Native American students express frustration at Redskins name

Controversy surrounding the Redskins team name has sparked heated discussion on campus.

In her visit to the Fall for the Book festival, Native American author and activist Dr. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz discussed the controversial Redskins name and mascot.

According to Dunbar-Ortiz, the term “Redskins” is not just a racially derogatory term, but a term of genocide that resulted from violent practices against Native Americans during colonization and western expansion.

“It’s certainly offensive,” said Kerry Desjardins, co-president of Mason’s Native American and Indigenous Alliance. “I think that debate needs to stop because it’s not debatable – it’s offensive. And I think it’s dehumanizing.”

Dunbar-Ortiz spoke to students about Native American and indigenous struggles around the world, but specifically addressed the local issue of the Redskins name controversy by defining the historical context of the term.

“[Colonists] also flayed the bodies, they skinned the body, and this became a practice under Jackson’s forces and all the way to California throughout these wars of conquest and genocide, of flaying the body,” Dunbar-Ortiz said. “And when you take the skin off, right under the skin are blood vessels so the whole body is bleeding, so they called those, literally an Indian corpse, a ‘redskin.’”

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Redskins’ team owner Dan Snyder released an open letter in Oct. 2013 in response to growing national concern about the name.

“The name was never a label,” Snyder wrote. “It was, and continues to be, a badge of honor.”

Though many fans share this perspective, some Native American students disagree.

“I say that Dan Snyder or Redskins fans can’t dictate to Native people what they should feel honors them,” Desjardins said.

Many students, such as NAIA member Sarah Thompson, are fans of the team and have been for a long time.

“In being Native, that kind of hits home for me because I’m like ‘well, wait a minute, I’m supporting this team, this is my team but it’s like undermining my ancestors and where I came from,’ so I struggle with that a lot,” Thompson said.

Although opinions about the team name vary among Native Americans, the prominence of Redskins paraphernalia can desensitize fans to the racially charged term.  Though Thompson has been a lifelong fan of the Redskins, she said that the racial connotations of the word went unknown to her until recently.

“There are Native people that are not offended by it, I know that for a fact,” Desjardins said. “I would argue that they’re not offended by it because they probably don’t know the history of it or have listened to it their entire lives and become desensitized to it.”

Members and alumni of the Native American Indigenous Alliance attend the 9th annual veterans' pow wow in 2011. Photo Courtesy of the Native American Indigenous Alliance.

Members and alumni of the Native American Indigenous Alliance attend the 9th annual veterans’ pow wow in 2011.
Photo Courtesy of the Native American Indigenous Alliance.

To some Native Americans, the protest against the Redskins name and mascot means more than just a fight against an offensive term. According to NAIA member Melanie Bartosh, long-term oppression against Natives has created a cycle of shame within the Native American community.

“I think the recent movement is more of a way for Native people to get back their identity which has been defined by other people for so long,” Bartosh said.

According to statistics released by Mason’s Institutional Research and Reporting center, of the 1,172 new students enrolled in 2014, only 5 identified as Native American. Although Mason’s Native American student population is small, NAIA has received support from other organizations and students on campus.

“Last fall, a lot of people reached out to us from campus, students from different classes, but also from other media outlets and things in the area asking us for our opinion on the issue,” Desjardins said. “I do feel like people are interested in what we have to say about that.”

Many fans of the name claim the name not only shows respect, but also means more than just a team name. According to the letter from Snyder, the Redskins name is symbolic of values that guided Native Americans themselves.

“Washington Redskins is more than a name we have called our football team for over eight decades,” Snyder wrote. “It’s a symbol for everything we stand for: strength, courage, pride and respect. The same values we know guide Native Americans and which are embedded throughout their rich history as the original Americans.”.

The Redskins name controversy attracts national attention and emotions run high on both sides of the debate. In Feb. 2014, Washington state Sen. Maria Cantwell and Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole co-wrote a letter urging National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell to publicly express support for a name change.

“The National Football League can no longer ignore this and perpetuate the use of this name as anything but what it is: a racial slur. It is clear that you haven’t heard the leading voices of this country – and not just Indian Country. Virtually every major civil rights organizations in America has spoken out in opposition to this name, including the NAACP, the Anti-Defamation League, the Rainbow Coalition and the League of United Latin American Citizens,” Cantwell and Cole said in their letter.

Though he has no ties to Native American culture, sophomore and lifelong Redskins fan Fletcher Phillips said he will always root for his team.

“Even if the name is changed, it’s still the same players, the same coaches, the same team, the same spirit of the game,” Phillips said. “I would still root for them if they change the name, it wouldn’t be any different. I’d just be yelling a different cheer, I guess.”

While both sides of the debate continue to gain national attention and criticism, discussing the controversy with peers can be difficult f

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or Native students.

“I’m very passionate about it but I hate talking about it, because it seems like whenever I do engage in a conversation about it, my feelings are not acknowledged so no matter how many times I say ‘it’s offensive,’ no matter how many times I say ‘it’s hurtful,’ there are people who are going to tell me it’s not,” Desjardins said.

Because of Mason’s proximity to D.C. there are many Redskins fans in the area, and advocating for a name change or simply discussing the issue can be an unpleasant experience for Native students.

“It kind of demeans me as a human being, like what I say or what I feel doesn’t matter,” Desjardins said.” So it’s very frustrating. I don’t know how some people, who have been advocating for this issue for decades, I don’t know how they do it. Because it’s a demeaning experience, just over and over again.”

According to Desjardins, though Native American students and their opinions on the Redskins controversy have been respected by others, Native American students can sometimes feel unnoticed.

“Because we don’t walk around in buckskin, people aren’t aware of our presence,” Desjardins said.

While it can be easy to neglect a small percentage of the student population, students could be more aware of their Native peers, she says.

“I think that people should have a general awareness that Native people still exist and that they very well could be sitting next to someone who’s Native American,” Desjardins said.

According to Thompson, education in Native culture could go a long way in raising awareness of a Native American presence on campus.

“I think it just goes back to education about Native culture, and the presence and knowing the history of [the name] and why it’s offensive. I think that’s a hard concept for some people to grasp,” Thompson said.

Despite the controversy, and whatever its outcome may be, Phillips says it’s important for fans to understand how the name can be seen as offensive.

“I’ll always root for the Skins, even if they don’t change the name but I feel like it’s important for fans to understand where the name is coming from,” Phillips said.

This story was originally published in the Sep. 29 issue of Fourth Estate.

Online featured image courtesy of Keith Allison. No changes were made. Creative Commons License.