Embroiled in a controversy surrounding his team’s name, Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder announced in a letter on his team’s web site that announced the Redskins planned to set up a foundation to help Native Americans address a list of other issues that affect the community, a move that was immediately criticized by Native American activists opposed to the name.
Snyder’s letter announced the creation of the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, the result of a “listening tour” he conducted this fall by visiting 100 Native American tribes.
“The mission of the Original Americans Foundation is to provide meaningful and measurable resources that provide genuine opportunities for Tribal communities. With open arms and determined minds, we will work as partners to begin to tackle the troubling realities facing so many tribes across our country. Our efforts will address the urgent challenges plaguing Indian country based on what Tribal leaders tell us they need most. We may have created this new organization, but the direction of the Foundation is truly theirs,” Snyder wrote in the letter.
The foundation, Snyder said, would seek to help Native Americans address high rates of poverty and other issues facing their communities. According to Snyder, thus far, the foundation has donated jackets, some basketball shoes and a backhoe to various tribes.
“For too long, the struggles of Native Americans have been ignored, unnoticed and unresolved,” Snyder wrote. “As a team, we have honored them through our words and on the field, but now we will honor them through our actions.”
Native Americans who are opposed to the name are less than impressed.
“We’re glad that after a decade of owning the Washington team, Mr. Snyder finally says he is interested in Native American heritage, but this doesn’t change the fact that he needs to stand on the right side of history and change his team’s name,” Ray Halbritter, the representative of the Oneida Indian Nation of New York who led a public campaign against the name in 2013, said in an email statement to ThinkProgress. “At the very least, we’re also hopeful that in his new initiative to honor Native Americans’ struggle, Mr. Snyder makes sure people do not forget that he and his predecessor George Preston Marshall, a famous segregationist, have made our people’s lives so much more difficult by using a racial slur as the Washington team’s name.”
Suzan Shown Harjo, an activist who has fought the name and others like it for decades, told ThinkProgress that she regarded the foundation as a public relations stunt that showed Snyder’s “arrogance” when dealing with Native American issues.
“We’ll see how long that goes and what issues they address and how,” Harjo said. “Many, many people and groups have parachuted into Indian country and thought they had the ideal solution because they had spent a hot minute with some of our people.”
That Snyder needed a listening tour to discover the plight of Native Americans may be revealing in and of itself. “Does he think he’s the only person to figure this out?” Harjo asked. “Native America is impoverished? He just now figured that out? We know what the pressing issues are. We’re the ones who’ve been dealing with them all our lives. What an insult. The whole thing. This is a stunt. To me, it’s a stunt. But we’ll see. Supposedly it’s a change of heart, but it’s not a change of mind. And it’s not a change of name.”
Harjo noted that Snyder isn’t listening as closely as he says he is, because groups like Oneida and the National Congress of American Indians and politicians who work on Native American issues insist that names like “Redskins” make addressing the larger issues facing the communities even harder. NCAI often touts research showing that names like “Redskins” have adverse psychological and sociological effects on Native communities and their youth in particular, and the organization produced an ad around the Super Bowl to highlight diversity among Native Americans that is diminished by blanket monikers like the team’s name.
“Is he really going to put up $50 million of his own money for a suicide prevention program?” Harjo said, pointing back to the research highlighting the indirect effects of Native American imagery. “Does he understand that part of teenage suicides, which are the worst in the country, part of that comes from low self-esteem and part of that comes from negative imaging, of which his franchise is one of the worst offenders? So he can cry about high rates of suicides but he doesn’t begin to understand how he’s contributing to that and that this is a real matter of life and death.”
The franchise has ramped up its public relations efforts in recent months. As ThinkProgress reported in January, the Redskins are now seeking advice on the name from a team of high-profile Washington communications consultants that includes former White House officials Ari Fleischer and Lanny Davis and former Virginia governor and senator George Allen. The team also launched Community Voices, a PR campaign defending the name, in February.
This story was updated at 11:55 to include the comments of Suzan Shown Harjo.
The National Congress of American Indians, the oldest and largest Native American organization in America, released a statement Tuesday responding to Snyder’s foundation and reiterating its calls for a name change:
“The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) is encouraged to see that after decades of insisting their team name supposedly honors Indian Country, the Washington, DC football team’s owner is dedicating time and resources to the challenges facing tribal nations.
“However, this Foundation will only contribute to the problems in Indian Country if it does not also address the very real issue of how Native people are consistently stereotyped, caricaturized, and denigrated by mascot imagery and the use of the R-word slur. For Mr. Snyder and the Foundation to truly support and partner with Indian Country, they must first change the name of the DC team and prove that the creation of this organization isn’t just a publicity stunt.”