Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder announced Monday night in a letter to fans that he was starting a foundation to provide financial support to Native American communities, a move Native American leaders and activists opposed to the name of his franchise saw as a blatant public relations stunt aimed at defusing the ongoing fight around the team’s name.
Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum (D), the co-chair of the House Native American Caucus, joined the chorus of criticism for Snyder’s foundation Tuesday, calling it an attempt to “buy the silence of Native Americans with a foundation that is equal parts public relations scheme and tax deduction.”
“For almost eighty years the National Football League and its Washington franchise have exploited a racist Indian caricature, turning it into a billion dollar brand while completely ignoring the needs of real Native American children, families, and elders,” McCollum said in an email statement.
“Now, team owner Dan Snyder wants to keep profiting from his team’s racist brand and use those profits to attempt to buy the silence of Native Americans with a foundation that is equal parts public relations scheme and tax deduction,” the congresswoman continued. “The NFL and its Washington franchise’s legacy of exploitation of Native American identity is real as has been noted by tribal leaders, national Native American organizations, journalists, and Members of Congress. Dan Snyder should immediately change the racist name of his NFL team and then commit a portion of his profits to addressing the issues facing Native American communities across the country.”
Snyder said in the letter that the foundation, named the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, is a result of conversations with 100 Native American tribes and a tour of 26 reservations he visited on a “listening tour” through Indian country. According to the letter, the foundation is aimed at addressing issues like poverty, suicide, and depression that plague Native American communities at extremely high rates compared to the general population.
But McCollum, whose home state has 11 registered Native American tribes, has previously told ThinkProgress that the name and others like it foster harmful stereotypes of Native Americans that make her efforts to address larger issues facing Native American communities harder. The continued use of the name “makes it much easier in the back of your mind to disregard the health care, to disregard the housing,” McCollum said of her work on the Interior Appropriations Committee in a January interview. “The same person you put down is the same person I’m going to be working for to make sure they have access to dialysis and diabetes prevention.”
That echoes the sentiment of Native American leaders who criticized the foundation Monday, in part by pointing to research showing that the stereotypes created by names like this one have harmful sociological and psychological effects on their communities.
“We’ll see how long that goes and what issues they address and how,” Suzan Shown Harjo, a Native American who has fought the name and others like it for decades, told ThinkProgress. “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.”
“Is he really going to put up $50 million of his own money for a suicide prevention program?” Harjo asked. “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 Oneida Indian Nation, which led a public campaign against the name throughout the 2013 football season, also criticized the move.
“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,” Oneida representative Ray Halbritter said in a statement. “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.”
According to Snyder’s letter, the Original Americans Foundation has thus far donated jackets and basketball shoes to various Native American tribes, and has also assisted in paying for a backhoe for one tribe.