Washington’s football team won’t be playing in Super Bowl XLIX this weekend. But in the days before the NFL’s biggest game kicks off in Glendale, Ariz., Native American activists and organizers in a state that has 21 recognized tribes will hold multiple events that both challenge the team’s “Redskins” name and tie the stereotypes perpetuated by it to one of the most pressing issues facing the NFL this season: domestic violence.
Saturday, a coalition of Native American groups, grassroots organizations, and activists will hold a vigil in Phoenix’s Civil Space Park to memorialize missing and murdered indigenous women, according to the event’s Facebook page. The next day, on Super Bowl Sunday, they will march and rally in downtown Phoenix to draw attention to harmful effects of Native American stereotypes when it comes to violence against Native women, who face domestic violence and sexual assault at higher rates than other communities.
The NFL’s much-criticized handling of the Ray Rice domestic violence case has put that issue next to the league’s name in the news throughout the year, giving organizers one reason to focus on it especially. But the primary aim of the event is to make it clear that the fight with Washington isn’t merely about a name, but about the broader implications of Native American mascots, especially as supporters of the name have argued that activists should focus on bigger problems facing Native people (Washington owner Dan Snyder is among those who have made such claims).
“We really want to make the connection that this mascot issue and the name issue really is bigger than just simply changing the name, that there are deep connections with how American Indians are perceived and how stereotypes really do harmfully impact American Indians,” said Nicholet Deschine, a doctoral student and member of the Diné and Lakota tribes who has helped organize past protests against the name in Arizona.
“That connection can be seen in domestic violence and violence against Native women.”
The stereotypes created by Native mascots like Washington’s cloud the fact that issues like domestic violence and sexual assault affect Native women even more acutely than other demographics, said Jacqueline Keeler, a writer and founder of the group Ending Offensive Native Mascotry who is also helping organize the march and vigil events.
“A lot of the stereotypes promoted by mascots are…the warrior image. The flip-side of that is the ‘Poca-hottie,’ the Savage Squaw, the person who is sexually available to the white man, and that is a big part of the story of America, this idea that there is some Indian princess out there,” Keeler said, pointing to images of Washington cheerleaders, who have in the past dressed in their own Native American costumes.
“How white men view us matters,” she added. “These stereotypes that people have are so powerful. They really mislead them about Native people, they cause them to harm Native people. This is why they have to stop.”
Keeler pointed to statistics from the Department of Justice showing that Native American women “are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual assault crimes compared to all other races,” and that an estimated 70 percent of those crimes are committed by men of other races, a higher rate of interracial violence than women of any other ethnicity suffer (overall, 39 percent of Native women identify as victims of domestic violence and 34 percent as victims of sexual assault, also higher rates than women of other ethnic groups, according to surveys from the Centers for Disease Control). Arrests are also less likely in cases involving Native women than in those involving white or black women.
The 2013 re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act sought to remedy some of these problems, including jurisdictional and legal issues that make prosecuting perpetrators of violence against Native women harder for both tribes and the criminal justice system to carry out. But even during the debate over VAWA, Keeler said, it was evident that the persistence of stereotypes affected lawmakers’ and the public’s view of Native Americans and made it harder for everyone to understand the issues facing Native communities.
“Mascots mask the reality of actual Native people. People stop at the mascot, and they don’t go any farther,” she said.
In addition to organizing the protest, Keeler has also written about the issue and started an online petition drive calling on NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to “show your commitment to stopping domestic violence by retiring the use of the ethnic slur ‘Redskins’ and support Native women’s domestic violence programs.”
Deschine hopes that the march and vigil will draw crowds similar to the roughly 150 people who attended a protest outside University of Phoenix Stadium when Washington visited the Arizona Cardinals earlier this season. That was one of a string of demonstrations against the name in cities where Washington played. The organizers are hopeful that the protests will draw not just the NFL’s attention, but the focus of national domestic violence groups that have been outspoken about the Rice case and other issues but are often quieter — or unaware — of issues facing Native Americans.
Native American groups have previously pointed to sociological and psychological effects of such stereotypes to demonstrate the importance of their fight against such mascots, and other events during Super Bowl week hope to highlight similar messages.
On Saturday, Arizona State University’s American Indian Social Work Student Association is holding a panel discussion that also connects Native American stereotypes to violence against Native women. That panel will feature Amanda Blackhorse, the lead plaintiff in the case that invalidated six of the team’s federal trademark protections in June. The Heard Museum of Native Cultures and Art is also hosting the Indigenous Stereotypes in Sports Symposium on Friday. That will feature a lecture from Kevin Gover, the director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, and a panel discussion that includes Blackhorse, Suzan Shown Harjo, who has fought Native mascots for years and in 2014 received a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Jim E. Warne, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe who briefly played in the NFL.
The museum is also spotlighting an exhibit — titled “The Beautiful Games: American Indian Sport and Art” — throughout Super Bowl week to demonstrate the athletic achievements of various Native American athletes, and to show how the use of Native mascots and supposed “rituals” obscure that history.