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Red*kins 'Honor' Codetalkers—How Low Will They Go?

The Washington NFL team “honored” Navajo codetalkers during halftime of the San Francisco-Washington game (Washington lost, again, 27-6). The “honoring” is part of the franchise owner’s, Daniel Snyder’s, charm offensive that began when he hired Lanny Davis, the crisis whisperer who peddled the scenario that President Bill Clinton fell victim to the thong-snapping Monica Lewinsky and her stained blue dress.

The Red*kins’ “honoring” of Navajo codetalkers consisted of four frail veterans standing in the end zone and receiving a round of applause. Three of the four Navajo elders wore Red*kins jackets, with the new-clothes price tags still hanging at their wrists. These seniors probably thought this was another in a long line of recent recognitions of their WWII achievements some 70 years ago, rather than any implied endorsement of the team’s name.

But as soon as the Monday Night Football cameras picked up images of the veterans, a commentator began to remark on the split in Native American opinion about the team’s disparaging name.

In 21 years of litigation, the Washington franchise has not brought into court a single Native nation, organization or person to support its position. Since the three judges of the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board heard the Blackhorse et al v. Pro Football, Inc., case in March of this year, the franchise tried to palm off a man from the DC Metropolitan area as an “Aleut chief” to show that some Native supports its position. Turns out that the guy had never been to Alaska, where the Aleuts are, and must not have spoken with any to know that they don’t even have chiefs.

During the same time, the National Congress of American Indians, National Indian Education Association and all the other major national Native organizations have taken formal positions in litigation as amici curiae in support of the Native position.

The three Washington team owners we have litigated against have one main thing in common – they have been most disrespectful toward actual Native people and have attempted to discount and discredit Native people who oppose the team’s name. They engaged in name-calling against those of us who sued them and mocked those Native organizations that supported us in court proceedings.

In mid-October, I addressed the NCAI Annual Convention on the subject of “Native” stereotypes, providing an update on coalition efforts to end racial stereotyping in sports. We, collectively, have eliminated more than two-thirds of these offensive names, logos, mascots and symbols since the first fell, “Little Red” at the University of Oklahoma, in 1970. After my remarks, some two dozen delegates took to the floor mics and expressed their views. All gave updates on efforts in their areas or voiced support for the general effort. Not a single person spoke in opposition or even questioned the methods or goals.

The Washington franchise insists that its despicable name and stereotypical logo “honor” Native Peoples, citing surveys that purport to measure Native support for their brands. Native Peoples know how to measure Native opinion, by what we support or oppose though our Native organizations.

This NCAI Convention adopted a resolution reiterating its many calls for an end to the Washington team’s name and logo, and praising President Barack Obama for his thoughtful remarks and saying, if he were the owner, he’d think about changing the name. That resolution called on the Administration to take what actions they can to implement the policy direction indicated by the President. It also called for a hearing to be held on H.R. 1278, the House bill that would do legislatively what we’ve been trying to accomplish through litigation, and for a similar measure to be introduced in the Senate. And it was adopted unanimously, without opposition, by the subcommittee, full committee and Convention floor.

The Washington owner and the NFL commissioner seem to share the same myopia when it comes to seeing the difference between actual Native people and their “Indian” depictions. And they set up a false equivalence between an “Aleut chief” on the one hand and the many member nations of the NCAI on the other. Even if that pitiful “chief” really were one, he would not offset even one of the many Native organizations and real chiefs who are doing the serious work of eliminating these racist stereotypes from the sports world.

The Washington franchise is sniffing around Indian country, sending scouts before them, looking for people who might be enticed to smile upon their name and logo. They also are bargaining for little pieces of racism by exploring keeping the logo and renaming the team the “Warriors.” A lesser stereotype is still a stereotype, and would give rise to the same abhorrent painted pig faces and dyed turkey feathers as the current stereotype.

The Washington franchise’s first stop was Poarch Band, the only tribe in the country that is building a casino on another nation’s sacred place – a known ceremonial ground, burials and historical site in Wetumpka, Alabama, the last capitol of the Muscogee (Creek) Nations before forced removal to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). The franchise’s second big idea was to “honor” the four elderly veterans by having them stand in Red*kins jackets, so the money shot and story was not about their valor in war, but about supposed support for something most Native people are against. I can’t wait to see how low the franchise will go next.

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne & Hodulgee Muscogee, is an award-winning columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network and president of the Morning Star Institute.