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The Redskins, America and Political Accountability

December 9, 2013

Rachel Fazio ’14

The names of sports teams have long been a source of pride, spirit, and even a way for the country to unite as a whole. But what happens when the name of a beloved sports team, rooted in the nation’s capital, is causes Native Americans to step forward and voice their anger?  The Native American community has largely been oppressed and silenced throughout US history, beginning with colonization. When 104 settlers arrived in America it changed the lives of millions of Native Americans. This group of people has since faced racism, oppression, and violence which would continue for generations. Today American Indians are calling for a stop to the racism toward an entire ethnic group. “Our heritage, our culture, traditions and skin color are all being taunted” Charlene Teters, a Native American activist says. “If you saw a caricature of an African American you would be appalled. Yet the same type of horror is not expressed when one hears the name redskins or look upon other mascots or names of equally harmful or derogatory natures” says Teters.  

President Obama, self-proclaimed sports fan, has publicly said that if he were the owner of the Redskins he would “seriously consider changing their name”. This lack of conviction from the leader of the United States provoked a heated debate among politicians across the nation, but even more notable are the reactions from people on both sides of the argument. “If they change the Redskin’s name, I won’t be a fan anymore,” John Meccner proclaimed at a rally held before a Redskins game to promote keeping the name and all of the branding that accompanies it. Similarly, many Americans share a sense of bewilderment and confusion over the movement and the pressures to change sports teams’ names. Although over eighty percent of Native Americans support changing the name of the Redskins, as well as offensive names of other teams across the country, only twenty-three percent of Americans agree. Perhaps the confusion, or want of desire to change the name, stems from a lack of understanding and historical context.

There are so many misconceptions about Native Americans that continue to perpetrate in present day society. Many Americans believe that Native American’s do not pay taxes, do not follow United States laws, have been adequately repatriated for their losses, and have been largely accepted into mainstream society. Would we ever use other racist slurs as the name of a sports team? No we would not. The outcry would be widespread, and justifiably so. “Maybe the name didn’t start out to be derogatory or hurtful. But that’s what it’s doing now. Isn’t that enough reason to change it?” Teters asked at a rally in 2012. The Native American population has been subjected to racism and oppression, and deserves the right to not have to experience such racism on a day to day basis.

The film In Whose Honor was created by Native American activists who wanted to speak out against racism and appeal to the US government to advocate for changing the name. The film illustrates how it is still acceptable in American society to be racist toward Native Americans. The stereotyping, and subsequent capitalization in the wake of it, has been described by the Native American community as “appalling and unjust”.Only time will tell how this controversy will resolve itself, but maybe both sides need to closely examine how a name can be so much more than a name, and how what we call our sports team is a larger reflection of American society and identity as a whole.

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