Washington (AFP) – Battle lines were drawn Monday over the name of Washington’s beloved American football team, after President Barack Obama indicated he’d favor something less racially charged than Redskins.
The casino-rich Oneida tribe in New York state is spearheading a campaign to get the National Football League franchise to rebrand itself, just as NFL owners hold their fall meeting in the U.S. capital.
“It’s a dictionary-defined offensive term,” said Ray Halbritter, a prominent leader of the Oneida Indian Nation, at a symposium in Washington in the same hotel where NFL owners will be meeting this week.
“Washington’s team name is a painful epitaph that was used against my people, Indian people, when we were held at gunpoint and thrown off our lands,” Halbritter said.
“It is a word that few would use in casual conversation when talking to a Native American,” he added.
“When marketed by a professional sports team, it is a word that tells Native American children that they are to be denigrated — that they are second class citizens.”
Whether the Redskins should retain a name deemed “usually offensive” by the Merriam-Webster dictionary and “dated offensive” by the Oxford dictionary has been a festering issue in Washington for years.
But it reached a new level when Obama, otherwise preoccupied with the U.S. government shutdown, said in an interview published Saturday that “I’d think about changing” the name if he was the Redskins’ owner.
Dan Snyder, the marketing mogul who bought the Redskins in 1999, has insisted that he will never change the name.
On Monday he got his lawyer to say it again.
“We at the Redskins respect everyone,” said the attorney, Lanny Davis, in a statement.
“But like devoted fans of the Atlanta Braves, the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago Blackhawks (from President Obama’s hometown), we love our team and its name and, like those fans, we do not intend to disparage or disrespect a racial or ethnic group.”
Davis recalled a national survey in April this year in which, he said, eight out of 10 Americans didn’t think the Washington Redskins name ought to be changed.
Last month, NFL supremo Roger Goodell seemed to signal a possible change of heart when, in a sports radio interview, he said “we have to listen” if anyone feels offended by the Redskins name.
He stressed, however, that a name change was ultimately a decision for Snyder to make.
Since the start of this year’s NFL season, the Oneida Indian Nation — descended from the Iroquois confederacy that dominated much of New York state and parts of Canada when Europeans first arrived — has aired radio commercials nationwide to protest the Redskins’ name.
It also launched a website, changethemascot.org, urging Americans to send letters of protest to Goodell.
Lending her support was Washington’s longtime member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Eleanor Holmes Norton, who likened the furor over the Redskins name to the 1960s civil rights struggle in which she participated.
“This is a team that had to be forced into racial integration,” she said, recalling how in 1962 the Redskins were the last professional US football team to put African-Americans on its roster.
Michael Friedman, a clinical psychologist who studies the effects of stigma and discrimination, said a word like “redskin” was a “stresser” that weighed heavily on the mental health of a community already hard hit by poverty, alcoholism, domestic violence and other social issues.
“The effects on Native Americans is overwhelming,” he said.
But he added: “We’ve noticed other racial slurs are out of bounds… We wonder why the word that refers to us is not similarly off-limits.”
By one estimate, it would cost the Redskins and the NFL more than $20 million to change the name, but activist Suzan Harjo, a Cheyenne who has spent a lifetime battling derogatory Indian names, said Snyder could “make a fortune” from the sale of rebranded merchandise.
“There have been so many milestones” in the fight to end the use of pejorative Indian names in American sports at all levels, but a breakthrough in the Redskins’ case “would be a big one,” she told AFP.
The Redskins’ heritage dates to the team’s 1932 birth in Boston, where they were first nicknamed Braves because they played in the home ballpark of baseball’s then-Boston Braves.
When they relocated in 1933 to Fenway Park, home of the rival Red Sox, the name was changed to Redskins and it was retained when the club moved to the U.S. capital in 1937.
Six months after the move, a volunteer marching band was formed and the Redskins Band’s trademark song was created — “Hail to the Redskins”, with such lyrics as “Braves on the warpath, fight for old D.C.” still sung today, but references to “scalp ’em” and “we want heap more” having been removed more than 30 years ago.
Last May, U.S. House of Representatives delegate Eni Faleomavaega of American Samoa introduced legislation that would strip the team of the trademark rights to the Redskins name.
AFP Photo/Robert MacPherson