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.

In response to Obama’s remarks, Lanny Davis, an attorney for the Redskins, cited Sunday an Annenberg Institute poll in 2004 that found 90 percent of Native Americans do not find the team’s name offensive. Davis also referenced a 2013 AP poll showing that 80 percent of Americans do not think the team should change its name.

Davis also noted other teams named after Native Americans who are not being targeted by the “Change the Mascot” campaign.

“I do wonder why he’s not talking about the Chicago Blackhawks who won the Stanley Cup or the Atlanta Braves,” Davis said.

Halbritter said while there are certain Native American names that can be respectful, such as those used by some sports teams, “redskin” is an offensive term that should not be used to “sell a national sports team to America or the rest of the world.”

“The name of the Washington team is a dictionary-defined offensive racial epithet, which these other team names are not, but there is a broader discussion to be had about using these mascots generally,” he said.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary labels the term as “usually offensive.” Smithsonian Institution senior linguist Ives Goddard has pointed out the term was used first by Native Americans in the early 1800s to distinguish themselves from other races.

Dr. Michael Friedman, a clinical psychologist, said the continued use of the name is a “public health issue.”

“The easiest way to dismiss the use of the Washington Redskins name is to discuss it as a victimless crime – an issue of political correctness,” Friedman said. “The continued use of a racial slur has a direct public health consequence.”

Friedman argued the name has detrimental effects on the health of Native Americans. He said Native Americans should not have to deal with issues affecting their self-esteem when they already have a level of psychological distress higher than any other group in the nation. The Native American population has twice as much depression, alcoholism, and other physical and mental issues, he said.

“When you consider that public health context, any kind of stressor that causes more suffering has to be considered not a political correctness issue but a public health issue,” Friedman said.

Organizers of the event sent an invitation to Adolpho Birch, the NFL’s senior vice president of labor policy and government affairs, who could not attend because of the league’s quarterly meetings.

The Washington Post reported, however, that NFL officials have scheduled a meeting with representatives of the Oneida Nation for November 22.