That now infamous 2004 Associated Press Annenberg survey – quoted ad nauseam by TV pundits, fans, and even NFL representatives – said that a majority of Native Americans believe the name “Redskins” is not offensive.
Well, according to a California professor, they’re all wrong. James Fenelon, Lakota/Dakota from Standing Rock, a sociology professor at California State University, San Bernardino, compiled his own data, and the results show that 67 percent of Native Americans believe that “Redskins” is a racist word.
During a news conference in January, when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said that nine out of ten Native Americans “prefer” the name “Redskins,” he was quoting that 2004 survey of 768 people who identified themselves as American Indian.
“Of course it is both disgusting and predictable,” Fenelon told ICTMN about the 90 percent figure that Goodell quoted. “It is a major reason why I agreed to take this [study] on… The dominant society knows on some level that it is bogus to run these uncritical polls, and then reproduce results that don't resonate with real experience.”
In 1995, as the Cleveland Indians were heading into a World Series against the Atlanta Braves, a similar name change debate was happening with their logo, Chief Wahoo. “This is exactly what Dick Jacobs and the Cleveland Indians were doing [with Chief Wahoo]and also claiming players and coaches were Native, untrue and uncritically accepted,” Fenelon said. “And, of course, they have to exaggerate their own inflated findings to boot, going from 70 percent to 80 percent, plus to an astounding 90 percent, to salve the racialized mindset and rationalize its existence.”
Courtesy James Fenelon
Fenelon is the Director of Center for Indigenous Peoples Studies at CSU
Fenelon collected data for a poll about what “real Natives” thought about the baseball team. He went to large pow wows in the Cleveland area, and related events, and polled people individually, making sure that “at a high level of certainty” their tribal identity was legitimate; and that all who claimed Native ancestry were actually American Indian. “American Indians are the hardest to poll,” said Fenelon, who squeezed in an interview on his way to work. “And that’s because a lot of them claim to be Native, but it’s often dubious.”
Joe Feagin, the Ella C. McFadden and distinguished professor in the department of sociology at Texas A&M University, who has worked with Fenelon, agrees. “One key to the fallacious polls is that a great many whites claim Native ancestry, especially when anonymously called. In evaluating typical national random sample surveys, the key question about the survey is who are the ‘Native’ Americans they surveyed? A great many white Americans, for example, claim Native American ancestry (including my Scotch-Irish rural grandfather), with either no evidence or credibility or very tiny ancestry generations back.”
Fenelon and Feagin said that the only Natives who should be polled in a serious survey are those who are “active enrolled members of tribal groups.” In other words, there appears to be no evidence that the 768 persons polled were even enrolled members of a tribe. And it’s this fact that some polling might bleed with inaccuracies.
"This is the first such survey to know that the respondents were and are actually Native people," Fenelon said of his 'Redskins' survey which was conducted similarly to the one back in 1995.
“My poll numbers on whites and other groups are probably accurate,” Fenelon said. “[But] their polling with Natives is clearly off.”
But, Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder says the results of the AP poll are “solidly in line with the message we have heard from fans and Native Americans for months” and “we respect the point of view of the small number of people who seek a name change, but it is important to recognize very few people agree with the case they are making.”
But Feagin says that this is the point that Snyder needs clarification on. “One can say to Snyder, ‘If some number of Jews today do not find 'kike' offensive to them, would you still name your football team 'kike'?" And why do you ignore the views of most major Native American rights organizations on this matter? Don't they count in this discussion? And why have you not studied Native American history and contacted major scholars on these issues for their views of how the R-word has been used by whites for racist reasons, historically?”
Feagin, a leading scholar on Native racial and ethnic issues and a Pulitzer Prize nominee, questioned why no one had contacted him.
Fenelon, who is preparing a lecture on his survey results, says that the American public needs to “Decolonize the Redskins,” in order to tap into what Natives’ real opinions are. “Most scholars, even Native analysts and reports, uncritically accept mainstream claims and polls that Indians agree with the name 70 percent. Yet nearly all Indian organizations and most tribes reject the terms. Decolonizing means reconsidering and rejecting popular polls,” Fenelon said.
But what about the claims that Natives are comfortable with the R-word?
“A lot of Native Americans will say they are not offended by it,” Fenelon said. “It’s not a huge racial problem, but then you read the comments, you’ll often find that they have re-appropriated the term like the so called N-word. They don’t mean that the term is not offensive because they’ve taken it back.”
Activist Suzan Shown Harjo, a friend of Fenelon’s, told the AP that the term is offensive, and she thinks Native American support for it "is really a classic case of internalized oppression. People taking on what has been said about them, how they have been described, to such an extent that they don't even notice."
“It’s readily apparent why American Indians see the problem with Chief Wahoo and team name ‘Redskins,’ Fenelon said. “The question should not be why do Native people find this offensive…the question should be why does the dominate group hold on to these so strongly.”
View the results of Fenelon’s poll here.