Politics, power, and consent in the “redskins” nickname debate

With the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office recently canceling the Washington Redskins’ trademark, and burgeoning opposition from prominent and well-funded groups like the Oneida Indian Nation, I’ve been back into following a topic that one of my thesis students wrote on last semester. Perusing reader comments on some of the recent news reports and columns (which I generally try not to do online because they’re so often just so awful and unhelpful), I’ve noticed a few patterns I want to address, beyond simply affirming my predictable stance that the team should change its name.

Though I have talked about this issue with students in classes, I’ve been reluctant to weigh in on it publicly in part because I’m not an Indian, and I believe it’s the voices of those who are that should be privileged in this discussion. Identifying those voices, however, can be tricky. Anyone paying attention to this issue is aware of several polls–cited frequently by Dan Snyder and others affiliated with the organization, and many of the team’s supporters–that purport to represent a sampling of Native Americans, and that find that the majority of those polled don’t oppose the nickname. But who exactly constitutes those samples isn’t always clear–after all, who determined that these respondents were American Indian? 2010 census data showed “American Indian” to be one of the nation’s fastest-growing demographic groups. While this may be positive–an ethnic population recovering numbers, or a growing awareness of cultural heritage among existing biological populations–it may also reflect growing numbers of Americans who simply choose to define themselves as such for their own reasons. Some may be misguided opportunists hoping to lay claim to what they see as the benefits of Indian identity, some may be claiming for themselves some sort of romanticized heritage; some may be biological descendants of Native Americans who nonetheless aren’t particularly entrenched in native communities and cultures; others, of course, are active members of long-standing native communities. Heck, one defense of the name is that it’s meant to honor Lone Star Dietz, the team’s coach 80 years ago–whose claims to Sioux ancestry are contested. My point here is just that these self-definitions can be hard to parse, but that the nuances here matter significantly for how someone experiences the “Redskins” name.

Opponents of a name-change frequently suggest that this effort is only recent, and that it’s a white liberal cause. It strikes me that both concerns work together to displace the very people who are–in theory–central to the question, Native Americans/American Indians, from the debate.

First, I’m never quite sure why it would only be white liberals supporting attempts to treat segments of the population with greater respect–that seems like a universal project. And why should white liberals be particularly concerned about the nickname? My own personal experience is purely anecdotal, but plenty of Indians describe themselves as conservative and vote Republican–in my admittedly somewhat limited experience, those with transparent political affiliations are more often conservative than liberal, so it’s not like liberal politicians are just trying to secure their appeal to a large and vocal constituency. I suspect this perception is linked to the idea that being an Indian somehow secures a person with special, undeserved privileges–fishing and hunting rights, state-tax exemptions, casino permits, etc.–akin to social welfare programs (“entitlements”).* The fact that prominent media organizations–the supposedly liberal “mainstream media,” another conservative bugaboo–have come out in favor of a name-change, and in some cases have stopped using the nickname in favor of awkward substitutes, no doubt reinforces this perception. I also have to think that the idea the federal government is driving this–the Patent Office canceling a trademark in the midst of a presidential administration many people fear is abusing executive power (the IRS flagging non-profits, etc.)–also plays to conservative concerns about the size and power of the federal government, and in this case a government pitted against private business. Again, though, this makes Obama, Democrats, and other liberals the main agents of this push, rather than Native Americans, and shifts the conversation into the realm of contemporary political contests rather than the arena of racial identities and civil rights.

And for the second, the question of timing. Let’s be clear: it’s not just recent. Native American organizations protested the Redskins specifically as early as the late 1980s, and certainly through the 1990s. The American Indian Movement and other efforts targeted mascots and logos on commercial products, and those used by high schools and colleges, during the 1960s and 1970s. This is not new. Many of those other targets of protest, however, have been more responsive to the concerns voiced than the NFL team has been. What does strike me as newish, as more recent, is the unprecedented platform from which Native Americans can now launch those criticisms, and force their perspectives into public awareness. In part this is a product of their growing numbers, as I noted with the census numbers. In part it’s also a product of an increasing ability across the 20th and 21st centuries to define themselves as a community united by a common heritage, and shared cultural practices and concerns. As outright oppression and legal discrimination have diminished, as forcible assimilation efforts have ended, as technological resources have allowed more in-depth study of genealogical records and archaeological sites, and as procedures for recognizing people as American Indians have been updated, growing numbers of cohesive and active American Indian communities have been able to coordinate financial and human resources and direct them toward shared projects.

This is one reason state and federal recognition matter to tribes–they officially acknowledge the existence of these groups in ways that facilitate collective actions, including the ability to voice concerns about social issues they face. In some cases, tribes do seek recognition at least in part to again exercise treaty rights, including those with economic import. I’m perfectly aware some Americans resent economic endeavors like casinos, and gas stations that charge lower prices because they’re exempt from certain fuel taxes, and I can at least sympathize with people who find that troubling. At the same time, those are activities that help support these communities–providing employment in some cases, cash payments in others. More importantly, though, are the resources they provide these communities to bolster infrastructure (schools, roads, libraries, etc.), and to reinforce cultural identities (through research, through supporting powwows and language reconstruction projects, etc.). And, pertinent to our discussion here, to support projects like challenging the Redskins nickname, an effort in which the Oneida Indian Nation is currently engaged as a central player (if you follow only one link from this post, that’s the one to check out).

To reiterate, then: native communities’ opposition to the name Redskins is not new. What is new is the ability of Native American individuals and groups to collectively mobilize in effective ways.

Many of these assertions that pressures for a name change are only recent, and originate with white liberals, seem to me to reflect a tendency to read everything in terms of today’s polarized American politics, rather than approaching the issue as one involving a minority population’s historical trauma and battle against ongoing colonialism. They attempt to displace from the conversation about the Redskins nickname the very people who are central to it, who may experience it as racist and a homogenization of diverse and distinct identities. In effect, these assertions deny native peoples’ agency in the matter, deny them the ability to consent or not to popular, public, and prominent representations of their past and present experiences and identities.

Whatever the outcome of this dispute/conversation, whatever the prevailing opinion of the majority of Native Americans is, the attempt to deny them the central role in the discussion is an exercise of power that, now more than ever, Native Americans can effectively challenge.

*In Rez Life, Ojibwe author David Treuer points makes a distinction that people often forget. Treaty rights aren’t extra rights given to Native Americans, but rather, traditional rights native peoples had that they reserved for themselves when negotiating the sale or cession of parts of their territories to the United States. They may have lost the ability to make use of those rights at various points in the past, but that didn’t terminate those rights. Different discussion.

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