In recent remarks, President Obama seemed to support those who argue that the football team name is offensive to Native Americans.
The German poet Christian Morgenstern once wrote that “all seagulls look as though their name were Emma.” While the ideological notion — that what one is is more important than what one is called — has held sway for centuries in conversations of equality, cultural identity and nationalism, as Morgenstern pointed out, names cast an imediate tacit impression of a person beyond first impressions. A man named Steve or Bob would be looked at differently than a man named Lindsey, Leslie or Jody. This theory, known as the Portia Hypothesis after the female character in William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” — who disguised herself as a male to appear before an all-male court — suggests that the way a person reacts to another person depends on the explicit clues presented, such as style of dress, method of moving and the person’s name.
In other words, the way one labels a thing determines the way someone else sees the thing.
This is being seen with the Washington Redskins. Despite decades of bad press, lawsuits, boycotts and discrimination claims, the owner of the National Football League team, Dan Snyder, refuses to budge on changing the name. This is despite the fact that the term “redskin” can be seen as derogatory to Native Americans.
“We’ll never change the name,” Snyder told USA Today in May, in response to ten members of Congress calling for a name change. “It’s that simple. NEVER. You can use caps.”
The team’s defense of its name has cost the franchise plenty — it’s effectively banned from building a stadium in the District of Columbia until a name change has been enacted.
“The current Chairman and Chief of the Penobscot Nation, Chief Kirk Francis, recently stated in a joint statement that the [R-word] is ‘not just a racial slur or a derogatory term,’ but a painful ‘reminder of one of the most gruesome acts of … ethnic cleansing ever committed against the Penobscot people,’” the members of Congress wrote to Snyder. “The hunting and killing of Penobscot Indians like animals, as declared by Chief Francis, was ‘a most despicable and disgraceful act of genocide.’
“In this day and age, it is imperative that you uphold your moral responsibility to disavow the usage of racial slurs. The usage of the [R-word] is especially harmful to Native American youth, tending to lower their sense of dignity and self-esteem. It also diminishes feelings of community worth among the Native American tribes and dampens the aspirations of their people.”
In March, the Non-Disparagement of Native American Persons or Peoples in Trademark Registration Act of 2013 was introduced in the House, which would invalidate any trademarks that use the term “redskin” or any other disparaging terms to Native Americans. While no one knows for sure where the term “redskin” came from, historians are split between if it referred to the red ochre and red face paints some tribes used to decorate their skin — such as the Beothuk of Newfoundland — or if was colloquialism for scalps, which were taken from Penobscot Indians in 1755 under the Phips Proclamation of King George II.
That proclamation ordered “His Majesty’s subjects to Embrace all opportunities of pursuing, captivating, killing and Destroying all and every of the aforesaid Indians.”
On Saturday, President Obama — an avid sports fan — weighed into the conversation. “If I were the owner of the team and I knew that there was a name of my team — even if it had a storied history — that was offending a sizable group of people, I’d think about changing it,” Obama told the Associated Press. The president recognized that the team did not mean to offend with the name and that there is team pride and tradition associated with the brand. However, he added, “I don’t know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real, legitimate concerns that people have about these things.”
The Redskins are not the only sports team in America to derive its name from Native Americans. While some tribes have licensed their names or granted use permissions to various teams — such as the Central Michigan University Chippewa and the Florida State University Seminoles — other teams, such as the Kansas City Chiefs, the Atlanta Braves, the Cleveland Indians, the Chicago Blackhawks, the Utah Utes and the San Diego State Aztecs, all use Native American references in their logos and team names.
This practice tends to be cantankerous, regardless of what side one is arguing from. A 2002 Sports Illustrated article found that 83 percent of all American Indian respondents to a poll reported that Indian imaginary, names or symbology should not be used in professional team names.
Rep. Betty McCollum (DFL-Minn.), co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus, called the use of the Redskins name “exploitation perpetrated for profit by the NFL and Dan Snyder’s football business.”
“Mr. Snyder, change the mascot. End this ugly history and tradition of your team’s racial slur. Pick a new mascot. Pick one that offends no one, hurts no one, dehumanizes no one. It is time to put dignity and respect for native American people ahead of your profits,” McCollum said.
At a symposium held in Washington on Monday over the issue of the contentious name, Oneida Nation of New York Representative Ray Halbritter expressed the significance of this issue. “As the first sitting president to speak out against the Washington team name, President Obama’s comments over the weekend were nothing less than historic,” Halbritter said. “Isn’t that the real issue? No matter what the history of something is, if it’s offending people, then it’s time to change it. And this is a great time to do it.
“Washington’s continued use of the current team name is not just a slur against one group of people, it has demonstrable and serious public policy cultural educational, public health ramifications for our entire country.”
The psychology of a name
Michael Friedman, a clinical psychologist, called Snyder’s refusal to consider calls for a name change “textbook bullying.” “Experimental study after experimental study shows that if you bring a Native American person into an experimental situation and you show them an image of a Native American mascot, their self-esteem goes down, their faith in their community goes down, their feeling that they can achieve goes down,” Friedman said.
Those who defend the use of the name argue that without the intention to insult or disparage, the name cannot be construed as offensive. Lanny Davis, attorney for the Washington Redskins, takes issue with Friedman’s assessment: “I ask him, since there’s no intent to disparage or disrespect — and I certainly respect those, and am sorry for those, who are offended — why is he selecting the Washington Redskins? Does he see the Tomahawk Chop of the Atlanta Braves fans? They’re doing that not out of disrespect. They love the Atlanta Braves.”
“As a supporter of President Obama, I am sure the President is not aware that in the highly respected independent Annenberg Institute poll (taken in 2004) with a national sample of Native Americans, 9 out of 10 Native Americans said they were not bothered by the name the ‘Washington Redskins.'” Davis said later in a statement received by CBS News. “The President made these comments to the Associated Press, but he was apparently unaware that an April 2013 AP poll showed that 8 out of 10 of all Americans in a national sample don’t think the Washington Redskins’ name should be changed.
“The Redskins respect everyone. But like devoted fans of the Atlanta Braves, the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago Blackhawks (from President Obama’s hometown), the fans love their team and its name and, like those fans, they do not intend to disparage or disrespect a racial or ethnic group,” Davis continued. “The name ‘Washington Redskins’ is 80 years old — its history and legacy and tradition. The Redskins’ fans sing ‘Hail to the Redskins’ every Sunday as an expression of honor, not disparagement.”
This begs an important question: when a person sees an Indian mascot, does he see the long, storied history of the franchise, or does he see the Native American? Ultimately, a business owner has the right to name his business as he or she chooses, and a consumer has the right to not utilize that service if he or she is offended. But in situations where the consumer cannot easily turn away — such as with a team in a sporting league or a television program — must the business owner adhere to the considerations of the minority, even if it contradicts the wishes of the majority?
“I think what we have to do though is we have to listen. If one person’s offended, we have to listen,” said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. “And ultimately, it is Dan’s decision. But it is something that I want all of us to go out and make sure we’re listening to our fans, listening to people who have a different view, and making sure that we continue to do what’s right to make sure that team represents the strong tradition that it has for so many years.”