Every person who wants the Washington football team to change its name got an unexpected gift earlier this week in the form of a Sarah Palin word salad. Palin decided for reasons that are best left unexplored, that her wisdom was required on this issue. Not to surprise anyone, but the former half-term governor stands resolutely with team owner Dan Snyder and vociferous Redskin defender ESPN commentator Mike Ditka, and against anyone who does not think a racial slur should be an NFL brand.
She said, among other things, “Nothing should surprise us lately; but when the Politically Correct Police bust Ditka, they hope the silent majority will cower under leftist control. My goodness, Ditka merely spoke his mind. This accomplished and esteemed coach knows there are big issues to be addressed in America today; there’s no intent to offend by referring to a team by the name they’ve proudly worn since day one and chose with pride in our native ancestry and obviously had absolutely no intent to insult; and the liberal media’s made-up controversies divide our country.”
Then, as part of her effort to not “divide our country” she made a joke that while “Redskins” is a term of honor, “Washington” is the real name that should be changed. (That painfully stale riposte has more dust on it than Ms. Palin’s career in electoral politics.)
The “esteemed” Mike Ditka, another figure who would never dream of trying to “divide” this country, said in his typically healing fashion that the controversy is the result of “politically correct idiots”, “liberals who complain about everything” and the entire debate is “silly” and “asinine.” He then said, “I hope that owner keeps fighting for it and never changes it, because the Redskins are part of American football history and they should never be anything but the Washington Redskins.”
All of this is code, of course, for the line coming from team owner Dan Snyder and the public relations headquarters in Ashburn, Virginia. The name represents “honor” and “respect”, (let’s forget that they were named by an avowed white supremacist whose own granddaughter thinks the name should change) and the entire issue is the creation of white, politically correct sportswriters. It mirrors the words of sports radio host Steve Czaban whose show airs on the Dan Snyder–owned ESPN 980 in DC. Czaban earned his check earlier this summer when he said that this is all about “guilt-ridden white liberal sportswriters.”
What Snyder, Palin and Ditka don’t realize is that they are creating even more motivation amongst a new generation of Native American activists who are sick and tired of being treated as invisible actors. Here is the list of the tribal councils and Native American organizations that have come out against the team name: they represent real people who have said it is a slur that harms their community. But Dan Snyder and his apparatchiks refuse in cowardly fashion to sit down across a table with any of them. For people like Snyder, Palin and Ditka, these are people who simply do not exist.
I spoke to Navajo/Yankton Dakota Sioux organizer Jackie Keeler who is one of the founders the organization Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry about the Snyder forces’ obsession with imposing whiteness on their opponents and invisibility on Native American activists. I am posting the entirety of her comments in the hopes that people who support the name reckon with her words and think carefully about whether the Palins, Ditkas and Snyders of the world are the ones with whom you actually want to stand.
“I always find it amazing considering the fight against Native mascotry is something I’ve been aware of my entire life,” she said. “My parents protested against it in college in the late ’60s and early ’70s. When I was a student at Dartmouth College in the 1990s we Native students were forced to confront this issue. It was at Dartmouth that I first met Suzan Harjo, long-time Native activist who has led the fight against Native people being used as mascots. And of course, National Congress of American Indians, the largest representative body of tribes (two of my dad’s family members were former executive directors) first began an initiative to get rid of Native mascots in 1968.
“This idea that the fight against the mascotting of Native people is something new and led by white folks is an oddly insular and navel-gazing way to understand the issue—and yet another way of cutting Native people out of the American discourse about things that matter to us. By reframing the issue this way, the Washington NFL team continues to make real, modern Native people to disappear, much as their mascot does. It’s a continuation of the extinguishment of the Native voice and the appropriation of our identity and lands. This constant denial of our existence that leads Native youth to feel disconnected from American society and exacerbates the burdens of poverty; Native youth have three times the suicide rate of their American peers of any ethnicity. It also leads to bad policy decisions by non-Native politicians and poor funding for the very real needs of our communities.”
What the right-wing commentators either don’t understand—or understand too well—is that opposition to this team name is not just about a name and does not exist in a vacuum. There is an upsurge of Native American youth activism the likes of which we have not seen in years. Whether we are talking about the Idle No More movement, the push for climate justice or their vocal opposition to police brutality on reservations and pueblos in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown, there is a demand that their humanity be recognized. Not even Mike Ditka will be able to bully them into silence.
As for Dan Snyder, he is going to lose this debate for the simple reason that he is not having this debate. He keeps arguing with ghosts: these imaginary white liberal politically correct sportswriting phantasms who in his mind are out to get him and his beloved brand. Meanwhile, he refuses to sit down across the table from the very Native Americans who are objecting to this name. In the toughest of sports, Dan Snyder is running scared.