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Washington’s football luck won’t change until the team’s mascot does

Some people just don’t realize how destructive, stereotypical and painful these logos are

Another luckless Sunday for Washington’s NFL team — but not without a glimmer of hope.

On Nov. 18, with D.C. down 20-14 to the Houston Texans and just over 12 minutes left, second-string quarterback Colt McCoy — filling in for Alex Smith, who suffered a gruesome, season-ending compound fracture in the third quarter — cocked back the football as if to throw, slipped beneath a tackler and scrambled to the right for a 14-yard gain before being pushed out of bounds at the 8-yard line. McCoy’s rush put Washington within striking distance of the Houston end zone and the lead. From there it was easy: On the ensuing play, running back Adrian Peterson bounded left around the Texans’ defense for the touchdown.

Beer-gripping fans gave each other high-fives. Across the way, a guy sporting a headdress jumped out of his seat. One dude spun around to direct an in-your-face smirk at a nearby Texans supporter. Washington kicked the extra point to settle the score at 21-20, and the stadium broke out into the team’s 80-year-old fight song:

“Hail to the Redskins

Hail Victory

Braves on the warpath

Fight for old D.C.!”

Flag-bearers waving the “HTTR” insignia sprinted across the field, crisscrossing at the 50-yard line above the team’s umber Buffalo nickel-styled Indian head logo. From nosebleed seats, I watched the crimson and yellow masses below belt out their chant one more time, brown head and long braid stuffed into a hoodie to conceal my otherwise too-apparent racial identity.

mascots are disappearing, but not fast enough

Native American mascots are slowly disappearing from sports, but Washington’s football team might be the last to change. That’s painful to stomach in November 2018, Native American Heritage Month.

For more than 50 years, Native-led campaigns have removed more than 2,000 “Indian” references from teams, accounting for two-thirds of the racial references once ubiquitous in American sports culture. The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), more or less the indigenous equivalent to the NAACP, counts fewer than 1,000 Native mascots in the United States today. Since the civil rights era, no professional teams have adopted racially stereotyped names or emblems. In 2005, the NCAA established its own policy and program to remove Native mascots from college sports. And just last week, Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians unveiled new uniforms that will, for the first time in 70 years, not use the red-faced, hook-nosed, wide-grinned “Chief Wahoo” logo.

For many Native Americans, this marks a welcome, if not glacial, sea change in popular culture. Representation has deep impact on our psychology and society. American Indians — who constitute just 1.5 percent of the population, with more than a third living on isolated reservations — are largely absent from mainstream media. This invisibility makes the few prevalent portrayals of Native people, such as team names and mascots, all the more powerful. Peer-reviewed studies have shown that these depictions are detrimental to the mental health of Native youth, who demonstrate a lower sense of self- and community worth and express a more pessimistic outlook on their own opportunities for achievement after exposure to these images. And among non-Native people, Indian mascots strengthen prevailing biases.

“If people can call us bad things in public, they can do anything to us,” said Suzan Shown Harjo of the Cheyenne and Muskogee tribes.

These impacts are particularly troubling for Native communities long suffering from the intergenerational psychological wounds inflicted by the violence of conquest, abuse in government-run boarding schools and everyday life in some of the poorest communities with the weakest infrastructure in the country. Native Americans have the highest suicide rate of any racial group, and Native youth ages 11-19 use alcohol more often than their non-Native peers. Native people, and particularly Native women, live with an escalated risk of physical and sexual violence. A 2016 Department of Justice study showed that 56 percent of Native women surveyed have experienced or are experiencing sexual violence and that the perpetrators of 90 percent of these abusive acts are non-Indian.

“If people can call us bad things in public, they can do anything to us,” explained Suzan Shown Harjo of the Cheyenne and Muscogee tribes, who is president of the Morning Star Institute and former president of NCAI. Harjo, who is also a noted writer, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2014. After the Redskins last won the Super Bowl in 1992, she filed a lawsuit to revoke the trademark for the team’s name.

The term “redskin,” according to Harjo and many historians and linguists, is a racial slur referencing Native American skin color and — here is the more troubling claim — the bloody scalps of Native people taken as bounty by vigilantes, soldiers and militiamen. Racial violence against Native people was widespread throughout American history. In 1863, for example, the Daily Republican in Winona, Minnesota, featured this announcement: “The State reward for dead Indians has been increased to $200 for every red-skin sent to Purgatory. This sum is more than the dead bodies of all the Indians east of the Red River are worth.”

The following year at Sand Creek in Colorado, a Union regiment massacred a peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho village of mostly women and children — some of Harjo’s ancestors among them. The soldiers marched the mutilated body parts of the deceased back to Denver, where they were displayed as war trophies in theaters and exhibition halls. Remains were examined to assess and improve the effectiveness of the weapons that killed these people. They were also used in experiments designed to “prove” the scientific inferiority of indigenous people.

For this reason, Yohance Maqubela, the son of late civil rights activist Dick Gregory, considers the name “Redskins” roughly analogous to “Strange Fruit.” Harjo has a similar perspective: “We are talking about the most nightmarish stuff in the background of every single Native person,” she said. “And we see that those kinds of attitudes are reflections of past actions, but they’re also prescient — they’re indicators of possible future actions.”

Convinced by Harjo’s argument, the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board canceled the Redskins’s trademark in 2014. And around the same time, Obama encouraged the Washington football team to change its name.

But in 2016, The Washington Post released a poll claiming that 9 in 10 Native Americans did not find the name offensive. (The poll is still often criticized by Native activists.) In 2017, the Supreme Court ruled in an unrelated case that the law against disparagement in trademarks violated the First Amendment, making Harjo’s legal claim moot. Momentum died. Activists went back to the drawing board.

Before the Texans game, the Redskins held an on-field ceremony to honor members of the Blackfeet Nation whose ancestor, Chief Two Guns White Calf, served as the model for the team logo.

A younger generation is taking the campaign in new directions, with digital tactics and a renewed commitment to building coalitions with key constituencies such as athletes, fans and local black communities to pressure Washington team owner Dan Snyder and his sponsors.

Last year, a group of millennial activists organized a “culture jam,” putting out fake press releases, websites and logos suggesting that the team had changed its name to “Redhawks.”

“A culture jam is using something that’s familiar in our culture, oftentimes a logo or a brand, and kind of hijacking it to deliver a message,” explained Rebecca Nagle of the Cherokee Nation, who ran the action. Reports went viral, forcing Snyder and the team to respond. “It proposed a solution,” Nagle said. “Oftentimes we get stuck in this dead-end, but changing the name is not that big of a deal.”

So far, 2018 has been a quiet year for the change-the-name campaign, with activists spread thin and focused elsewhere. As public pressure subsides, Snyder and the team have mounted an aggressive public relations campaign to reframe the team’s name as honorific. Before the Texans game, the Redskins held an on-field ceremony to honor members of the Blackfeet Nation, whose ancestor, Chief Two Guns White Calf, served as the model for the team logo.

“Bruh.. they got Native Americans out here doing some heritage stuff,” an attendee with the handle @_TheSalesman tweeted from the scene.

People still don’t know or care

Since Harjo filed her lawsuit, the team’s name has not been changed — but neither has its fortunes. The 1991-92 season was the last time the Redskins made it to the Super Bowl.

And on Nov. 18, in a game with playoff implications, Washington couldn’t beat the Texans, who drove the ball deep into their territory multiple times and kicked a field goal to retake the lead, 23-21.

In the final minute of the game, McCoy led Washington on a stunted 20-yard drive just past the Indian head logo at the 50-yard line. With eight seconds left, Washington attempted a hopelessly long 63-yard field goal — Dustin Hopkins’ kick sailed through the air but landed far shy of its mark, rolling to a feeble halt in the end zone atop the first “s” in “Redskins.”

Back in the district, I caught a ride with Barbara Johnson, a 46-year-old fan and Lyft driver from a four-generation black family in Washington, D.C. Johnson grew up five minutes from the team’s old RFK Stadium and has been a Redskins supporter all her life.

She didn’t realize the team’s name was offensive until, a few years ago, one of her passengers, an elderly Native woman, explained the origin of the term.

“Think about somebody taking your family member after they were killed and they want a nice burial for them, but they decide to peel the skin of their head off and just mock their family with it,” Johnson said. “The Native Americans were here first. They’re due their respect.”

Johnson’s daughters stopped cheering for the Redskins because of the team’s troubling record on race — Washington was also the last NFL team to integrate. Now they cheer for the Dallas Cowboys, and Johnson is considering switching allegiances. She believes Washington’s luck won’t change until the team does what in her view is the right and respectful thing.

“Maybe we can get this name change,” she said as she dropped me off in my Northwest D.C. neighborhood. “That would be nice.”

Julian Brave NoiseCat is a correspondent for Real America with Jorge Ramos, contributing editor at Canadian Geographic and freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, The Paris Review and many other publications. A proud member of the Canim Lake Band Tsq'escen, he resides in Washington, D.C.