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Indian Country Today

Change is possible.

The Washington NFL Team released its new name, the Commanders, after decades of conversations, protests, written letters, and media appearances from Indigenous peoples telling owners that the previous name was (and still is) a racial slur. Sponsorship pressure was the last straw.

The new name unveiled Wednesday comes 18 months after the franchise dropped its old nickname.

In July 2020, Carla Fredericks, now the president of the Christensen Fund, told Indian Country Today how the fight had shifted to corporate boardrooms in the push to change the name.

A group of 88 investors representing over $620 billion in assets sent letters to Nike, FedEx and Pepsi that called on the companies to terminate their business and public relationships with the Washington team. As the publication Adweek put it: “Institutional investors are concerned about brands’ actions that go against their stated commitments on diversity and inclusion.” Thus, there is no logical path for a Nike Company to run a campaign supporting Colin Kaeperneck and yet support the Washington franchise. A second point made by Adweek said: “History has shown there’s a risk for companies that don’t pay attention to social pressure.

“The campaign with FedEx has been going on for more than a decade now,” said Fredericks at the time. She is a citizen of Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, and was director of the American Indian Law Clinic at the University of Colorado Law School as well as director of First Peoples Worldwide at the university. “Folks who have been at the center of the larger campaign have always been part of the dialogue with FedEx, including Suzan Harjo. We have been pressing corporate sponsors of the Washington team for a long time, especially when it became clear that other avenues might not be successful.”

Now the Commanders

IllumiNative, an Indigenous advocacy organization, sees this as a victory and as an opportunity for the team to repair and build trust with Indigenous peoples because the team “still bears responsibility for the racism and harm they caused Native peoples.”

“Today we celebrate a pivotal moment decades in the making but also recognize the costs that came with this victory. The Washington Football Team, now known as The Commanders, are the latest example that teams can make the decision to end a racist practice that has plagued professional sports,” said Crystal Echo Hawk, founder and executive director of IllumiNative. “While changing the name is a first step, the team must still set a path for healing and reconciliation with the Native activists, like Suzan Harjo, Amanda Blackhorse, and countless others, who were personally targeted by the team and their fans, as well as with the Native community.”

Suzan Shown Harjo, who is Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, called the change “an amazing and a giant step in the maturation of America.” The 76-year-old Harjo has been advocating for sports teams to drop Native imagery and mascots since the 1960s.

“That’s sort of our place in the world, Native people’s place in the world, to help the rest of the country come to grips with its past and to understand how to move on,” she said. "And, I hope, how to do it with grace.”

Watch: Holly Cook Macarro reflects on the efforts made by Indigenous activists to change the name. 

While Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Guardians have changed their name, the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks and baseball’s Atlanta Braves have said they are not planning to make a change.

“Native mascots are inaccurate and stereotypical depictions of Native culture,” Echo Hawk, Pawnee, said in a statement. "They do not honor or celebrate Native peoples but are rather a tool of white supremacy created to dehumanize and objectify us. Research has shown time after time that Native mascots lead to lowered self-esteem and self-worth, and increases rates of depression, self-harm, and violence against Native youth.

“The Washington Commanders are proof that ending the use of Native American imagery in sports is possible. The Cleveland Guardians are further proof.”

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Research has shown that stereotypical depictions of Native Americans leads to low self-esteem, low community worth, increased negative feelings of stress and depression in Native youth.

The organization committed to avoiding Native American imagery in its rebrand after being called the Washington Football Team the past two seasons.

"As an organization, we are excited to rally and rise together as one under our new identity while paying homage to our local roots and what it means to represent the nation's capital," owner Dan Snyder said. "As we kick off our 90th season, it is important for our organization and fans to pay tribute to our past traditions, history, legacy and the greats that came before us. We continue to honor and represent the Burgundy and Gold while forging a pathway to a new era in Washington."

(Related: Study finds only harmful effects from Native-themed mascots)

Washington joins Major League Baseball's Cleveland Guardians among North American major professional sports teams abandoning names stereotyping Native Americans. The NFL's Kansas City Chiefs, NHL's Chicago Blackhawks and baseball's Atlanta Braves have said they are not planning to make a similar change.

From 1932 until two seasons ago, Washington had used the old nickname, which, again, is a racial slur.

As the Commanders, Washington keeps the same burgundy and gold colors that were around for the three Super Bowl championships in the 1980s and early '90s glory days. It follows the desire of team president Jason Wright and coach Ron Rivera for the new name to have a connection to the U.S. military.

Commanders was chosen over other finalists such as Red Hogs, Admirals and Presidents. Red Wolves, an initial fan favorite, was ruled out earlier in the process because of copyright and trademark hurdles.

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(Related: Washington NFL team kicks out R-word)

Holly Cook Macarro, a political contributor to ICT, said that while it’s a victorious day for a lot of Indigenous advocates who wanted the change there should also be some criticism and acknowledgement from the team for Dan Snyder’s attitude since the movement began.

“I do think that there should be a recognition by the team of that behavior and of those who were really on the front lines and took a lot of that heat,” she said.

The rebranding process had been going on since the summer of 2020, when team officials opted for the temporary Washington Football Team name that lingered into the 2021 season.

National Congress of American Indians President Fawn Sharp said in a statement, "Without an apology, without any measure of accountability, and without fulfilling the honored commitments they made to Tribal Nations in 2020 to right this wrong, the NFL and Snyder are simply 'Commanding' a continued course of open, intentional and profit-driven racism and erasure." 

The change comes amid the organization's latest controversy: dozens of former employees describing a toxic workplace culture, which caused Snyder to commission an investigation that was taken over by the NFL. After the investigation by attorney Beth Wilkinson's firm, the league fined Washington $10 million and Snyder temporarily ceded day-to-day operations of the team to his wife, Tanya, while he focused on a new stadium agreement.

The league did not release a written report of Wilkinson's findings, a move that sparked criticism. The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform is holding a roundtable discussion Thursday with a handful of former team employees to discuss their experiences.

Getting a stadium deal done is next on the agenda for Snyder and his front office. The team's lease at FedEx Field expires after the 2027 season and momentum is building for an agreement in Virginia, though sites in Maryland and the District of Columbia are still under consideration.

“I think that was really probably what got us across the finish line. A along with the data and the arguments,” Macarro said. 

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.