What’s in a Name? The Redskins Mascot Controversy

I’ve resisted weighing in on the latest round of the Native American/American Indian mascots controversy. When such debates rear their heads, the conversation is rarely constructive. For example,  of late, Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder has been called both a racist and a bigot – and these were just letters from family.

(I kid. I kid.)

The current controversy actually has its genesis in a bill that was introduced in the House of Representatives this past March, long after the Redskins were unceremoniously bounced from the playoffs by the Seattle Seahawks. In legislation that was all but doomed to fail, Washington, DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes (D-DC)  drafted legislation that would effectively void any trademarks containing the term “redskin/s.” Naturally, the bill would have a significant impact on the Redskins franchise, its revenues, branding, and merchandise.

Fast forward to this past May, when ten members of Congress sent a letter to  Washington Redskins’ owner Dan Snyder demanding that the team change its name. Consider also that the least effective sentence in the english language always begins with the phrase “members of Congress sent a letter.” Even so, the brouhaha persisted, apparently undaunted by such realist frivolities. And, now, everyone from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to Rush Limbaugh has had their say. Most recently, ESPN’s Rick Reilly threw gasoline on the flames by sharing a few thoughts on the controversy in his weekly column. After arguing that the majority of the opposition to Indian mascots comes from “white America” Reilly concludes:

In fact, ESPN and many other media companies cover the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, the Cleveland Indians and the Atlanta Braves without a single searing search of their social conscience.

Doesn’t matter. The 81-year-old Washington Redskins name is falling, and everybody better get out of the way. For the majority of Native Americans who don’t care, we’ll care for them. For the Native Americans who haven’t asked for help, we’re glad to give it to them.

Trust us. We know what’s best. We’ll take this away for your own good, and put up barriers that protect you from ever being harmed again.

Kind of like a reservation.


So, opposing a team’s mascot is analogous to putting Indians on reservations? Um, got it…

Cutting through the fog, it’s important to remember that such issues turn, as they always have, on the situation of the particular team and its relationship with American Indian tribes. The trouble when advocates claim a broad mandate regarding the sensitivity of a term or phrase is that their mandate is rarely as large as they perceive it to be.  As of today, there are 566 Federally Recognized Tribes in the United States scattered across the whole of the contiguous 48 states. Also as of today, there has been precious little effort to determine what position each tribe takes regarding the Redskins mascot. Any party claiming a mandate or mantle of authority to facilitate change on behalf of American Indians en masse is simply misguided. While some tribes have signaled their opposition, the perspective of a few tribes is hardly representative of the whole of Indian Country.

On the other hand, the conversation being raised by opponents of the mascot is an important one for America to have. As a Nation, we tend to handle race relations about as well as we handle Middle Eastern crises and occupations, not very well. (Here’s looking at you Syria.) The fact is, the status of American Indians within the legal framework of the United States has long been a point of internal and Constitutional tension. As a society (and certainly our Government), we Americans don’t really know quite what to do with Indian tribes. Whereas the Civil Rights movement was about incorporating disempowered minorities into the American social fabric, what American Indians advocate for in pursuing policies of tribal self-determination and sovereignty is one of measured separatism. In other words, they seek to be left alone so that they can govern their peoples, lands and resources. Naturally, a very real disconnect in the conversation results because matters of racial stereotype are almost perpetually conflated with matters of tribal governance.

For the current debacle, I don’t see a tidy resolution to the situation. The Federal Courts have already concluded that the mascot name is not so offensive as to invalidate the Redskins trademark – and even if it is, the matter has lain dormant so long as to make the allegation moot. Short of pursuing abject censorship along the lines of Delegate Holmes, I don’t see a legal solution to the quagmire. Ironically, this would suggest that the groups opposed to the mascot are following exactly the proper course, seeking to influence public opinion and persuade the whole of society that the name is offensive and should be scrapped.

Personally, I think tribal advocates are playing small ball by focusing on the mascot issue. There are real enemies to tribalism in the United States and given the pecking order of threats, the name of a mediocre football team just isn’t worth the energy being expended. Even if I were a Washington Redskins fan, I can’t see the mascot issue being a bigger concern than the Redskins’ 0-3 start, and the inability of a much lauded second-year quarterback to deliver.

Of course, as a Dallas Cowboys fan, I don’t really give a damn. The team from Washington can be the Redskins or the Lobbyists and all will be right with the world if the Cowboys come away with a win.

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