Washington Redskins: Time for a Name Change?

July 13, 2014

In two readings and a media analysis exercise, students examine the campaign to change the Washington Redskins’ name and to end the use of stereotypical depictions of Native Americans in U.S. sports. 

To the Teacher:

The movement to change the name of the Washington Redskins football team is gaining ground. In May 2014, 50 United States senators co-signed letters to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell urging him to change the name of the Washington Redskins football team. And in June, the United States Patent and Trademark Office canceled the trademark registrations for the team, ruling that the name is "disparaging to Native Americans." These actions come after many years of advocacy by the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and its #NotYourMascot campaign to change the name of this D.C. team.
 
This lesson examines the campaign to change the Washington Redskins' name and to end the use of stereotypical depictions of Native Americans in U.S. sports. It consists of two readings and a media analysis exercise. The first reading examines how advocates for changing the Redskins' team name have been gaining ground. The second reading looks at the broader history of how Native American culture has been appropriated and misappropriated by the wider U.S. culture, and how anti-racist campaigners have challenged stereotypical depictions. Questions for discussion follow each reading.
 
Following the readings, a media analysis exercise asks students to critically evaluate an advocacy video and to think about how they might construct their own media campaign.
 


 

 Student Reading 1:
The "Not Your Mascot" Campaign 

The movement to change the name of the Washington, D.C., Redskins football team is gaining ground. In May 2014, 50 United States senators co-signed letters to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell urging him to change the name of the Washington Redskins football team. For many years, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and its #NotYourMascot campaign has advocated and organized for changing the name of the team.
 
The letter that most of the 50 senators signed was posted on the website of Senator Maria Cantwell. It argued that "racism and bigotry have no place in professional sports." It went on to say:
 

It's time for the NFL to endorse a name change for the Washington, D.C. football team...
 
Professional sports have tremendous power to influence American society and strengthen our communities. From Jesse Owens to Jackie Robinson to Billie Jean King, athletes have often been a driving force for equality and diversity in our nation.
 
Now is the time for the NFL to act. The Washington, D.C. football team is on the wrong side of history. What message does it send to punish slurs against African Americans while endorsing slurs against Native Americans?
 
This is a matter of tribal sovereignty—and Indian Country has spoken clearly on this issue. To this point, we have heard from every nation Tribal organization, including the National Congress of American Indians, United South and Eastern Tribes, and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians. These organizations represent more than 2 million Native Americans across the country and more than 300 Tribes with government-to-government relationships with the United States. These organizations have passed resolutions in support of a name change as they find the Washington, D.C. football team name to be racially offensive...
 
At the heart of sovereignty for tribes is their identity. Tribes have worked for generations to preserve the right to speak their languages and perform their sacred ceremonies... Yet every Sunday during football season, the Washington, D.C. football team mocks their culture.
 
The NFL can no longer ignore this and perpetuate the use of this name as anything but what it is: a racial slur. We urge the NFL to formally support and push for a name change for the Washington football team.

 
A month later, on June 18, 2014, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceled the trademark registrations for the Washington Redskins, ruling that the name is "disparaging to Native Americans." As Think Progress reporter Travis Waldron explained:
 

The U.S. PTO's Trademark Trial and Appeal Board issued a ruling in the case, brought against the team by plaintiff Amanda Blackhorse, Wednesday morning. 

"We decide, based on the evidence properly before us, that these registrations must be cancelled because they were disparaging to Native Americans at the respective times they were registered," the board wrote in its opinion...
 
"The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board agreed with our clients that the team's name and trademarks disparage Native Americans. The Board ruled that the Trademark Office should never have registered these trademarks in the first place," Jesse Witten, the plaintiffs' lead attorney, said in a press release. "We presented a wide variety of evidence - including dictionary definitions and other reference works, newspaper clippings, movie clips, scholarly articles, expert linguist testimony, and evidence of the historic opposition by Native American groups - to demonstrate that the word ‘redskin' is an ethnic slur." ... 

The team will almost certainly appeal the case, and it will be able to keep its trademark protection during appeal. Losing the trademark would not force the team to change its name, but it would allow anyone who wanted to use "Redskins" on merchandise or through other means to do so, which could cost the team—and, because of the NFL's revenue-sharing model, other NFL teams—"every imaginable loss you can think of," as the team's lawyers argued in the original case. For that reason, the trademark has long been thought of by opponents of the team's name as the easiest avenue to changing it. 

In response to the May letters from the senators, Redskins' President Bruce Allen argued that his team's name was "respectful" toward Native Americans. He cited the team's 81-year tradition and noted that some Native Americans do not find the team name offensive. Redskins' owner Daniel Snyder further vowed that he would never change the team name. 
 
Native American activists who disagree with Allen and Snyder argue that the team's name and mascot image are outdated and racist caricatures of their heritage. As Native American writer Simon Moya-Smith wrote in an opinion piece for CNN on May 19, 2014: 

As social media and the web continue to grow exponentially, so too do the voice and face of Native America. The National Congress of American Indians has just launched yet another campaign to put our faces and those of our allies in the public eye.
 
NCAI's hashtag, #ProudToBe, is a video and photo campaign that uses the web and demonstrates that we are more than a costume. We are more than a mascot. In fact, the second half of the campaign against the dehumanization of Native Americans in the form of sports mascots is aptly called "#NotYourMascot." And many of this nation's leaders have joined in the growing chorus of conscientious objectors who see Indian mascots for what they are: racist.
 
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Sen. Maria Cantwell, and Washington, D.C., Councilman David Grosso have each been photographed holding signs that read "#ProudToBe Standing With #NotYourMascot." And, according to the folks at the National Congress of American Indians, more photos continue to stream in.
 
Grosso, who's a Washington Redskins season ticket holder, recently told me he predicts the team name will, in fact, be abolished in the next five years.
 
"Ultimately we're going to have to right this wrong," he said. "The word 'redskins' has never been used in a positive way. It's been a racist and a derogatory term since forever."
 
Sen. Reid told me: "The degrading team name inflicts pain on Native American populations. The name is going to change; it's only a question of when. The NFL and Dan Snyder have to realize they are on the losing side of history."
 
Several days ago, I was asked: "Why are you picking on the Redskins? What about the Cleveland Indians or the Atlanta Braves?"
 
First, the term "redskins" is a pejorative, a racial slur... The term "Indian" isn't a racial slur, even though it's incorrect; and neither are the terms "brave" or "warrior."
 
But that's missing the point.
 
When the status of a Native American is demoted to that of a caricature, we are objectified and diminished as a people. We become entertainment, not fellow citizens. How are you supposed to take me seriously if all you see is the stereotypical image of the Hollywood or sports mascot Indian?
 

Like Moya-Smith, many supporters of the name change argue that it is an unavoidable reality, reflecting modern views on race and representation. They believe that opponents are fighting against the tide of history, and they hope that the change comes sooner rather than later.
 
 
For Discussion:
 

  1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?
  2. What arguments do advocates of changing the Washington Redskins' team name make in support of their position?
  3. What reasons did the team's president, Bruce Allen, give for maintaining the current team name?
  4. Which of these arguments do you find most compelling?.
  5. How might the recent decision from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office affect this debate?

 
 


 

 Student Reading 2:
"Playing Indian" in American History

 
The effort to change the Washington Redskins' team name is part of a much wider struggle to challenge stereotypical depictions of Native Americans in U.S. culture. The idea of naming sports teams after Native Americans is part of a long tradition of "playing Indian" that has appeared throughout American history, from the Boston Tea Party to Wild West shows and beyond. As author Carol Spindel writes in an August 9, 2005 article for Inside Higher Ed:
 

When Americans flocked to Wild West shows, they believed they were seeing the last vestiges of a dying [Native American] culture. It was true that Native populations were declining. But this idea, that American Indians would disappear like dinosaurs, became so embedded in American mythology that even today many non-Native Americans are startled to encounter a flesh and blood Native person. Boy Scouts were told it was their patriotic duty to learn Indian songs and dances lest they be lost forever. Thrilled by the Wild West performances, college boys and Boy Scouts emulated the showbiz Indians when they created Indian sports mascots, many of which date from the 1920s.

  
Over time, people have increasingly challenged nicknames that have been misappropriated from Native American culture. In recent years several K-12 schools across the country, as well as  colleges, including the University of South Dakota and the University of Illinois, have stopped  using Native American mascots. As an April article on CNN.com noted, "There used to be more than 3,000 teams with Native American names and mascots. That's down to about 900 now." 
 
Many of those who defend using names like the "Redskins" have no desire to be hurtful or racist. Most are just proud of  their city and team. They may have grown up going to their team's games, and have positive associations with the name.
 
Nevertheless, advocates and scholars alike note the real negative consequences of stereotyping  Native Americans. As assistant director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities Jennifer Guiliano writes in an August 20, 2013, article for The Society Pages

In case studies, [sociologist Stephanie] Fryberg reveals that, regardless of the conditions of their creations and use (that is, whether it's the Haskell University mascot, which was created by Indians, or another mascot created and used by a predominantly white university), representations of Indian mascots lead Native participants to express depressed self-esteem, among other psychological costs. At the University of North Dakota, where the team was called the "Fighting Sioux" until a 2012 state vote, Gonzalez showed that Native students were "more likely targets of racial prejudice and potential discrimination," and LaRoque found that daily exposure to the "Fighting Sioux" logo led Native students to have higher levels of negative affect and psychological distress. Why, you might ask, aren't the schools happy to simply change their team name to something more benign, like Minnesota's "Golden Gophers" or Houston's "Oilers"?

The ongoing battle against racist stereotypes does not only concern professional sport franchises such as the Washington Redskins and the Atlanta Braves. The debate about team names is also underway at many schools and universities, where the residue from past traditions of "playing Indian" still remains. Students organizing against such names have contributed to growing public awareness about this issue.
 

For Discussion:

  1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?
  2. According to the reading, what was one motivation for early instances of "playing Indian"? What did "Indianess" signify during earlier periods in U.S. history?
  3. Do you believe the eventual elimination of Native American mascots is inevitable? Why or why not?
  4. What might be effective ways to educate those who use hurtful racial stereotypes, often without intending to be hurtful?

 


 

Media Analysis:  
#ProudToBe Video

The National Congress of American Indians' ongoing efforts to change Native American mascots include the #ProudToBe campaign. Show students this 2-minute video, which presents the core message of this campaign: http://youtu.be/mR-tbOxlhvE
 
Then ask students to break into small groups to consider each of the questions below.   Give students 3 minutes to discuss each question.
 

  1. How would you describe the central message of this video? What are its creators attempting to convey?
  2. Are all the words and images used to describe Native Americans in the video positive ones? Are there any negative or controversial aspects of Native American communities that are also reflected in the video? Why might the creators have chosen to include some of these?
  3. The video mentions a number of celebrities or popular sports figures from the past that many people might not have known possess Native American ancestry. What do you think is the purpose of including these individuals?
  4. The video does not specifically mention the mascot controversy, nor does it name specific sports teams. Instead, the video alludes indirectly to this controversy with an image of the Washington Redskins helmet at the end. Do you think this approach made the video more or less effective? What might have been an alternative strategy that the video could have employed to make its point? What would have been the advantages or disadvantages of such an alternative strategy?

 
Reconvene the whole class and ask volunteers to respond to these questions:

  1. What struck you most about the video?
  2. Do you think it was effective? Why or why not?

 


 

Optional Activity:
Make your own media campaign

 
Video is just one way of engaging with the media. An advocacy campaign might also use posters , print advertisements, bumper stickers, press releases, or music. Invite students to create their own media campaign around this issue. This might involve thinking of slogans, video ideas, images, and strategies for reaching a wide audience.
 
 
Research assistance provided by Yessenia Gutierrez.