Redskins Name Roundly Criticized as Racist During Smithsonian Event

'Some names just degrade all of us,' says former Sen. Nighthorse Campbell.

Kelyn Soong
Capital News Service

The Washington Redskins team name was lambasted as “racist” and “demeaning” during a daylong symposium Thursday at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

The symposium, entitled “Racist Stereotypes and Cultural Appropriation in American Sports,” featured Native American activists, museum administrators and local journalists who discussed the impact of team names like the Redskins on Native Americans.

“There is a very insidious quality...of viewing Native Americans as savages, as playthings,” said N. Bruce Duthu, a professor of Native American Studies at Dartmouth University.

The panel, which included several Native Americans, shared their personal experiences with racism and criticized Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for their reluctance to change the team name and logo.

The heated debate over the Redskins name goes back several decades. A case that challenged the name reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

Organizers said the Redskins declined invitations to attend the symposium. Tony Wyllie, the Washington Redskins’ senior vice president of communications, declined to comment on the team’s name.

Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a former Colorado senator, called Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan a “personal friend” and said he has a problem with the team name, not the team.

“Americans are ingrained to be loyal to their team,” he said. “But some names just degrade all of us.”

Campbell, who became the first Native American to serve in the U.S. Senate in more than 60 years when he was elected in 1992, introduced a bill in Congress in early 1990s banning the use of the term Redskins on federally owned land.  

Panelist Suzan Shown Harjo, president of the Washington-based Morning Star Institute, also attempted to get lawmakers to change the team name.

In 1992, she entered a lengthy court battle with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to void the Redskins trademark but lost in 2009 when the Supreme Court ruled that the plaintiffs waited too long to file their original case. There is another hearing filed by younger plaintiffs scheduled for March 7.

Lawyers for the Redskins have insisted the name is meant to honor Native Americans, but the panelists strongly disagreed with that stance.

“Sports is a common bond, but I cannot in good conscience support the [Washington, D.C.] football team,” said Robert Holden of the National Congress of American Indians.

“I don’t think the owners understand that they’re not honoring us,” he added.

Although the Redskins have held onto their name, many colleges have eliminated their Native American mascots and team names that some viewed as racist.

In 2005, the NCAA announced it would ban the use of Native American mascots during postseason tournaments after its research found that the images had “overwhelming evidence of potential harm.”

Delise O’Meally, an NCAA representative, said the initial responses to the ban were mostly negative and hostile. But support for the decision eventually grew.

“My personal integrity was questioned at first,” she said, before mentioning the response that stuck with her the most. She said a young Native American woman told her, “You’ve made the right decision.”

Native American activists have also found an ally in Washington, D.C., mayor Vincent Gray, who said if the team wants to return to the District there should discussions about changing the name. Gray also avoided saying “Redskins” in his State of the District speech this week, instead referring to “our Washington football team.”

For one young Washington Redskins fan at the symposium, the discussion made him rethink his support for the team’s name.

Andre Holland, 20, of Annapolis, arrived at the event with his Anne Arundel Community College classmates wearing earmuffs and hat with the Redskins logo. He received strange looks throughout the day.

“When I first came in here, I felt hate automatically,” he said. “I came in here with the wrong mindset. I thought, ‘Forget them, I’m a Washington Redskins fan.’”

After an older Native American man asked Holland to remove his hat, he said he finally realized that the name was harmful.

“That whole time sitting there listening [the panel] made me think, ‘Who am I to keep wearing this stuff if it’s racist?’”

Richard Pratt February 12, 2013 at 12:04 AM
"Cowboys" must be racist towards white rednecks by their logic.
J Cline February 14, 2013 at 08:26 PM
Well, if it's done right, in coordination with the named tribe (such as Florida State's Seminoles), it doesn't have to be 'racist'. Who gets to define what's racist, exactly, and why should I care? What these people are really offended about is that they're not getting any control nor a cut of the team's profits. As far as I'm concerned, I'm fine with completely removing all cultural references to American Indians in our modern society. There are no authentic "natives" left -- only their Europeanized descendants. Amerindian cultures have contributed very little of value to the United States except colorful placenames, and when the sports teams are done with using them as a symbol of strength and primitive nobility, they'll fade with all the other losers into the dustbin of history. Is this really what Indian 'leaders' want? It might be different if Indians were still living among us as subsistence-economy hunter-gatherers in tepees in Oklahoma. But they're not. Their decadent great-great-great grandchildren are shooting endangered whales with .50 cal rifles (thanks, Makah tribe in WA state) and running illegal cigarettes across the Canadian border (thanks, Akwesasne Mohawks in upstate NY) and fleecing stupid old white people in casinos across the country. No sympathy. Take back your trademark symbology and disappear from the national consciousness. Fine by me.
B Moore February 16, 2013 at 01:19 AM
Its all about perspective and J Cline makes valid points..This issue doesn't seem to be going anywhere.
JustABill February 16, 2013 at 06:07 PM
This is like deja vu all over again. Every time this issue is brought up in another attempt to sterilize the entire country in political correctness I cannot help but wonder why no one bothers to recall the historical facts behind the team being named the Redskins from the beginning. The team was originally the Boston Braves for one year but when they moved from Braves Field to Fenway Park the team name was changed to the Boston Redskins to honor the Boston patriots that disguised themselves as Indians while protesting increasing taxes on Tea and other taxes imposed by the British monarchy in what is known as the Boston Tea Party. Those patriots were commonly referred to as Boston Redskin Braves. When the team relocated to Washington, DC they kept the name to continue to honor the history of the Boston Tea Party because of the historical significance of the team being located in the Nation's Capital. While there are plenty of people on both sides of this issue I find it amusing that the most vocal against the team name have absolutely no clue of the historical significance of the name and choose to only see it as a negative connotation. What's even more amusing, or perhaps pathetic, is most of these same people are ones who will gladly say they do not think American's are taxed enough already.
Nicholas Trift March 08, 2013 at 09:27 PM
Go after the cleveland Indians and the Atlanta Braves before the skins. They're EXCEDINGLY RACIST by this logic.


More »
Got a question? Something on your mind? Talk to your community, directly.
Note Article
Just a short thought to get the word out quickly about anything in your neighborhood.
Share something with your neighbors.What's on your mind?What's on your mind?Make an announcement, speak your mind, or sell somethingPost something
See more »