Change the damn name

November 5, 2014

The movement against Washington football's racial slur is "Idle No More."

ON NOVEMBER 2, as many as 5,000 people marched on the Minnesota-Washington football game in the Twin Cities with a simple message for Washington, D.C.'s seething carbuncle of an owner, Dan Snyder: Change the damn name of your franchise. Change your mascot from the dictionary-defined slur of Native Americans and enter the 21st century.

Washington Post columnist Mike Wise, who live-tweeted the protest, quoted activist Samuel Wounded Knee, who told the crowd, "My kids don't want to be your mascots. Our culture is not for your fun and games." Other speakers, from American Indian Movement veteran Bill Means to Native American environmental leader Winona LaDuke to civil rights activist and comedian Dick Gregory, spoke out openly against what protester Julie Tilsen described to me as the "three c's: colonization, commodification, and capitalism." Even U.S. Congresswoman Betty McCollum, co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus, was compelled to "speak truth to power" and called out the "genocide" that makes a name like "Redskins" a reality.

Columnist: Dave Zirin

Tilsen also pointed out the chills produced by seeing retired Minnesota North Stars veteran Henry Boucha speak out as "an indigenous person and as a Minnesotan" and Spike Moss, a local African-American community leader, calling upon Black NFL players to learn the long history of intertwined resistance between indigenous and Black communities.

It was a collection of confident voices, as people "across genders, ages and other social locations," were "calling shit out left and right," signifying a movement in its ascendancy. But to understand how this anti-"Redskins," anti-racist resistance has exploded onto the landscape, far too many people are finding its source in individual sports media members who refuse to use the name, or they identify it in a mass revulsion to Snyder's political halitosis. But the answer actually lies north of the border, where a new generation of First Nations people are on the march, inspiring pueblos and reservations in the United States and beyond. The movement is known as Idle No More, and if you don't understand Idle No More, then you cannot understand why the thousands gathered to demonstrate outside of a football game.

I SPOKE with Erica Lee, a Cree Idle No More organizer in Canada. Lee first cut her political teeth by organizing to end the racist mascot at her high school. She told me:

The strength of today's protest demonstrates the growing shift in consciousness around issues of indigenous representation. As we come up on the second anniversary of the first Idle No More teach-in, there are now more and more indigenous voices entering and changing discourses on mascots, land claims and historical events. Thanks to social and alternative media, we now have the opportunity to tell our own stories, rather than someone speaking for native people and claiming they know what "honors" us. Snyder and the Washington team are fighting a losing battle. At this point, it's clear that the issue won't simply go away. Our voices and resistance are only growing stronger.

I also communicated with Canada-based anti-racist organizer and author of the book Undoing Border Imperialism Harsha Walia about the roots of Idle No More and its connections to what we saw today. "The Idle No More movement has been informed by decades of land reclamations and indigenous resurgence bursting across Turtle Island/North America," she said.

These actions range from blockades against pipelines to fights against mountain-top removal, from mobilizing against the Olympics to marches for missing and murdered indigenous women. All these fissures coalesce around a central point--that there can be no justice on stolen native land and that the racism and marginalization that indigenous peoples face is part of ongoing settler colonialism and corporate development without consent. The debate around R*dskins also occurs within this context. The term is not only racist; the mascot is an attempt to relegate indigenous people to the past and obscures the fact that diverse indigenous nations continue to survive despite genocidal attempts at erasure.

Idle No More's great accomplishment has been the overlooked act of inspiring Native Americans and solidarity activists to recognize their own ability to reshape the power relationships that have defined indigenous communities for centuries. Dan Snyder has certainly felt this intimately. One of the central activists in the anti-mascot struggle is Jackie Keeler, a Navajo/Yankton Dakota Sioux writer living in Portland, Ore., and a founder of the organization Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry (EONM). Catching up to her after the demonstration, she made the connection between the upsurge in Canada and her own organizing against the Washington name: "I know for me personally Idle No More got me reactivated," she said. "I was working with Idle No More PDX [Portland] last year. And a lot of EONM's support base grew out of that. Even now, a high percentage of EONM members are Idle No More PDX members."

The inspiration that Keeler feels has even reached Snyder's backyard here in the Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia area. It electrified Brian Justin Ward, who has become a prominent Washington-based American Indian solidarity activist. He said to me:

Idle No More has reinvigorated indigenous communities across North America, connecting the historical injustices in the past to the injustices of today. We have not seen this level of indigenous activism in North America since the 1970s. Idle No More has helped create the space for people to say no to racist mascots and see these mascots as part of the larger issue of unquestioned racism towards Native people in our society. Activists now have a new sense of confidence in building #ChangeTheMascot campaigns, whether it be their local high school or professional sports.

Ward, like myself, is based in the Washington, D.C., area. We work and live in the shadow of this relentlessly promoted racial degradation masquerading as a football team. Today, as people in the Twin Cities took to the streets, I was reminded of how Dr. King would often point out the toxic effects racism has not only on oppressed communities but on those who perpetuate this poison. We in the D.C. area owe a collective thank you to the people of Minnesota. Thank you for moving us one step closer to putting the Washington football mascot where it belongs: in a museum as a reminder of a past we should loath to repeat.

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