Proponents of Redskins Name Change Call Moniker a 'Public Health Issue'

WASHINGTON – Members of New York’s Oneida Indian Nation held a symposium Monday to increase pressure on the Washington Redskins NFL franchise to change its name, decrying the moniker is an offensive “racial epithet.”

Native American experts, members of Congress, and activists joined a panel to talk about the negative effects of the team’s name. The Oneida Nation held the event at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Washington, D.C., the same location where the NFL owners were scheduled to hold their annual fall meeting this week.

The group launched radio ads and the “Change the Mascot” campaign in September to raise awareness about the movement against the franchise’s name. The effort got an even bigger boost over the weekend when President Obama spoke for the first time about the issue.

“If I were the owner of the team and I knew that there was a name of my team – even if it had a storied history – that was offending a sizeable group of people, I’d think about changing it,” Obama said in an interview published by the Associated Press on Saturday.

"It certainly has brought a lot of attention, the first sitting president to speak on this issue," Oneida Indian Nation representative Ray Halbritter said at the event. "I think it's historic. And the more people know about this issue, the more they'll realize it is not just a laughable issue. It's a real issue that causes real harm."

Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, noted that the NFL has continued using the name despite its use as a pejorative throughout American history.

“This word is an insult that is mean, rude and impolite, and we would like you to stop using it just as children stop using something that is impolite,” Gover said. “The 1920s, when these names emerged in sport, were a low point in Native American history. Our people were confined to reservations and this was another way to assert dominance. It was a way to say, 'We own you' and 'We can use your image how we choose'.”

The Washington Redskins have used their name for 80 years, and the team’s owner, Daniel Snyder, has steadfastly refused to change the team’s name, telling USA Today in May: “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER – you can use caps.”

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) expressed her sympathy with fans who are attached to the name, but said it was time to move on.

“As an African-American woman and third-generation Washingtonian, I want to say to Redskins fans: no one blames you for using a name that has always been used but they will blame you if you continue to use it with impunity,” she said.

Holmes Norton said that FedEx and other team sponsors should put pressure on Snyder to change the name.

“Native Americans are not mascots or caricatures to be exploited for profit," said Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus. "There is no dignity or respect for exploitation."

McCollum and others who spoke at the symposium refuted polls cited by the Redskins that show the public and Native Americans are not offended by the nickname.

"The hired PR folks, who are now defending Mr. Snyder's football team, are citing outdated polls and data," she said.