A Response to a Misinformed Expert


I was recently at a holiday event and, as is inevitable around DC, the conversation circled around to the local NFL team and the name debate. Normally, I engage in this discussion (since my thoughts on this are pretty well known here) with the intent to educate a lot of the misconceptions that have been floating around out there. (In large part, no thanks to the football team’s horrible attempts at PR.) But that night, before I could readily engage, the speaker launched into a more authoritative style and dominated the discussion with his ‘facts.’

As he began his litany, I heard things that were so appalling, I was somewhat dumbstruck by the audacity of his claims – which he firmly believed was true – to the point I closed my mouth and just listened. Before I had a chance to step in and rebut the group’s esteemed knowledge leader (yes, sarcasm), the food had arrived and discussion veered into other topic areas. I never had a chance to lay out the opposition, and sadly, those who listened never got to hear where the truth really lies.

It does bug me that I never forced my way into the conversation to correct these horrible “truths,” but those who know me also know that’s not my style. I’m not comfortable with it, and I won’t apologize for being me. I think part of the problem was the sheer outrageousness of a couple of these claims – especially the last one – that I couldn’t quite get a grip fast enough to respond.

So after a couple of weeks of letting it marinate in my brain, here’s my rebuttal. Will said speaker ever see it? I don’t know. But I do hope that someone, somewhere, will correct his fallacies and redirect his thinking.

“There aren’t any tribes left on the East Coast, just small pockets of unrecognized tribes. They’re all out West because we killed them all out here.”

Let’s ignore the implied superiority of colonialism of the last statement. The first one is indicative of the impressions of a lot of the majority of America’s population: Natives are a forgotten culture and sadly, many Americans believe that Natives no longer exist.

As to the truth of his statement of fact, it’s total BS. There are 44 federally recognized tribes east of the Mississippi River, and more than that which are state recognized.

Now, I could give him the benefit of the doubt that he was specifically thinking of the DC-MD-VA region, since that’s a common argument by fans of the football team, that “there are no Indians here, so there’s no one to really care about misrepresentation.” In that case he’d still be wrong, since there are two state-recognized tribes in Maryland, and 11 in Virginia.

“Snyder’s an ass, but at least he has the balls to stand up to liberals on this non-issue.”

This isn’t a ‘liberal’ issue, nor is it a political one. This isn’t being raised and fought by white Democrats. It’s an issue that has found rising support in Indian Country, and continues to build momentum.

“Why do they care now? Where were they 80 years ago? It’s just political-correctedness going amuck.”

Actually, 81 years ago when the name was given. And back then, if you cared to remember history, was a time of racial insensitivity, ignorance, and bigotry. The National Council of American Indians lodged a protest about the name in the late 1960s, as the American Indian Movement and other groups found their voices fresh from the Civil Rights Movement. The first trademark suit was brought about in the late 1990s. And there’s been protest about the name for more than half the life of the team.

It’s just loud today because Natives are finding a new digital voice with the fast rise of social media and a new generation who want to correct the wrongs so long visited upon Indian Country.

“My friend is part Indian – he doesn’t use the term ‘Native American’ – and he thinks ‘R*****n’ is just fine; there’s other things to worry about out there.”

Ah, two classic rejoinders tossed in together. I don’t much care if his friend – and I’ll give benefit of doubt about the claim and assume his friend IS Native – calls himself a Native, an American Indian, an indigenous person, or a First Nations member. It’s immaterial.

Second, so what if a Native isn’t offended by the name? There are many who don’t care/ignore racial epitaphs that demean their race. The problem is that there is a sizable portion in Indian Country who *are* offended by the word, which is also a dictionary-defined slur.

Third, the “other things to worry about” line. So, by such thinking, we’re only allowed to concern ourselves with one issue at a time? Some believe the slur is part of the foundation of problems that plague Indian Country. (Some don’t.) Why can’t we fight against poverty, alcoholism, education, health, and other issues at the same time?

“Why bother with a team name? They’ve got suicides and alcoholism to deal with; they’re f*cking stupid to worry about a team name, especially when they have tons of schools on their reservations that use ‘R*****ns’ anyway.”

This kind of goes back to the previous point, though I’ll address the last statement now. The example brought up was the high school on the Navajo reservation, which does use the word as their team name. But context is needed to understand just why it’s in use there.

Oh, and in the last decade or two, more than 1,000 schools/institutions who used Natives/images as mascots have since changed them to something else.

Lastly was this gem, something I’ve not heard yet and caused me to mentally reel from shock. Someone had asked as to why there were so many suicides among Native Americans. His response:

“Oh, it’s the fact that their blood can’t handle alcohol. You know, it’s the Asian genetics from the land bridge thing. So they kill themselves easier.”

I’m not entirely sure how to handle that statement.

Let’s set aside that the whole Bering Strait land bridge theory isn’t fact. (It’s treated as such orthodoxy, but it’s really not been proven true; in fact, there’s more research that is debunking it now than before.) The whole “Asians get drunk faster” is a complete myth. Natives do have a higher risk of alcoholism due to genetic susceptibilities based on how its metabolized, yes. But it’s not proven to be the same genetic factors as Asians.

Yes, alcohol abuse does have a factor in suicide. But there are other factors in play within Indian Country besides substance abuse. Most recently, research among Native youths shows that poor self-image  due to the harmful impact of racist representations on the self-esteem of AI/AN youth creates a hostile learning environment in K-12 and postsecondary schools. This plays a heavy factor in youth-related suicides among Native youth.


I think the hardest part of the whole evening was listening to ‘facts’ being bandied about as essential truths, with no admission that these statements are ignorant or representative of microagressive racism. Honestly, the last time I observed such one-sidedness was a rabid political argument between Reds and Blues, where neither side would acknowledge any statements by the other side as true or even just worth consideration; they were all beholden to their party flavor and wouldn’t budge.

The whole football name debate is in the same camp, though here the conversation is dominated by the team’s fanbase. They repeat the fallacies with gusto, like using a megaphone, and refuse to sit and listen to the other side – because it means that they’d have to admit the possibility that the thing they know and love and worship could possibly be offensive.

And that just won’t do.

There are two poll results that show the hypocrisy and absurdity of it all: 56% feel the word is an inappropriate way to describe a Native, yet 66% don’t want the team to change its name. And yet if the name changed, 82% wouldn’t care if it changed or not.

Finally, the last comment before the holiday gorging commenced:

“It’s not a big deal, so I don’t get why they even care.”

If changing the name isn’t a big deal to you, then why argue about it with such outrageous ‘facts’ and superlatives?

Change the name.

Happy holidays.

Local Indigenous Artist Showcases the Racism of Redskin

(c) Gregg Deal

(c) Gregg Deal

(Originally posted at WeLoveDC on 10/10/14)

Those who think the continuing movement to change the name of the local pro football team is a waste of time and trivial were clearly not at the recent Art All Night event here in the District. Secreted in one corner of the venue was local Indigenous artist Gregg Deal. His project, “Redskin,” took on the racial overtones of the team moniker and projected it at his audience.

What he, nor spectators or his helpers predicted was just how pointed it ended up being.

Deal first let me know of the project in early September. What initially struck me about his proposed performance piece was the fact he was willingly subjecting himself to some serious abuse. Natives in the area–as well as those protesting football games elsewhere in the country–have always been subjected to abuses by team fans, especially if they’re open about their opposition to the name. (Witness the reactions by fans, as recalled by several Natives, during a recent taping for The Daily Show.)

So why do it, especially in an art venue? “As people of color, or more specifically, Indigenous people, we deal with something called microaggression. It’s the needle pricks in our general American society and culture that says or does things that are offensive to Natives. They’re called ‘microaggression’ because they are passive aggressive enough to get by your average person, but still aggressive,” said Deal. “For example, when I worked at the National Museum of American Indian in 2004-2005, someone asked me if I still lived in a Tipi. This would be microaggression because it’s an insane questions that is based on stereotypes, but it’s also a statement about what this person believes quantifies me as an Indigenous person.”

The term ‘redskin,’ painted faces and faux headdresses, drunken war chants – these are all examples of microaggression. Deal’s performance piece was meant to use all of these abuses, commonly found in tailgate parties at FedEx Field and used by team fans around the world, over an eight-hour period. “I ended up calling it after just over four hours,” said Deal. “All of us–my friends who were helping me and myself–were just mentally and psychologically drained from the experience.”

Bryce Huebner, an Associate Professor at Georgetown University, was one of Deal’s assistants who played a part of one of the abusive fans. “I said things that I would never say in real life, in hopes of making it clear how ugly and harmful the casual racism against indigenous people in the United States is,” he said. “I was struck by how difficult it was to start playing that role, when I arrived my heart was pounding and I could hardly speak; but more troubling by far was the fact that it became easy to continue as I started to play off of the other actors. There’s an important lesson there: if you surround yourself with people who espouse hostile attitudes, it’s much easier to adopt those attitudes yourself.”

Deal said a lot of the audience mentioned to him how truly real it felt, watching it unfold, and he agreed. “After it got rolling, the invective felt truly real, like a few situations I’ve found myself in around the District.” When I mentioned that a Huffington Post review said it was unauthentic because he had used his friends as the antagonists, Deal laughed. “They should’ve been in my place, then. It certainly felt real to me.”

Deal (seated) in the middle of his "Redskin" performance. (c) Darby

Deal (seated) in the middle of his “Redskin” performance. (c) Darby

Tara Houska, a board member of Not Your Mascots and a big proponent of the name change movement in the District, was one of the audience members. “The experience of watching Indigenous-based racism being hurled at a Native was difficult, to say the least,” she said. “Some of those phrases hit too close to home, and brought me back to moments in which I’ve experienced racism. At times, it was hard to keep in mind that it was a performance. I wanted to yell at the antagonizers to back off, and felt the hurt Greg must have been feeling.”

Both Houska and Deal were also participants in the recent Daily Show segment that showed a panel of team fans and a panel of Indigenous people who, after separate discussions, confronted each other through the show’s direction. The segment has had mixed reaction in the press, with a lot of sympathy generated for the four white fans (who all self-identified as some fraction of various tribes, but with no real knowledge of their heritage – or, in one case, how generational fractions work). The incidents taped at FedEx field later between some of the Native panelists (specifically, the 1491s) and fans weren’t shown, which is unfortunate.

“Honestly, both the Daily Show and my art performance felt very similar,” said Deal. “The racism against Indigenous people in this country is so ingrained it it’s culture that the only way a team could exist as a mascot (which is defined as a clown, a court jester, by the way…nice ‘honor’) in the first place. The Washington Redskins–and other Indian mascots–are a really good illustration of not only how disconnected America is from it’s own history, but how disconnected it is from the issue of equality towards Indigenous people is. We are literally sitting on an issue where a significant amount of this country’s Indigenous are saying ‘it’s offensive’ and the answer is ‘no, it’s not offensive at all!'”

Gregg Deal with "Colonialism"

Gregg Deal with “Colonialism”

Deal went on to say the whole movement to change the name isn’t really about offense, but about equality. “What you’re looking at is the tip of a very big iceberg of issues that are simply illustrated by this specific issue. The fact that we don’t seem to own our identity enough for someone to allow us to assert that identity appropriately, but that a corporate sports team is making billions from our image and likeness and has the audacity to fly it under the flag of honor is insanity,” he said. “Let’s be honest here, it’s not about honor, tradition, or any other lame excuse Dan or his constituents are saying. It’s about money, and the fans have all bought into supporting one of this country’s financial top one percent.”

Houska felt that Deal’s passion really came through in his performance piece, and she applauded him for taking a stand in such a public way. “I think it was a very in-your-face method to get locals aware that Natives experience racism, including the racist imagery and name of the Washington team,” she said. “We have all experienced being belittled and told to ‘get over it.’ I hope that people walked away with a sense of understanding that microaggression is a very real and damaging thing. And how it feels to be deluged by caricatured Natives via the Washington football team and having no say in it, despite being the subject of that caricature.”

Deal agreed. “I believe the term REDSKIN, if it belongs anywhere…it belongs to Indigenous people. In the same way the Black community essentially own the N-word,” he said. “While there are different schools of thought on that word and it’s usage in the Black community, it’s understood that if you use that word outside the Black community, you’re a certain type of person. The word ‘redskin’ belongs to us, and it’s not up to [non-Indigenous people] how it’s used.”

For more information on the name change social media movement, visit Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry, Not Your Mascots, or follow the #changethename hashtag on Twitter.