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From professional football to high school sports, the fight to retire Native American mascots

From professional football to high school sports, the fight to retire Native American mascots

As the Washington Football Team prepares to take the field this Thanksgiving Day against the Dallas Cowboys, they will do so without their iconic racist original team name and mascot emblazoned on their helmets and jerseys. 

That team name—a racial slur towards Native Americans—and Native American mascot, which drew the ire and spurred activism among various indigenous groups and peoples nationwide, was retired in July, this despite team owner Daniel Snyder vowing in 2013 that he would “never” change the name.

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But the fight to get the multibillion-dollar football franchise to abandon their racist name and logo goes back decades. 

Members of Retire The Rxdmen, a group of alumni from East Islip High School in Long Island that is working to retire the school’s racist name and Native American mascot, held a candlelight vigil on Sept. 24 for Breonna Taylor outside their high school. During the demonstration, people with the Save the Mascot campaign organized a counter protest across the street complete with Trump 2020 shirts and Blue Lives Matter flags. Photo: Rebecca Eden

Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee)—a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a policy advocate who has helped Native Peoples recover sacred places and more than one million acres of Native land—is well known for her battles in the courtroom to change The Washington Football Team’s name. Harjo was the lead plaintiff and organizer in the 17 year court battle, Harjo et al v. Pro Football, Inc. (1992-2009), and was an organizer and expert witness for an identical lawsuit brought by Native young people, Blackhorse et al v. Pro Football, Inc. (filed 2006, active 2017-2020).

“In 25 years of litigation, they never produced a single Native person that supported their side in the courts,” Harjo said. “Here is why I think Snyder ultimately gave it up after saying he would never change the name. Since we filed suit on Sept. 10, 1992, the Washington team never returned to the Super Bowl. They have changed everything. Coaches, players, owner. But never the name until now. A lot of people say, ‘When are you going to lift  your curse?’ This is not a curse, this is karma.”

The Washington Football team currently plays its games at FedEx Field in Landover, MD, and would like to return to Washington, D.C. It’s been reported that the District of Columbia council and other government officials would not allow federally owned land to be given to the franchise without an official name change and removal of the Native American logo and mascot. It’s also been reported that investment firms and shareholders asked Nike, FedEx and PepsiCo to terminate their business relationships unless the team agreed to change its name. And the move is supported broadly by fans.

 Historian, educator and filmmaker John Little, a member of the Standing Rock Tribe in South Dakota, made a documentary with his brother Kenn Little about Native American-based sports mascots and team names. The film, “More Than a Word,” explores their impact on real-life attitudes, issues, and policies through interviews with scholars, tribal leaders, lawyers, policy experts, activists, and fans of the recently renamed Washington Football Team. They share the history of the slanderous term “r*dskin,” and cultural stereotypes of Native Americans. 

“Fans often talked about honoring native people with these team names and mascots, but what we also saw was this was not just about a football team,” Little said. “It was about their connection and experiences with that team. This is the crazy part. The last question we asked every fan was, ‘If they changed the team name, would they still be a fan?’ Nearly every one of them said they will cheer for them no matter what the team name is.” 

Ian Washburn, who is featured in the documentary, shared his experience as a former fan. Washburn came from a family of “R*dskins” fans who were season ticket holders for multiple  generations. But after a 20-year journey of learning the name’s racist origin, he has since denounced the “R*dskins” name, cancelled his season tickets and joined Rebrand Washington Football, a group advocating for the team name change since 2015. 

“There was relief and joy, but of course also skepticism because we don’t know what the new mascot is going to be and there are concerns it could still have hints of Native Americans,” Washburn said when asked how he felt about the announcement of the name change. “What we are really hoping for is a 100 percent break from that and acknowledgement. They’re trying tip toe backward from this thing unscathed, as though they haven’t harmed Native Americans for 87 years and we all know they have.”

But the movement to relegate Native American sports mascots and racial slurs as a thing of the past reaches beyond professional sports. 

Members of Retire The Rxdmen, a group of alumni from East Islip High School in Long Island that is working to retire the school’s racist name and Native American mascot, held a candlelight vigil on Sept. 24 for Breonna Taylor outside their high school. During the demonstration, people with the Save the Mascot campaign organized a counter protest across the street complete with Trump 2020 shirts and Blue Lives Matter flags. Photo: Rebecca Eden

Kaitlyn Raitz and Theresa Park founded Retire The Rxdmen, a group of alumni from East Islip High School in Long Island to raise awareness of racist institutions, starting with their alma mater’s namesake. On June 4, 2020, former students launched a campaign calling for the school to change its “R*dmen” mascot with a petition that’s now garnered over 12,000 signatures, which they presented at a School Board Meeting on July 27.  

“The community response was split,” Raitz said. “I realize some people aren’t seeing it for what it is. Hate speech. They don’t get it that this is not an honor for Native American. It boils down to intent versus impact. Long Island has a terrible history of racism and segregation of communities. As a young person, I guess I just accepted it as the way things were. As an adult, I began to unlearn the racism I have been taught, and I just kept coming back to my high school with this racist team name and mascot. The BLM movement led me to do something about changing it.”

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Retire The Rxdmen met with the Superintendent of the Long Island School District on August 1. At a  School Board meeting on Sept. 24, school officials listed reasons why the name is not racist and invited organizers of a rival “Save the Mascot” petition to speak on behalf of keeping the name. That same night, Retire The Rxdmen also held a vigil for Breonna Taylor. That vigil was met by a counter protest organized by supporters for the “Save the Mascot” campaign, which included people Trump supporters waving Blue Lives Matter flags. 

“We are at a stand still,” said Raitz. “Our team feels that we have done all we can, especially with so many of us no longer in the town. With COVID-19 on a sharp uptick, we don’t believe the school will give this the attention it needs and to push it more at this time would make the board and the town push back more. This should be an easy, quick decision for the board to make after hearing our presentation, but truthfully, after listening to so many distressed parents at many of the board meetings, I understand that East Islip—with it’s unbelievable love for it’s football and mascot—would not be able to address this right now amongst the pandemic”.

Retire the Rxdmen responded to the school board in an open letter posted on their website after the Sept. 24 school board meeting.

Members of Retire The Rxdmen, a group of alumni from East Islip High School in Long Island that is working to retire the school’s racist name and Native American mascot, held a candlelight vigil on Sept. 24 for Breonna Taylor outside their high school. During the demonstration, people with the Save the Mascot campaign organized a counter protest across the street complete with Trump 2020 shirts and Blue Lives Matter flags. Photo: Rebecca Eden

“Our immediate ask is to retire the team name and mascot and replace it with an appropriate non-native inspired name and mascot, no tomahawks, no head dresses,” Raitz said. “Long term, we need the school to start implementing education initiatives to accurately educate students about native history and contemporary life. In the 70’s and 8o’s, there were assemblies with local tribe members at East Islip, those have since vanished. The exposure to Native American history in this school district essentially ends with the Trail of Tears. Native American education is not part of the curriculum. There are active tribes in the area we should be learning from and free resources we can access from places like the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian. We connected with a group that started on Instagram, The National Committee to Remove Indigenous Mascots (NCRIM) where we found other community groups connecting on the same issues, sharing resources and advice, it has turned into a real thing, a way to reach out into communities.”

While the fight to change the East Islip name continues, one Bay Area high school succeeded in abandoning their Native American mascot. On March 3, The San Mateo Daily Journal reported that South San Francisco High School adopted a student proposal to abandon Native American imagery. The South San Francisco Unified School District Board of Trustees agreed to do away with the logo and mascot—the head of a Native American chief wearing a feathered headdress—at its meeting on Feb. 28. The decision came at the request of students, who gathered more than 400 signatures supporting the effort to preserve the Warriors moniker, but do away with references to Native Americans.

As professional sports teams, colleges and high schools examine racism and cultural appropriation, and while there are advocates on both sides, attitudes and opinions appear to be changing.  As for The Washington Football Team,  no permanent name, logo or mascot has been announced. 

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