Since President Obama has little of importance to do these days, he has decided to enter into a controversy over the name of the Washington football team, the Redskins. This name is reputed to be very offensive to our Native American population and changing this name, and other names of sports teams based on Native Americans is a top priority in the Native American community. Or is it? Actually, it seems that the great majority of Indians are not particularly offended by such names, and even if they are, most Native Americans have far more important things to worry about. I found this interesting story on the subject from the D. C. CBS affiliate, courtesy of the Drudge Report.

The name of a certain pro football team in Washington, D.C., has inspired protests, hearings, editorials, lawsuits, letters from Congress, even a presidential nudge. Yet behind the headlines, it’s unclear how many Native Americans think “Redskins” is a racial slur.

Perhaps this uncertainty shouldn’t matter — because the word has an undeniably racist history, or because the team says it uses the word with respect, or because in a truly decent society, some would argue, what hurts a few should be avoided by all.

But the thoughts and beliefs of native people are the basis of the debate over changing the team name. And looking across the breadth of Native America — with 2 million Indians enrolled in 566 federally recognized tribes, plus another 3.2 million who tell the Census they are Indian — it’s difficult to tell how many are opposed to the name.

The controversy has peaked in the last few days. President Barack Obama said Saturday he would consider getting rid of the name if he owned the team, and the NFL took the unprecedented step Monday of promising to meet with the Oneida Indian Nation, which is waging a national ad campaign against the league.

What gets far less attention, though, is this:

There are Native American schools that call their teams Redskins. The term is used affectionately by some natives, similar to the way the N-word is used by some African-Americans. In the only recent poll to ask native people about the subject, 90 percent of respondents did not consider the term offensive, although many question the cultural credentials of the respondents.

All of which underscores the oft-overlooked diversity within Native America.

I don’t think that I would be too upset by a team called the Whiteskins. I might even root for it, even though I am not much into sports.

Tommy Yazzie, superintendent of the Red Mesa school district on the Navajo Nation reservation, grew up when Navajo children were forced into boarding schools to disconnect them from their culture. Some were punished for speaking their native language. Today, he sees environmental issues as the biggest threat to his people.

The high school football team in his district is the Red Mesa Redskins.

“We just don’t think that (name) is an issue,” Yazzie said. “There are more important things like busing our kids to school, the water settlement, the land quality, the air that surrounds us. Those are issues we can take sides on.”

“Society, they think it’s more derogatory because of the recent discussions,” Yazzie said. “In its pure form, a lot of Native American men, you go into the sweat lodge with what you’ve got — your skin. I don’t see it as derogatory.”

Neither does Eunice Davidson, a Dakota Sioux who lives on the Spirit Lake reservation in North Dakota. “It more or less shows that they approve of our history,” she said.

Generally speaking, people name teams for people and things they admire. That is why you often see teams called Vikings or Bears but never Cockroaches or Liberals. The reason Indian names are used is because people admire the Native Americans as warriors and for their culture.

Redskins primary logo 1982
Offensive? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Native Americans are at the bottom in just about measure of social and economic progress. Most reservations are located on marginal land with few resources or job opportunities, unless the tribe can attract a casino. Poverty, crime and alcoholism are endemic to many Indian communities and they have to put up with an often corrupt and ineffective Bureau of Indian Affairs. It is likely that most Native Americans have more pressing issues to deal with. Of course solving these sorts of problems is difficult for activists. It is a lot easier to file lawsuits.

In 2004, the National Annenberg Election Survey asked 768 people who identified themselves as Indian whether they found the name “Washington Redskins” offensive. Almost 90 percent said it did not bother them.

But the Indian activist Suzan Shown Harjo, who has filed a lawsuit seeking to strip the “Redskins” trademark from the football team, said the poll neglected to ask some crucial questions.

“Are you a tribal person? What is your nation? What is your tribe? Would you say you are culturally or socially or politically native?” Harjo asked. Those without such connections cannot represent native opinions, she said.

Indian support for the name “is really a classic case of internalized oppression,” Harjo said. “People taking on what has been said about them, how they have been described, to such an extent that they don’t even notice.”

Harjo declines to estimate what percentage of native people oppose the name. But she notes that the many organizations supporting her lawsuit include the Cherokee, Comanche, Oneida and Seminole tribes, as well as the National Congress of American Indians, the largest intertribal organization, which represents more than 250 groups with a combined enrollment of 1.2 million.

I suppose that Suzan Shown Harjo has a better grasp of the concerns of her people than they do themselves. I think she should save for efforts for real concerns.

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