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An Anti-Redskins Protest Even Dan Snyder Can't Ignore

“I can’t believe it, it’s like a dream or something, I have to pinch myself,” says Clyde Bellecourt, long-time Anishinabe activist and founder of both the American Indian Movement and the National Coalition of Racism in Sports, organizers of the “No Honor in Racism” protest and march in Minneapolis when the Washington Redsk*ns play the Vikings this Sunday and being billed in the media as the “largest anti-Redsk*ns protest” ever.

The protest will include longtime Native activists like Clyde Bellecourt, Charlene Teters, Winona LaDuke and politicians including U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) and Mayor Betsy Hodges of Minneapolis. These leaders call to mind the storied history of the movement to stop the mascotting of Native people. This protest is predicted to be even larger than the Minneapolis anti-Redsk*ns protest in 1992 with the late U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone when the Washington team played the Buffalo Bills for the Super Bowl and 3,000 people gathered to voice their opposition to a racial slur merchandised by an NFL team in the nation’s capital.

Bellecourt first became involved in fighting the Native American mascots in 1968 when he and other Native leaders in Minneapolis formed AIM. They began with the local high schools and had great success in getting them to change their mascots. Then in 1972, they were contacted by George Whirlwind Solder, a University of North Dakota student from the Rosebud Lakota reservation. When UND changed their mascot from the Flickertails in 1930 to the “Fighting Sioux” their reasons were was follows: “1. Sioux are a good exterminating agent for the Bison; 2. They (Sioux) are warlike, of fine physique and bearing…; 3. The word Sioux is easily rhymed for yells and songs.” The Bison was the mascot for North Dakota State University, UND’s rivals. The new mascot was called “Sammy the Sioux.”

That winter of 1972, UND fraternities and sororities created offensive ice sculptures featuring Native American people to celebrate the “King Kold Karnival” . Sigma Nu fraternity created one of a bare-breasted woman painted brown with a sign saying “Lik em Sioux” at the bottom. The Native student organization repeatedly asked the administration to take them down but they were ignored. Finally one night, some Native students got rid of the racists sculptures using pick axes and Whirlwind Soldier was arrested. Bellecourt says they brought an attorney and helped get the charges against the student dismissed. However, it took four more decades to get the school to change its mascot.

And despite some 46 years of work on this issue, NFL fans still ask—why now are Native people upset about being mascotted? To the average American fan, the fight against Native mascots has been largely invisible until the past year.

And the two main reasons for this greater coverage are both due to the efforts of Native people broadcasting the issue through social media as the group I helped found, Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry, does using hashtags and from another unexpected source, the Washington team owner—Dan Snyder himself. His desperate antics to keep the name have created a virtual cottage industry of making fun of him in the media. Sadly, what made the news during the Phoenix protest organized by Navajos like Amanda Blackhorse (lead claimant in the Trademark case that cancelled Snyder’s Redsk*ns trademarks) and EONM’s Nicholet Deschene was Snyder’s busing in of 6 busloads of Native people from reservations and bringing the Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly and Navajo First Lady to sit next to him in $2,000 seats at the game.

As protest organizer David Glass (White Earth Band Ojibwe) said, “He is an asset in the cause but also the major cog in the wheel. At some point he needs to listen, but we have him in a place right now where he is ready to topple.”

Glass continued, “Rep. Betty McCollum pushed it at the national level with 50 senators signing on. President Obama. National Congress of American Indians, National Indian Gaming Association, all these different tribes understand why it is so offensive to us.

It will be a domino effect. It’s been a journey, not something that has developed overnight. Chief Illiniwick, Fighting Sioux, all these teams that vowed never to change their names. And now, they are okay with it. They are not only financially better—the whole wellness of the community is better. Denigrating a culture, objectifying a culture has a demoralizing effect on the whole community. After the mascot is changed, the whole community is feeling better and left wondering what the big argument was? Why we had to have such ties to something that is so hurtful to the Native community?”

Clyde Bellecourt finished our interview by sharing a dream he had about three weeks ago. In his dream, he was “walking with women and children and when we stopped by a stadium and a guy tapped me up the shoulder and showed me the bleachers. There I saw my brother, Vernon (who passed away in 2006 and helped cofound AIM and NCARSM) and Floyd Red Crow Westerman and they were smiling. And then I heard in my dream, my wife say, ‘Sundance is here!’ That’s my granddaughter’s name. When I awoke and told her about my dream my wife said, ‘You have to put the women and children up front.’ You see, it’s no longer about us and the organizing committee voted unanimously that’s what we’ll do.”

He continued, “I have a beautiful banner that shows all the beauty—it’s 16 feet long and one part shows the children, dancing and healthy, then the elders and then the dancers, and our women, children, our leaders of tomorrow. On bottom is the Washington Redsk*ns and the fans dressed up with their hogs noses (another Washington team motif that some fans combine with Redface at games) and then Chief Wahoo with the big red face and teeth from one side to the other that shows all the stereotypes and the KC Chiefs, photos of the entire team dressed up in warbonnets, and guns and loin clothes and our great chiefs names on their helmets. And the Atlanta Braves, a photo of former President Carter, Jane Fonda, and team owner Ted Turner doing the tomahawk chop. To all that we say there is ‘No Honor in Racism in Imagery.’ The women and children will be carrying that. It will fly over the stage so every one can see it and not even Snyder can deny it.”