clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

“We Just Brought the King of the Mountain of Sports Slurs to Its Knees”

For decades, Native activists have protested the Washington NFL team name. Now it is gone. To those who dedicated their lives to this fight, it’s a long-overdue moment of triumph—and what comes next is just as important.

John W. Tomac

In 1932, a businessman named George Preston Marshall bought a football team in Boston. A group consisting of him and three other men cobbled together the funds for a successful bid, and they were awarded the rights to an expansion franchise in the National Football League. After agreeing to share a stadium with the Boston Braves, one of two Major League Baseball teams in the city, Marshall and his ownership group decided that their football team should go by the same name. So in 1932 there were two teams in the same stadium that called themselves the Boston Braves. A few months after the football Braves finished their debut season, Marshall’s co-owners jumped ship: The team was bad, it couldn’t gain a foothold in the market with the same name as its cotenant, and it was bleeding money. Marshall assumed full control of ownership. He renamed the franchise the “Redskins.”

Despite what league officials have said, the name was not chosen to honor Indigenous people. Its history is fraught―a callback to a time when American soldiers collected the scalps of the country’s original inhabitants as trophies. There was no honor involved. The name was also not chosen as a tribute to the team’s first coach, William “Lone Star” Dietz, a white man of German heritage who reportedly pretended to be of Sioux descent and who, according to the Harvard Political Review, “was encouraged by Marshall to adorn himself in a headdress and war paint before his team’s home contests.” Marshall disclosed as much to the Associated Press, saying in 1933, “The fact that we have in our head coach, an Indian, together with several Indian players, has not, as may be suspected, inspired me to select the name.”

Marshall, the last NFL owner to desegregate, changed the name of his franchise from the Braves to a more derogatory slur toward the first people of this nation because he wanted to differentiate it from the Boston baseball team while, according to a 1972 game program, keeping “the Indian motif.” He did it, apparently, to sell tickets.

For the next 77 years, spanning three different ownership groups, five Super Bowl appearances, and two cities (the team moved from Boston to Washington, D.C., in 1937), the name stood untouched. But on July 2 of this year, spurred by the nationwide protests against systemic racism, FedEx, the title sponsor for the franchise’s stadium in Landover, Maryland, sent a letter to team owner Daniel Snyder saying that it would “demand” its “name be removed from the stadium” unless Washington’s moniker was changed. The next day, the team issued a press release saying it was conducting “a thorough review” of the name “in light of the recent events around the country and feedback from our community.” Ten days later, Washington announced that it would be “retiring” its “name and logo upon completion of this review.” Ten days after that, the team announced that it would temporarily call itself the Washington Football Team until it settled on a permanent name. This came a week after The Washington Post published an article in which more than a dozen women detailed a culture of sexual harassment throughout the franchise’s front office.

The July announcements marked an abrupt change in messaging for an organization that had previously resisted all calls for change. Tribal nations have challenged the team’s name for decades, and Washington repeatedly dismissed their demands. In 1992, a group of seven Native plaintiffs petitioned the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to revoke the team’s name rights. The case was initially approved, but after the franchise appealed to the D.C. Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, the ruling was overturned because the court said that the plaintiffs had waited too long to bring about the petition in the first place. In 2006, a new case was initiated; it too was thwarted after the Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that trademark censorship of offensive or disparaging product names was a violation of free speech. In recent years, Indigenous activists have used a number of new-age protest tactics, but the team remained as committed to the moniker as ever. Since buying the franchise in 1999, Snyder has been adamant about keeping the name, telling USA Today in 2013: “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER—you can use caps.”

In both instances, across generations, the team opposed the very people it painted on its helmets. Stephanie Fryberg, a member of the Tulalip Tribes of Washington and a psychologist and professor at the University of Michigan, has studied the psychological effects that names and mascots like Washington’s have on Native communities. Her findings are clear. “It isn’t just my research. There are two decades of research out there that really shows at the individual level there’s no benefit for Native people of being used as a mascot,” Fryberg says. “We see everything from lower self-esteem, lower achievement-related goals, a lowered sense of ‘what my community can do, how my community can improve itself in the future,’ to increased suicide ideation, and depression. So you really see at that individual level that the effects are grave.”

Fryberg’s work also focuses on the nature and impact of Native portrayals in Hollywood and pop culture. Research like hers has played an integral role in advancing the work done by Indigenous activists and in shaping the arguments used in both court cases against Washington. While the Washington name was perhaps the most visceral public reminder of the extent to which contemporary references to Native and Indigenous peoples are coded by prejudice, the problem is much larger than a single football team. Native communities are constantly subjected to imagery—both inside and outside of sports—that can cause sustained psychological harm. Teams like the Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Chiefs, and Chicago Blackhawks all have disparaging mascots or fan celebrations. In combination with racist ad campaigns, media caricatures, and the U.S.’s “long history of engaging in playing Indian,” says Fryberg, sports team names and mascots are part of a fabric of Native oppression dating well beyond the whims of George Preston Marshall.

“There’s some sense of, ‘We’ve relegated this group to a mascot,’ and so it reminds you that your group is on top,” Fryberg says. “And so you get this boost in self-esteem when you have these romantic representations about this other group that you have dominated. You get to bask in their reflected glory, like we won.”

For Fryberg, Washington’s NFL team name was an example of how colonial societies often fetishize the conquered. “[It] is no different than the celebration of Thanksgiving or Christopher Columbus when they’re all based on misinformation, romanticization, and dehumanizing of Native people,” she says. Native people have consistently fought against this. And they have consistently been silenced.

“The U.S. is a colonial society. It’s a country that was built around taking over a country and basically displacing the original inhabitants,” Fryberg says. “So often, what happens in settler-colonial relationships is you try to get rid of the original inhabitants, and then if you’re not able to do that, you try to assimilate them, and if you can’t do that, then you try to render them invisible.”

In 1933, the same year that Marshall rebranded the Washington football team, a lawyer named Raphael Lemkin gave an address to a college in Madrid. In his speech, Lemkin—a Polish Jew who would later flee Europe to escape the Third Reich—laid out an idea he would go on to call genocide. During his lecture, Lemkin argued that the destruction of a group’s “cultural heritage” was tantamount to theft. His reasoning was simple: If people are cut off from their histories and cultures, those histories and cultures cease to exist, and are therefore taken.

Fryberg says that the Washington NFL team’s name served a similarly tragic purpose. It stopped Native people from defining themselves and their cultures. It erased their complexities and histories, and invalidated their lived experiences. It was, according to her, not just a form of erasure, but a kind of cultural theft.

Now, finally, the name is gone. What comes next, and who gets to decide that, will be just as important.

“We just brought the king of the mountain of sports slurs to its knees, so don’t ask me what hurt. Tell me how good this feels,” says Suzan Shown Harjo, a Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee activist, poet, and writer who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014 for her advocacy of Native rights. “To me, questions about what caused me pain, or what was a traumatic experience, or stuff like that, is sort of like all the journalists used to do, just filming Indians in the gutter, or people with holes in their roofs to show poor housing, or kids playing in the mud to show Native people were dirty or didn’t have good health or housing conditions. It’s all part of poverty porn, and I’m just not playing.”

Harjo has been fighting for Native and Indigenous rights for the better part of five decades. She has worked with Congress and multiple presidents to help tribal nations around the country recover more than 1 million acres of land. She founded the Morning Star Institute and served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, advocacy groups devoted to defending Native civil, religious, and environmental rights. She was also the lead plaintiff in the 1992 court case against the Washington NFL team. After that fell through, Harjo helped organize a new petition, with younger plaintiffs.

She is the leader to generations of Native activists who have committed their lives to the fight against racism. They are young and old, of all genders, hailing from a collection of sovereign tribes that stretches from the Pacific Northwest to Florida. Their work has not always been received kindly. The women at the forefront of the movement have experienced hostile, sexist, and terrifying treatment from those who oppose their efforts. “We were treated as if we were hooligans who had just conducted some sort of heinous operation against humanity,” Harjo says. “We were called names. We were besmirched. They tried to ruin our reputations.”

Amanda Blackhorse is a Navajo activist and the founder and leader of Arizona to Rally Against Native Mascots, an advocacy group whose mission is to eliminate Native and Indigenous mascots at the high school, collegiate, and professional levels. She was also the lead plaintiff in the second trademark case brought against Washington, and says that once she became involved people began to harass her both in person and online. “When I would go to speak at engagements, there were a couple of people who were following me because they probably watched my social media,” Blackhorse says. “They would know where I was going to be speaking at, and they would follow me there.”

In the years since that petition was filed in 2006, Blackhorse says that she lost her job as a social worker because her employers objected to her activism. She says she received hate mail and was subject to both hacking attempts and stalking. When her grandmother died, she remembers not having the emotional energy to grieve. During the height of the trademark case, Blackhorse says she noticed people taking pictures of her from vehicles she had never seen in her small hometown. “They would keep enough distance away from me and watch me from afar and take pictures of me,” she says.

Jordan Marie Daniel says she was also the target of abuse. Daniel founded the Rising Hearts Coalition, a Native advocacy group that organized a highly publicized culture jam against the franchise in 2017. She and a cohort of Native activists spent months planning a series of virtual tactics to make it seem as if the team were announcing a name change. After settling on the moniker Redhawks—a mere four-letter shift from the existing name—Daniel and her coalition bought the rights for a website, drafted fake press releases, and even called up other Native activists for comment. “The whole point of the culture jam was to show the world that it’s just that simple to change four letters, to change a logo, to change the name,” Daniel says. “This is what the world could look like if the Washington football team did the right thing.”

The Washington NFL franchise responded to the group’s efforts by releasing a statement calling the website “fraudulent” and vowing that its name would remain in place “for the future.” Daniel says she and her associates experienced a flood of anonymous harassment.

“For me it was all online, getting messages threatening violence on me, a death threat,” Daniel says. “Everything was on Twitter or Instagram, just getting personal messages and people that clearly did not find our culture jam insightful or supportive, and they thought threatening me with violence or calling me the ‘R-word’ was the way to go. I just can’t imagine being in Amanda and Suzan’s shoes of probably experiencing much worse than that, but it was enough that I shut down from social media for the rest of the year.”

At times, Blackhorse says she feared for her life and the well-being of her children. She hired security. Harjo says she worried for her family, friends, and neighbors; still, she remained resolute in her fight. Nearly 30 years after filing the first trademark petition against the team, Harjo is exultant that the name is finally gone, and relishes triumphing over all who stood in her way. “If I never hear from another one of those cretins again, I will be very happy. I’ve had enough of their death threats, their maiming threats, their catcalls,” Harjo says. “Enough of their stalking. I do hope that they’re very upset, and I do hope that they will be as hurt as they say they would be.”

“These are grown people who cry at the prospect of this name being changed, which is absolutely bizarre,” she continues. “They love and adore the thing that hurts most my grandchildren. That’s no way to have a peaceful society.”

None of the activists interviewed for this story say that Washington has reached out in the weeks since announcing that it would change its name. Blackhorse says the only time the team has ever spoken to her was “when I was being deposed in court.”

“One day FedEx says something, the next day they’re doing a thorough review,” Blackhorse says. “It kind of angers me in some ways that a lot of our sacrifice … the hostile, aggressive, sexist, misogynistic, violent behavior we experienced. It kind of all boiled down to that one moment of, ‘It’s going to happen.’”

Money is the reason that always comes up first. The move that forced the Washington football team to become the Washington Football Team was the letter from FedEx. The moment that Washington’s top sponsor and a handful of other key advertisers informed the franchise that it was either the name or their dollars, the decision was made. To the people who have been fighting the name for decades, that financial pressure was the tipping point comes as no surprise.

What they did not anticipate was the circumstances through which that pressure would arise. People have protested the name for years, and yet that didn’t stop sponsors from spending millions of dollars backing the franchise. But the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, as well as the Movement for Black Lives, have forced the United States to confront its legacy of white supremacy and motivated people to expect more from the powers that have allowed its symptoms to endure. Corporations are part of that. For companies looking to stay in the good graces of an increasingly reformist public, a stand like FedEx’s is the only path forward, and the downfall of Washington’s name is an extension of that calculus.

When Daniel first heard that Washington would retire its name and logo, she was sitting on her couch. She received a Google Alert about an article detailing the team’s plans. Her first reaction was gratitude toward all the Native figures who had made this moment possible—women like Harjo and Blackhorse. “Then I felt really grateful for the Black Lives Matter movement too, because [this change wouldn’t have happened] if it wasn’t for the country seeing its dark history and its truth,” Daniel says. “The white supremacy and the racism that is clearly visible today, and having to see the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and others. That’s what sparked this movement. It created a domino effect.”

In the past few months mayors have renamed streets in honor of the Movement for Black Lives, cities have cut funding to police departments, and colleges and universities have removed statues of colonizers and slave owners. Longstanding symbols of American racism have been dismantled. If nothing else, these changes have proved to be attainable. A statue can be moved. A product can be updated. A name can be abolished.

Manley Begay, a coplaintiff in the 1992 case and a member of the Navajo Nation, was about to go to bed when he heard that the name had finally been changed. A friend’s son texted him the news, and he couldn’t believe it. Once it set in, he started to think. “It’s sort of a bittersweetness to it all, because why does it have to take so long for people to see this, you know?” Begay says. “The conversation that is going on now about racial injustice. It was precipitated by George Floyd, and why does George Floyd have to die for people to realize things that they should know already? Why does anyone have to die or be hurt for people to realize that this is wrong?”

If Washington truly wants to redress Native and Indigenious communities, Begay says, it will have to do much more than just rebrand the team name, uniform, and imagery. It will have to acknowledge the lasting damage it caused, and how that feeds into a larger history of injustice. “It’s not just about the name,” Begay says. “It’s about behavior and attitudes. It’s about conduct. It’s about action that goes along with those names and the thinking behind it.”

In July, Washington head coach Ron Rivera said that the team’s new name will attempt to “honor” and “support” both Native communities and the U.S. military. The Native activists interviewed for this story all roundly criticized that line of thinking, saying it would be impossible to do right by Indigenous peoples while simultaneously celebrating the group responsible for carrying out state violence and land theft against them. “I don’t understand how you can honor both military and Native people,” Daniel says. “It’s a very hypocritical idea.”

When asked what she wants the new name to be, Daniel said that she and the other activists responsible for the culture jam would be willing to let the team purchase the rights to their Redhawks website, but Washington would need to reach out first. Blackhorse, for her part, simply wants the franchise to leave all vestiges of Native identity behind. “Just stick to an animal,” she says. “Stick to an animal and that’ll be fine.”

Synder has long made a point of bringing up his team’s financial contributions to Native communities. In a recent exposé on the team, Sports Illustrated revealed the limited scale and frequency of these contributions. Once the trademark case against Washington ended in 2014, Synder’s donations through his organization, the Original Americans Foundation, decreased substantially each year. By the 2018-19 fiscal year, the foundation contributed $0 to Native and Indigenous communities. Even in the years prior, when Snyder donated to Native schools that used the same mascot as the team, the foundation’s salary and operating expenditures were “more than two and a half times what it donated.”

To Harjo, Synder’s donations were transparently disingenuous—as if funneling cash into Native communities gave him the right to speak for them and immunity from undermining them. “If we couldn’t be rented or bought, then we were just in the way,” Harjo says. “We were just extraneous. We weren’t even part of the equation.”

If Washington felt the need to provide financial support to Native communities back when it claimed its moniker was an honor, it would seem even more crucial now for the team to increase that support. Money has driven this entire process; Indigenous activists say it is only right that it’s also part of the cost of atonement. “There needs to be some sort of reparations to Indigenous communities,” Daniel says, “especially to those that have been fighting in this for so long.”

More than anything else, those interviewed for this story made clear that the only way Washington can effect change is by listening to the people who it wronged. The Indigenous people of this country are a collection of sovereign nations marked by distinct identities. Blackhorse says any actions the team takes, both in changing the name and beyond, must be guided by these communities. “This should be something that should be decided by the people who have been fighting this issue for a long time, so not just me, but everyone in the Native community who has fought this issue at some point,” she says. “I think that’s a conversation that needs to be had amongst Native people to see what would be fair.”

The legacy of the franchise’s name will not be wiped away with a single stroke. There are generations of people who have already heard it on their television sets. There are countless women and men who have already endured horror to dismantle it. All of that, their innocence, their pain, their years spent fighting, it is all lost to time. “They know what they did,” Blackhorse says of Washington. “They know what they were complicit in.”

Harjo goes a step further. “No one can make up for these many decades, nearly a century, that this team has been named the worst thing you can call Native peoples in the English language,” she says. “There’s no way to make up for that. There’s no way to provide for pain or suffering.”

For Harjo and Blackhorse, Washington’s rebrand does not represent justice, and wouldn’t even if placating sponsors weren’t the primary impetus for the change. But they still find undeniable meaning in this moment. When asked whether, knowing what she endured, Blackhorse would choose to protest the team’s name all over again, she was resolute: “In a heartbeat.” She fights for her children, so that their lives will be better than her own. For generations, Washington’s name was a form of cultural erasure, and those who fought to eliminate it were met with racism, anger, and abuse. Now, that fight is done.

“This moment was brought to you by Native people, Indigenous people, who were part of the same resistance we have been involved with for centuries. We have inherited resistance, and this moment is being brought to us by everyone who is part of the reckoning today for social and racial justice,” Harjo says. “What the actual toe was on the soccer ball, or what the fingertip on the tetherball was, or whatever was the last raindrop in the lake before it overflowed onto the valley below, you know that it was everything that went before that was responsible.”

The Ringer NFL Show

Week 7 Preview: Bengals vs. Ravens, Chiefs vs. Titans, and a Look at the Rest of the Slate

The Ringer Gambling Show

Favorites Won Week 6, but Are They Overvalued This Week?

The Ryen Russillo Podcast

Watson to Miami Rumors and Tua’s Future With Jeff Darlington, Plus a Look Back at “The War,” Hagler-Hearns, With Bob Arum and Don Stradley

View all stories in NFL