Last Thursday, The Washington Post published a poll on its front page that found that 90 percent of “Native Americans” were “not bothered” by the dictionary-defined ethnic slur “Redskins,” sending shock waves through the sports world and Indian Country. That slur, of course, is also the name of the local NFL franchise that the Post covers.
To get this number, the Post’s polling team questioned 504 self-identified Native Americans from all 50 states. Given that I have 50 first cousins who are enrolled in the Navajo and Yankton Dakota Sioux Nations, none of whom likes the team name, I found the results to be curious. When I looked more closely at the methodology of the poll, I was appalled.
First and foremost, the Post states clearly that they did not verify the actual Native American identity or tribal enrollment of its respondents. Unlike most “minorities,” non-Native Americans have often declared themselves Native American with little or no factual evidence or cultural connection whatsoever. Furthermore, 56 percent of those asked said they were not part of any tribal nation or could not name what tribe their ancestors claimed. Imagine asking 500 white Americans for an opinion about Europe and not caring that more than half had no connection to their ancestors’ place of origin.
When asked about this (via e-mail), Scott Clement, the polling director at the Post responded:
We see little reason to suspect respondents would intentionally misreport their racial identity or tribal status to a confidential survey. The overall poll results suggest respondents understood a distinction between racial identification and tribal membership, given that a majority of self-identified Native Americans said they were not enrolled. The substantive questions about the team’s name came at the end of polls on other subjects and after survey respondents already had self-identified, leaving no motive (or even opportunity) for individuals to self-identify as Native American when they learned that the questions would center on the team’s name.
Leaving aside the issues of “self-identification,” there is also a problem with demographics. More than half, 274, were over the age of 50. Native Americans have a median age of 26—nearly 10 years younger than the general American population. The Post claims that they “weighted” the results to make sure that those over 50 were given just 39 percent of the voice. But even with “weighting,” by speaking primarily to people over 50—and then including their quotes in the piece as representative of the survey—the Post presented an inaccurate portrait of who we are as a people.
Male respondents also outnumbered female ones, which was quite a feat as Native American men have the highest mortality rates in the country. I remember when my dad was in his 50s and he went back to his reservation in South Dakota and was shocked to realize he was the only Yankton Dakota man left from his high-school class.