Op-Ed: You probably fell for the Washington Redhawks hoax — now it’s time to make it real

When the NFL finally addresses this issue, it will be one of the last public entities to do so.

Rally in support of the Washington Redhawks name change. (CREDIT: Teko Alejo)
Rally in support of the Washington Redhawks name change. (CREDIT: Teko Alejo)

A hoax carried out by the D.C.-based, indigenous-led Rising Hearts Coalition on Dec. 13 led many to celebrate news that felt long overdue — that the Washington football team had finally changed its name from the racist “R**skins” to the Washington Redhawks.

Organizers launched a parody website and posted numerous satirical articles online announcing the name change. Social media exploded with the news, the “Redhawks” site garnered over half a million unique visitors, and #GoRedhawks was trending on Twitter.

Within hours, the spoof had generated an online mascot debate that eventually made headlines in Reuters, the Washington Post, USA Today, CBS Sports, ESPN, and over 50 other news publications, services, and broadcasts — for the first time in years. Fans tagged the Washington football team’s Twitter handle, saying they are ready for the change. One stated, “As a lifelong Washington fan, I’m 100% behind the #GoRedhawks movement. It’s beyond time to #ChangeTheName.”

The attention came as a shock to me, as an organizer with the Rising Hearts Coalition. That’s because, in 2017, Native people are used to being invisible. We live behind a wall of silence. This wall blocks our real histories, our unique identities, and our important issues from reaching the mainstream media, academic textbooks, and the minds of ordinary Americans. While last week’s culture jam did not dismantle that wall, it put one hell of a hole in it.

We are only two percent of the population in the United States and, yet, federal policies have a profound impact on our daily lives and the future of our tribal nations. Few non-Natives are aware of this reality. And our invisibility in mainstream society has become our biggest roadblock to equality.

How can we mobilize a public to stand with us, if, on a deep level, that public doesn’t think we exist? If they all think we died a century ago? If they think we are a black and white photo from 1889? If they think those of us who are left aren’t “real Indians”?

Who is going to stand up for the rights of a cartoon?

The Washington football team’s mascot has a dark and violent history. Starting in the mid-17th Century, colonial governments offered money for Native scalps returned to them by murderous settlers, with different prices for men, women, and children. As this practice became popular, a term for these scalps emerged: R**skins. The only world in which a team name based on a genocidal practice isn’t deemed offensive, is a world in which those who would be offended don’t exist or don’t matter. To many, we are nothing more than a bloody scalp, a disembodied head on the side of a football helmet. To many, we are all dead.

While Native advocates have been fighting racist mascots for decades, many of these efforts have been ignored or misrepresented by the mainstream media. Since Native leaders began this fight in the 1960s, more than 2,000 racist mascots have already been retired, including 41 high school mascots called “R**skins.” To date, the movement to change the name of the Washington NFL team includes organized protests, academic research, commercials, petitions, official statements from tribes and Native organizations, and even litigation.

A 2014 survey conducted by California State University’s James Fenelon found that 67 percent of Native Americans find the term “R**skins” offensive. The survey included 400 respondents who were enrolled in Tribes, unlike the highly flawed 2016 Washington Post poll that referred to “self identified” Native Americans. Additionally, many tribes have passed resolutions in support of a name change. These include the Navajo Nation, Cherokee Nation, Choctaw Nation, Chickasaw Nation, Muscogee (Creek) Nation, and Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, representing over 800,000 Native Americans.

Washington NFL team owner Dan Snyder has vowed that he will “never” change the name, and the team’s response to the groundswell of support for the proposed “Washington Redhawks” name was no different this time:

Credit: Twitter Feed of Washington football team
Credit: Twitter Feed of Washington football team

Many ardently racist figures from history have stood in the way of progress until forced to get out of the way. Given the team leadership’s unwillingness to stop using the racial slur, those with power and influence around Snyder — the NFL as a whole and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell — should stop dodging the issue and force a name change.

Such a step is not unprecedented. In 2005, the National College Athletic Association issued a decision that it would bar teams from certain activities that used racist mascots. When the NFL finally addresses this issue, it will be one of the last public entities to do so.

The Rising Hearts Coalition is continuing to fight this battle on the ground, with one of our main leverage points being the location for the team’s desired new stadium at a potential downtown location. Both D.C. Council member David Grosso and Maryland Delegate David Moon have publicly opposed taxpayer dollars funding a stadium under the offensive name. 

A similar leverage point was used in 1961 to force the Washington team to integrate. According to activist and Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree Suzan Harjo’s, the Kennedy administration “told George Preston Marshall that the franchise would not get a new federal lease for the stadium unless he integrated the team. Marshall — a notorious bigot and white supremacist, who changed the name … to the current epithet — permitted integration of African American players in 1962. It was the last team in the league to do so.”

Seven generations ago, my grandfathers came to Washington, D.C. as Cherokee lobbyists to fight the Indian Removal Act and the policy that ultimately led to our trail of tears. To this day, my tribe is still fighting the United States to uphold and recognize our inherent sovereignty.

It’s cruel irony that the city celebrating a racist caricature of Native people is also the seat of a government that continues to pass harmful policies against us.

Rebecca Nagle is a Citizen of Cherokee Nation and a two spirit (queer) woman. She is currently a writer and organizer living in Baltimore, MD.