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Daniel Snyder's ‘Gifts’ to Natives Undermine and Corrupt

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Last week the Chairwoman of my tribe, Gari Pikyavit Lafferty, was removed from office by our tribal council for accepting personal gifts from Dan Snyder’s Original Americans Foundation (whose own name betrays the courage of Snyder’s convictions). Watching the Chairwoman’s slow-motion implosion, interacting with her supporters and detractors, and reflecting on my own strong feelings over what she did has left me feeling angry, divided and a little less hopeful. I can tell her supporters feel the same.

This is exactly why Snyder’s foundation exists.

It exists to zoom-in and highlight the divisions within our communities and to remove the joy from the small things that bring us together. It does its work by forcing people to make a choice between their dignity and temporary relief from the trappings of poverty. In doing so it preys upon people’s biggest weaknesses and worst fears, turns communities against each other, and even turns cousin against cousin.

I’m struck by the layered cynicism of Snyder’s philanthropic enterprise. The first layer is an assumption about non-Native people – that by creating a foundation in the midst of crisis one can hand-wave the negative press away. That argument goes like this: “The Redskins couldn’t possibly be a racist name – look at all the good work they do in Indian country.” This is probably enough to boost the confidence of some name supporters whose resolve is flagging. No need to examine exactly what the foundation does – its existence is proof enough. This is philanthropy as a public relations response to crisis management, which is another way of saying it’s not philanthropy at all. I work in the non-profit world, and have met with donors big and small and the literal heart of a philanthropist is a love of humanity and the desire to grow people. Philanthropy in Indian country is real and it isn’t found in the heart of a man who finds “pride, courage and intelligence” in the social equivalent of a fraternity blackface party.

The second layer of cynicism concerns all of our communities. Snyder started his enterprise by submitting a survey across Indian country asking what tribes needed. It’s clear now that Snyder was talking about things. He didn’t ask for it, but here is my answer to that survey question: We need better schools and better school leaders. We need more Native men and women with college and professional degrees. We need counselors to help our children understand why suicide isn’t an answer. We need police to stop murdering our men in the street. We need to end the food deserts that make poor health a destiny. We need shelter and protection for our battered women and education for our men who learned that beating someone is the way to get them to love you. We need our Native children everywhere to be affirmed and celebrated not mocked and stung by a silent, invisible racism. We need non-Native people to care about the disasters happening all around them.

Snyder’s foundation only offers things. And long after that sponsored rodeo is over, that playground falls into disrepair or those passenger vans break down, the truth is that you’ll still be poor, and Snyder will have gotten what he wanted: the veneer of support from some in Indian country, the satisfaction of distracting his own supporters, the opportunity to move on with his life and give his fans the blessing to do this.

The last layer of Snyder’s cynicism is based around the individual and was on full display with the way his foundation worked with Chairwoman Lafferty. It is the implicit assumption that lots of Native people are willing to sacrifice their personal integrity in order to lend support to their cause. It comes as no surprise then, that the people most willing to be the public face of his campaign to build support tend to be people who have demonstrated little need toworryaboutpersonalintegrity. Chairwoman Lafferty was just one of a long string of people willing to make that deal. Thankfully, Snyder’s poor management skill and lack of competence in sourcing talent has once again hampered his side’s ability to be effective.

I’m doing my best to follow the advice of this editorial. To re-focus my own frustration not at the tribal leaders forced to make impossible choices, but at the foundation for its cynical gambits. Dan Snyder and O.A.F. are about dividing and preying on people they perceive to be weak. They do this because in part they don’t really know any other way to operate but also because they don’t actually care about Native people or the outcomes we face. They do it because change is hard – both within and throughout. Why change when you can buy what you think you need and not have to do the hard and truly proud, courageous and intelligent thing?

That is the most cynical part of it all.

Phil Gover is Paiute, Pawnee and Comanche, he is enrolled at the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah. He and four others are being sued in Federal court by Dan Snyder and the NFL for successfully petitioning the cancellation of the Washington football team's trademarks. He currently lives in Oklahoma.