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In DC, Talk of Redskins, Pigskins, and Winds of Change

Does a flurry of media support point to a turning of the tides on the Redskin team name? Recent chatter is promising: Washington, D.C.’s Mayor Vincent C. Gray recently challenged the Redskins Football Team to a conversation about the name, Representative Tom Cole has called for the name's retirement, and a Washington Post columnist sparked discussion by declaring that “bad karma” may have caused the debilitating injury of Redskin’s star player Robert Griffin III.

The Post story mocked news sources that reference football plays with historical bad taste, saying, “Whooping and hollering as RGIII goes on a 'Redskins' warpath only to leave a trail of tears when his wounded knee gets buried at FedEx Field.” Karma, indeed?

Shortly before the mayor’s announcement, the local, and somewhat alternative, the Washington City Paper, said it would no longer refer to the Washington team by name in print. The paper held a contest for a name change, and 50 percent of the voters settled happily on the Washington Pigskins, also known as the Hogs. 

According to the story, Pigskins is a name that would seem to suit everyone. The team’s songs could continue with a minor alteration, and fans could still call them the ‘Skins. It also strikes a gleeful note with activists. Richie Plass, whose traveling exhibit Bittersweet Winds portrays the development of racist imagery of Native Americans, said he would be more than happy to call the team the Hogs, the Also-Known-As name choice for the team. Readers who commented also suggested the Redskins could maintain their name if they used a potato as their mascot.

The news of the mayor’s comment and the contest spread far and wide through Facebook and Twitter, and even Rush Limbaugh announced the time for change is on the horizon. In a transcript from Limbaugh’s January 9 show, he sadly stated, “There's nothing we can do. Folks, the Redskins are gonna have to change the name of the team. That's what's gonna happen.”

While Limbaugh predicted change, he hardly endorsed it. Instead, he padded his disdain for the change with this comment, “...environmentalist wackos love Native Americans. They're on a par with blacks, having been slaughtered, genocide, and all that as far as the leftists are concerned.”

While multiple news sources, including sports blogs like Bleacher Report, may say the time has come for change, Suzan Harjo, the Grande Dame of the fight against the Redskin’s team name, is not all that excited about the fuss. “We’ve been here before many times,” she said, noting that the Washington D.C. Council of Government has long been supportive of a name change and other mayors have called for an end to the team’s name. “This mayor has called for it to be discussed, and I am very appreciative for that.”

Rob Schmidt, whose popular blog Newspaper Rock has focused on Native stereotypes for more than a decade, suspects the current burst of media support is not just a flare-up. He noted, “There seems to be at least a spark of interest on the part of the media for change. In the past, columnists might have written an occasional column that was quickly forgotten, but this time it does look like there is a groundswell of support. Stereotypes have more and more been in the news with No Doubt’s “Looking Hot” video and the recent Victoria Secret outfits. There is a rising tide of awareness. Hopefully there will be some change, and hopefully it will be sooner rather than later.”

Racist Stereotypes in American Sports Symposium at NMAI, illustration by Aaron Sechrist

An upcoming February 8 symposium on racist imagery at the National Museum of the American Indian could not be more timely. Museum Director Kevin Gover thinks that to some degree, change is in the air. “I do think there is a growing awareness and concern about the name. With the mayor calling for the name to be addressed, it is another step forward,” he said in a telephone interview on Sunday.

Gover declared that the importance of the symposium, especially now, lies in its educational factor. “The sports names and mascots are the most visible symbols of how people understand history and contemporary Native Americans,” adding that most people only get their information in grade school or from popular culture. “We are grossly stereotyped and so people cannot have an accurate idea of how Native people act and feel.”

Instead of labeling Redskin supporters as racist, Gover said, “If people can see how this developed, they can make the choice. Do you really want to support the imagery?”

While Gover believes the breakthrough has not yet happened, he has hope for the future. He said, “It’s so hard core, it’s so embedded and right now, there is a lot of money at stake. We have to keep talking about it, and educating about it. It’s going to be a while, and we will continue to shed light on the issue.”