Most of us easily see through the scheme. Why didn’t the Redskins approach the organizers of Santa Fe Indian Market, the Indigenous Fine Arts Market, or any number of other Native art associations representing thousands of outstanding Native artists?
Snyder and his staff often cite a 2004 survey that found 90 percent of Native Americans polled were not opposed to the Redskins mascot name. The poll was conducted in 2003-2004 and I cannot help but question the validity and its application in 2014. Even with my limited statistical training in college I can see serious shortcomings in the 2004 survey. So let’s now survey people that are in the business of strengthening Native American heritage, education, and principles. Let’s survey Native American school principals, educators, museum staffs and librarians. Let’s survey Native American university students. And let’s survey members of the Native American Bar Association.
I am not alone to say that it will be a dishonor, embarrassment, and pity to accept money from Snyder’s spin machine. The need to build the capacity of Native Americans to sustain themselves is obvious. If short-term community help is needed there are billions of dollars available through legitimate philanthropic and government sources. Why reach for the lowest fruit and take money from an organization that is aware of the distress their mascot causes and seeks to eclipse the issue with a money sweetener? To some people the devil’s money is still green. I simply believe we can do much better.
Jim Enote is the director of the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center, Zuni, New Mexico.