by Askia Muhammad
Special to the NNPA from The Final Call
WASHINGTON (FinalCall.com) – Hundreds of Native American protestors and their supporters staged a rally Dec. 28, outside the Landover, Md. Stadium where home games are played by the Washington NFL franchise which they insist uses a racial slur—Redskins—as its nickname.
Similar, even larger protests have been held over the last two seasons from California, to Texas, Arizona, and to a massive rally of thousands in Minnesota in November this year.
The event was intended to: “Protest the disparaging racist name of the Washington football team,” radio host Jay Winter Nightwolf told his listeners two days before the rally. The name he said is “a racial slur with a long bloody past.”
That bloody past amounted to state-sponsored genocide, Native people insist, and it’s all tied to the team name, which they say is not an honorific, but an insult.
“When those boats landed here in 1492,” Clyde Bellecourt, a member of the Anishinabe Ojibwe Nation and co-founder of American Indian Movement (AIM) told Mr. Nightwolf on his radio program on Washington’s WPFW-FM, “there’s estimates that anywhere from 15 million to 26 million native people resided here in Western Hemisphere, most of them in the borders of what’s called the United States of America.
“And at the closure of the last major massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, on Christmas Eve, when ‘peace on earth, goodwill toward men’ was going on, they mowed mostly old people women and children, close to 300 of our unarmed people died at Wounded Knee, and the last census taken around that time there’s only 248,000 to 300,000 Native people left here in America. We know well what has happened to them. It was perfectly legal at that time to kill an Indian. It was still on the books until the early (20th) Century,” Mr. Bellecourt said.
Native protests began in Washington in 1991, leading up to the 500th anniversary year of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Western Hemisphere. Dozens of Native people picketed every home game the team played then at federally-owned RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. Angry fans often spit on and poured beer on the protestors.
At the same time a group led by Native attorney Suzan Shown Harjo filed a complaint, challenging the team’s trademark before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Appeals Board, which agreed seven years later, revoking the team’s exclusive license to use its name and logo, because the name is a dictionary-defined racial slur.
Team owner Dan Snyder appealed and the decision was overturned on a legal technicality in 2005. In 2007 a younger group of Indian plaintiffs filed another challenge before the Patent Board, which again, in 2014, revoked the team’s trademark. That decision has also been appealed in federal court.
Since that 1992 protest campaign, the team’s achievements on the field have gone from bad to worse. After winning the Super Bowl that year, the team has had only five seasons out of 22, when they won more games than they lost. Some superstitious observers attribute that record to a “curse” placed on the team by Indians over its racist name in 1992. During the last seven years the team has won only 32 games, while losing 64, finishing last in its division six times.
The reason native people are so adamant about this name ahead of all the sports team names which objectify Indians as team mascots, is because the “redskin” was used to prove that an Indian had been murdered, in order to collect a bounty, protestors point out. “Native people had to be eliminated, annihilated,” Mr. Bellecourt said. In order to collect the reward and prove someone had killed an Indian, at first they had to bring in a skull. Skulls he said were brought in by the wagonloads until church women in then Western states—particularly in Minnesota—protested the brutality and the provision was changed to require only a scalp.
“Which meant you could (then) kill women and children,” Mr. Bellecourt continued. “That’s where the word ‘redskin’ comes from.” That, he said, ushered in the genocide against Native people. “Dan Snyder, who is Jewish, should know something about genocide.”
“This is not just about the ‘R-word,’” Simon, another guest on Mr. Nightwolf’s program explained. “If you look at the Kansas City Chiefs, if you look at the Cleveland Indians and Chief Wahoo, people show up in the stands wearing red-face. And they don’t associate that with racism. They just say it’s their sports culture, and that’s what matters to them.
“The reason that the Redskins (team is) facing us with this full national rage, (is because) Washington D.C. is the nation’s capital, and the message that it sends, that a Native American is a mascot, a dehumanized individual. That’s a strong message that we send everywhere. People are going to follow suit with that.”
In its 22 years of active campaigning, the movement to eliminate native team mascots has been successful, according to Mr. Bellecourt. In 1992 the count was more than 12,000 teams across America with Native Americans as mascots. Universities and high schools have gotten rid of the names and the slurs. Now he said there are 2,000 teams which still use native mascots.
“The reason we picked the Washington football team (is) because it’s the most horrific name in sports history,” Mr. Bellecourt said. “If we get them to change the others will change automatically—Chief Wahoo (Cleveland Indians MLB), the ‘Tomahawk Chop’ (Atlanta Braves MLB),” the Chicago Blackhawks (NHL), Golden State Warriors (NBA).