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Thousands Protest Washington Team in Minnesota; Social Media Tells of Clashes

It’s early Sunday morning in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Tara Houska, Ojibwe, reaches into a cardboard box and pulls from it a stack of burgundy and gold T-shirts; on them, the words “RETHINK,” “RENAME” or “REPLACE” are emblazoned.

“I’ve got free T-shirts!” she yells to a crowd of protesters at the American Indian Opportunity Industrialization Center (OIC). Hundreds, each bundled in layers to stave off the cold, clamored to get one, and immediately put them on, adding another layer.

The protesters had gathered at the site to march en masse to TCF Bank Stadium – more than two miles away – where the Washington football team was slated to play the Minnesota Vikings at a facility built with a $10 million donation from Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, the largest in the university’s history. The protest was against the team name – a dictionary-defined slur – but also a call for respect, according to organizers of the protest.

About a mile away, on the University of Minnesota campus, more protesters – myself included – had gathered in preparation for a second march to the stadium. Clyde Bellecourt, the president of the Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media, gave a prayer as we smudged with sage and passed each other placards – some reading “Redskins are scalps of men, women and children,” others simply stating “Not your mascot” – as well as flags and more anti-R-word T-shirts. The night prior, Bellecourt was among roughly 30 protesters who were honored at the Minneapolis American Indian Center.

At the conclusion of Bellecourt’s prayer on Sunday, the march was on. Police and media and several hovering helicopters followed us as we periodically bellowed in harmony, “Change the name!” on the way to the stadium. A troupe of Aztec dancers, who were directly in front of Houska and I, danced the whole mile to the place. Fans of the Washington football team, clad in team gear, glared and chuckled as we approached, and then again as we passed through Tribal Nations Plaza, an area outside the stadium that honors the state’s 11 tribes.

“Jesus Christ,” a fan of the team grimly uttered as we passed through. “These people, man.”

We arrived at an open field next to the stadium. A stage had since been erected. Elected officials, including Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison were on hand to speak, so was Oneida Indian Nation Representative Ray Halbritter (the Oneida Nation has launched the “Change The Name” campaign); Amanda Blackhorse – the lead plaintiff in the case that in June stripped the team of six of its seven trademarks; revered environmental activist and Ojibwe Winona LaDuke; author Chase Iron Eyes and more than 20 other speakers. By 11 a.m., the crowd had swelled to an estimated 4,000 people – some had marched; others had arrived at the stadium later to either listen to the speakers or watch the protest unfold before heading to the game inside.

One by one speakers took to the microphone and condemned team owner Dan Snyder and his ilk for their stubbornness and blatant disregard for the history of the word, which, historically, was used in the buying and selling of Native American scalps.

“It’s important to remember the history of this word,” Halbritter said when he addressed the crowd. “This is a word screamed at our ancestors as they were dragged at gunpoint off their lands.”

Simon Moya-Smith

Protesters hold up signs against the Redskins before their game against the Minnesota Vikings in Minneapolis,MN on November 2, 2014.

Social media was ablaze with photos of the rally, accompanied with the hashtags #notyourmascot, #changethename and #nohonorinracism.

Protesters around the stage talked about how the team bus had reportedly crashed prior to Sunday’s game. None of the passengers were seriously injured, according to reports, but protesters were quick to see the accident as a sign – that it was “a message from the Creator,” one person said. Another called it “divine intervention.” It was clear the Creator was on our side, a man said. “But you know Snyder … he won’t see it that way,” he added.

It became quickly apparent that the day was already a victory even before kick-off. It was filled with gravitas and eloquence and humor and passion. Not a wiggy fan was on hand to interrupt the rally. Everyone, of course, desired to meet and take a photo with Bellecourt and Blackhorse and Halbritter and LaDuke and Houska.

As the rally wound down, a drum group took to the stage and hoop dancers took to the field. The Aztec dancers followed the hoop dancers and soon the aroma of sage no longer hung in the air. There were no arrests, according to reports, but reports of opposition appeared on social media.

Ashley Fairbanks, a graduate of the University of Minnesota, wrote on Facebook that some protesters attempted to engage in dialogue with fans of both teams, but were met with diatribes and offensive comments. “While people were watching the speakers, we had a small crew in front of the stadium actually engaging with fans,” she wrote. “So many Vikings fans yelled at us, war-whooped at us, told us to ‘go back to Washington.’ It was a draining day, but it felt good to stand in a line of strong Native people.”

Houska, who was one of organizers and a speaker at the rally, said after the march the large number of people who attended the protest is a testament to the continually growing awareness of the name’s brutal history and its piercing impact on the community.

“We achieved an incredible moment of solidarity in a decades-long movement to take back Native identity,” she said. “Thousands of indigenous peoples from numerous tribes stood together and raised our voices in a unified message: We are not mascots.”

Houska added Sunday’s protest did more to silence the pro-R-word fans and pundits who say the name is meant to honor Native Americans. “I believe the protest will further erode the arguments to keep the Washington team name. Again and again I’m told Natives don’t care about the issue; [thousands] of us marched the streets of Minneapolis to say that we do.”

Snyder said he will “NEVER” change the name and has since filed a lawsuit against Blackhorse and others arguing the U.S. Patent and Trademark Appeal board erred when it ruled against the team and called the team name “disparaging to Native Americans.” President Barack Obama, possible 2016 presidential candidate Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have appealed to Snyder to consider a name change.