Heaping insult on top of racism

May 21, 2014

The owner of the Washington football team has embarked on a new public relations campaign to cover up racism. Brian Ward explains what our name for that is.

THERE'S BEEN a lot in the news about racism in sports these past couple of months.

First, it was Donald Sterling being run out of the NBA--though only because of one set of blatantly racist comments, not the bigotry he has exemplified his whole career. Then, during the first round of the NHL playoffs, the n-word was trending on Twitter in Boston after the Montreal Canadiens' P.K. Subban, who is Black, scored the game-winning goal in overtime to beat the Boston Bruins in game one of their playoff series.

Both the NBA and NHL were forced to address these situations with a no-tolerance message. But Roger Goodell of the NFL and Dan Snyder, owner the Washington football team, have been defending a racist name and logo for years.

Opposition to the racist slur that is the name of the Washington team is mainstream now. Even Harry Reid, the top Democrat in the U.S. Senate, said: "Since [Daniel] Snyder fails to show any leadership, the National Football League should take an assist from the NBA and pick up the slack. It would be a slam dunk."

Dan Snyder
Dan Snyder (Jim Wallace)

But Snyder is fighting back in the public relations war--by showing off his supposed altruistic side. He wrote a long letter to fans of the Washington football team claiming that he has done his "listening and learning from all sides" by traveling throughout Indian Country.

Now, Snyder is portraying himself as the new great white savior to American Indians by starting the "Washington R******* Original Americans Foundation,"--through which he is donating coats and tobacco to American Indians nations in the U.S. Of course, this is a drop in the bucket for the owner of a team valued at $1.7 billion.

In typical Snyder fashion, his letter to the fans was full of arrogance and hypocrisy. Regarding the staggeringly high rates of poverty, diabetes, alcohol and drug use, violence and suicide in indigenous communities, Snyder wrote, "These aren't rare circumstances. These are the unfortunate facts found throughout Indian country today." And, of course, he went out of his way to avoid any historical understanding, either of the meaning of his team's name or of the experience of American Indians.

THESE TWO sentences were the words that stuck with me the most after reading Snyder's letter. Are the statistics just "unfortunate"--as if they were accidents, taking place in a social vacuum? Or are they part of a bigger problem with the way we treat and view Natives in this country?

In an interview cited in a segment on ESPN, Snyder said, "We understand the issues out there. We're not an issue. The real issues are real-life issues, real-life needs. I think it's time that people focus on the reality."

So let's get this straight, Snyder is using the "unfortunate facts" about conditions for Native Americans to claim that his team's name isn't connected to those facts at all.

In response to Snyder's creation of his foundation, Ray Halbritter, a representative of the Oneida Indian Nation, said:

We are also hopeful that in his new initiative to honor Native Americans' struggle, Mr. Snyder makes sure people do not forget that he and his predecessor George Preston Marshall, a famous segregationist, have made our people's lives so much more difficult by using a racial slur as the Washington team's name.

Snyder's arrogance is no different from those in the past who thought they knew what was best for American Indians. Rather than acknowledge the opinion of Indigenous communities, the super-rich sports team owner is determining what is and isn't racist. Gyasi Ross of the Blackfeet Indian Nation and the Suquamish Nation responded quite frankly on ESPN's Outside the Lines: "It's the height of arrogance that a non-Native, a white man, would superimpose his will and say what the real issues are."

So what caused the "unfortunate facts" Snyder talks about? The answer can be summed up in two words: Manifest Destiny.

WE ALL learn about it in school that it was inevitable that white settlers would take over the whole continent of North America, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. We rarely hear the voice of those who resisted this ideology.

One important chapter in that conquest came along with the Battle of the Little Bighorn. In 1876, the Lakota, Cheyenne and the Arapaho united to fight against federal troops. This led to the battle, where Gen. George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry were defeated, one of the worst military defeats for the U.S. government in history at that time.

Though this was a strong military victory for American Indians, it was the beginning of the end--the Black Hills, the most sacred land to the Lakota, was officially stolen by the U.S. government in 1877.

Natives were then forced to accept economic and social forms, like private property and the nuclear family, that benefited the U.S. economic system. In 1887, Congress passed the Dawes Act, also known as the General Allotment Act, which allowed for the president and Congress to survey Indian land and divide it up into individual ownership, rather than collective ownership. Many Indians couldn't afford to maintain their individual lands, and would sell to white settlers.

Racist ideas about indigenous peoples thrived during this era, when even the "liberals" of the time saw it as the duty of the white man to "civilize" the Natives, and assimilate them into the dominant society. That meant Native children were stolen en masse from their families and taken to boarding schools, where they were not allowed to speak their language, practice their religious ceremonies or have access to many of their food sources, nor their families.

Broad acceptance of racism against Natives allowed the U.S. to move Natives onto isolated reservations, where they would "die off." Pressure forced the U.S. government to give citizenship to Natives in 1924 and some form of self-governance in 1934.

It was in between years, in 1932, that the Washington football team was founded, originally in Boston as the Boston Braves--the name was later changed to the Boston R*******, and the team was relocated to Washington in 1937.

Snyder talks about the rich tradition of his sports organization. In his letter, he writes, "I've been encouraged by the thousands of fans across the country who support keeping the R******* tradition alive. Most--by overwhelming majorities--find our name to be rooted in pride for our shared heritage and values."

I wonder if Snyder has ever picked up a history book to look at the timeline of the struggle for Native rights next to the timeline of his team's foundations of his organization. The team was given its name during a time when assimilation was the policy of the U.S. government--eliminate native languages, traditions, cultures, etc. This general policy wasn't officially overturned until 1978, when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed.

Obviously Snyder had reached his conclusions before going on his trip through Indian Country. The whole charade was to justify the continued use of the racist name and to turn the cameras onto something else. He may hide behind the fact that he can find some Native people who say they don't care about the name--or at least not as much as they care about other everyday issues like poverty. But that doesn't mean Natives don't think the name is racist.

Despite Snyder's best efforts, you cannot disconnect the Washington football team's name from the historic injustices suffered by American Indians--and donating coats won't change that. It's not up to Snyder to determine what is or not good for the Native peoples. It's this type of attitude that perpetuates the injustices. As long as we let racism toward Native peoples continue, they will continue to be viewed as nothing more than a mascot. If Snyder won't give in to the massive public pressure and change the name, then maybe he should be banned from the NFL--and changing the name in his place.

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