By Chris Hoenig
There’s a disagreement in Washington, D.C., that’s making headlines across the country, and it has nothing to do with the budget or the deficit. Instead, it’s a battle between the owner of D.C.’s pro football team, the Washington Redskins, and millions of Americans who think it’s time for the franchise to change its name.
The Redskins haven’t always played in Washington. They haven’t always been the Redskins. But they have always been named after the American Indian. The franchise was founded in 1932 as the Boston Braves, playing in the baseball stadium of the then Boston, now Atlanta Braves. A year later, they moved in with the crosstown baseball rivals, playing their home games at the Red Sox’s Fenway Park, and changed their name to the Redskins. In 1937, the team moved to Washington, D.C., and the Washington Redskins were officially born.
But the name is seen by many as a racial slur, offensive to American Indians. The Oneida Indian Nation, based in New York, has started a campaign to get the team to change its name. “We are asking the NFL to stop using a racial slur as the name of Washington’s football team,” Oneida Indian Nation representative Ray Halbritter said.
The Oneida Indian Nation, which traces its history back to the Iroquois Confederacy and has been closely involved with issues involving American Indian rights, has found an ally in the most powerful person in the country: President Barack Obama. While acknowledging the passion Redskins have for the team—and its name—the President indicated it’s time for a change. “I don’t know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real, legitimate concerns that people have about these things,” Obama told the Associated Press, adding that if he were Redskins owner Dan Snyder and knew the team name was “offending a sizable group of people,” then he would “think about changing it.”
“As the first sitting President to speak out against the Washington team name, President Obama’s comments are truly historic,” Halbritter said. “The use of such an offensive term has negative consequences for the Native American community when it comes to issues of self-identity and imagery.”
While the Oneida Indian Nation has support from many fans and the President of the United States, it doesn’t have the support of the most influential people: Snyder and other NFL team and league executives.
In an open, two-page letter to fans, Snyder defended the Redskins name and provided quotes from American Indian leaders who not only support the name, but advocate NOT changing it. “When I consider the Washington Redskins name, I think of what it stands for. I think of the Washington Redskins traditions and pride I want to share with my three children, just as my father shared with me—and just as you have shared with your family and friends,” Snyder wrote.
“I would be offended if they did change,” he quoted Patawomeck Tribe retired Chief Robert Green as saying. “Completely remove the Indian identity from anything and pretty soon, you have a wipeout in society of any reference to Indian people.”
Snyder also has the support of one of the NFL’s most powerful owners, Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, who says “the intent is very positive.”
Perhaps most important for Snyder, he also has the backing of the NFL league office (even though the league has a history of not exactly being the most tolerant employer out there). Commissioner Roger Goodell said he recognizes that there are different opinions and that the league needs to listen and make sure it’s “doing what’s right,” but he also defended the Redskins name. “By no means, growing up in Washington and being a Redskins fan, have I ever considered it derogatory as a fan,” Goodell said. “I think that’s how the Redskins fans look at it. The Redskins have always presented it as part of their tradition, their history. ‘Hail to the Redskins’ is part of that proud tradition.”
While the Redskins pride themselves on tradition, the team’s history is one of racism. It’s easy to understand why the franchise changed its name when the Boston Braves moved into Fenway Park in 1933. (The Red Sox certainly wouldn’t want to share their stadium with a team bearing the name of their crosstown rivals.) According to a Boston Globe report, owner George Preston Marshall—reportedly a rancorous racist—chose Redskins because head coach William “Lone Star” Dietz had “signed up a number of Indian players.”
Reportedly, one of the reasons for the team’s move to Washington in 1937 was that, unlike Boston, Washington was partially segregated. The Redskins were the last NFL team to have a Black player on their roster, finally trading for running back Bobby Mitchell in 1962 after Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall threatened to evict the team from its (federally funded) stadium.
Other American Indian–Named Sports Teams
The Redskins are far from the only sports team in the country named after the American Indian. A Washington high school dropped the Redskins name earlier this year and the NCAA has banned American Indian team names and mascots (with the exception of the Florida State Seminoles, who have the blessing of the two remaining Seminole tribes), but the Redskins aren’t even the only American Indian team in pro football. The Kansas City Chiefs, who have an arrowhead logo on their helmets and play at Arrowhead Stadium, used a man dressed in a feathered headdress as their mascot until 1989.
Major League Baseball has two American Indian–named teams. The Atlanta Braves –the same franchise the Washington Redskins shared a stadium with in Boston—are known for their “Tomahawk Chop” at games, and the Cleveland Indians have had their name since 1915.
The defending Stanley Cup champions are the Chicago Blackhawks, whose logo of an American Indian in profile was ranked the top logo in the sport in 2008.