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Redskins vs. Bears Today: What's in a Name?

Perhaps all of the recent anger and unrest in the world means humanity is moving towards something better. Perhaps these are birth pains pushing us towards light. The abolition of slavery, the defeat of Hitler, the Civil Rights Movement, while painful in process, brought humanity to a better place.

African-American men, women, and children struggled in the mid-century fight for civil rights here in the United States. It was a long and brutal fight fought with sticks, stones, laws, words, and names like the N-word and all the brutality it still conjures today. Some died so that future generations, this generation included, could be equal and respected. The Two-Spirit community struggled for rights of recognition and is inching away from hateful names and acts, and towards equality and the freedoms found therein. A brighter dawn breaks for them. The political world is crashing in on itself and people are seeing dysfunction. Wanting to be heard, they are raising their voices and calling for change.

Yet for Native people, the harsh reality of deep-seated racism continues to smack us in the face. Dan Snyder and the onerous name of his football team are under scrutiny. The public is questioning whether the term “redskin” is racist or not. The Native community is reminded that we are still at war, a perpetual fight to establish ourselves in this society as people deserving of respect and dignity afforded everyone else.

Every time a racist mascot (usually a white guy in red face dressed in an Indian “costume”) rears its ugly head, Natives are reminded that we are not equal; we are not respected. We will be told if something should offend us. It is arrogance in its purist form for a non-Native to tell a Native whether an image of a dancing, whooping, cartoony Indian is offensive or not. It is arrogance for a non-Native to tell a Native the word “redskin” is a great honor from the Great White Father and we should all be so pleased with their generous mercy and wisdom.

Honor doesn’t come from a football team owner. This type of “honor” we don’t want or need. Honor begins with respect. You don’t respect us because you don’t even listen to us. Having to cite polls to assert and justify racism is self-revelatory of a heart not considering the full impact of words and actions, but a heart led by a desire to entertain and exploit. So if you really wanted to honor Native people, start by respecting us. Start by educating yourself on history from our perspective. Consider our traditions, our struggles, and where WE came from and who WE are. Stop shoving the white perspective down our throats then expecting us to swallow with gratitude. How much more demeaning than to use an entire heritage of people as a sports mascot? Dan Snyder has likened all Native people, grandfathers and grandmothers, children and babies, to Pirates, Devils and Bulldogs. Maybe in hopes that we should become a footnote in history like the Vikings or 49ers.

He and the fans of his football team have 80 years of warm memories, but the last 80 years and the 200 before that have not been so kind to Native people. Consider the name Custer. White people visit Custer, South Dakota or Custer State Park and the name evokes a certain image for them. But for Native people, the name honors a cold-blooded murderer of innocent men, women and children.

Things like mascots, which may seem inconsequential to some and not worth the fight, reveal larger societal values. These are the things that stand in the way of real community, equality and respect. The societal values that declare, “We can do, say, and treat others any way we want. We can assign names however we see fit. A culture is merely something we can mock. And if anyone doesn’t like it, well there are more of us than there are of you. Get over it. We won this war!” How many times have we all heard that?

There are pejoratives to disparage any group of people, “redskin” being one of them. Insurmountable evidence exists of culture clash, large and small. Stolen lands, burning crosses, ethnic cleansings. The war Hitler fought in Europe was lost, but it was won here. Americans pride themselves on being just that, Americans. Made in America, born in the U.S.A. They fight to keep their identity, rights, language, and religion from being altered by any outsider. And yet identity is a double-edged sword that while it can instill hope and pride it can also provoke war. Identity is a solemn thing only foolish men take lightly.

We all know by now that what underlies racism is fear. It is a difficult thing to separate people from their fears. It took a civil war to end slavery. This isn’t just about a team name. This is about an ongoing act of racism, an acceptable act of racism. Not just on a national stage, but also underneath the very noses of this country’s leaders. It’s another battle in a very long war. Behind the layers of racism and fear rests the America that does not include us. Until you can recognize our sovereignty as a nation and our inalienable right to brotherhood within humanity, the very things a young America fought for, its own right to be sovereign, to be treated as an equal in humanity, to not be tread upon, until that moment you choose to be brought into the light of that better place, you limit yourselves to the position of foreigner and enemy occupier, squatting on stolen lands. This is what the Washington Redskins, and all Indian mascots, stand for.

Crystal Willcuts Cole, Mnicoujou Lakota and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe member, was born in Rapid City, South Dakota and is an artist, writer, and poet currently residing in Big Stone Gap, Virginia with her husband and two children.