Kent Bush: How important is a team name?
Motive is the most important element of any action.
I find myself more concerned about why people do things instead of merely what they do.
It has taken a decade, but Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder finally decided to get to the root of his team’s racist controversy. It took a lot of protests and proposed legislation to get Snyder to dive deep into what his team means in general and specifically to the Native Americans who are often offended by the team’s mascot.
Many Native Americans recall the origin of the word. Redskin was basically a racial identifier based on skin color. Its historical use has been primarily derogatory. Some even claim the term had origins in the price that would be paid for the scalp of slain Native Americans who were thwarting colonial attempts to expand.
But Snyder has always held that the name was meant to honor the heritage of Native Americans.
I don’t know how that works, but I know I grew up 20 miles from a team called the Rush Springs Redskins who were just a short drive from Indian City USA, and no one ever even protested.
And it isn’t like people in the area were against the idea of changing mascot names.
Many tried to get Duncan, Okla., to give up the Demons mascot because it was evil.
For years, we unsuccessfully tried to get our high school in Chickasha to change the Fightin’ Chicks mascot to almost anything else. Being a Fightin’ Chick isn’t as exciting as you might think. If I had a nickel for every KFC bucket I saw worn as a hat by opposing student sections or signs made by cheerleaders that said, “Fry the Chicks,” I could retire comfortably.
But while being a Fightin’ Chick felt derogatory, it was just embarrassing, not racist.
Tulsa Union High School still uses the name with only a few protests. Wichita North hasn’t changed its mascot yet.
But Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, Okla., changed its mascot from Redskins to Red Storm in 1998. The University of Utah and Miami of Ohio did as well.
Redskin is a word that has obvious origins in racist speech. But because so many schools have used Redskins as a mascot over the years, it seems many people – including some Native Americans - have accepted the change in connotation.
I guess the offensiveness of the word comes down to whether you believe the nature of a word can change over time.
I have never heard a Native American person called a “stupid redskin” or “lazy redskin” even during an angry Twitter tirade. Maybe that is why Snyder came across so many Native Americans who had no problem with his team’s use of the mascot this summer.
The team’s owner took an envoy across 20 states this summer to visit 26 reservations to get opinions of people who should be insulted by his mascot, if anyone is.
Snyder, who has resisted changing the name of his team despite protests, said he discovered the tribes and their leaders had far more substantive concerns in their daily lives than merely what a football team calls itself.
Because of that, he decided to do something that would truly honor Native American heritage. He started a foundation to make life better.
The Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation was founded with the mission to address the facts that the poverty rate on reservations is 29 percent, diabetes, alcoholism and suicide rates are elevated among Native Americans, and basic infrastructure on many of the reservations he visited this summer is limited at best.
“I’ve listened. I’ve learned. And frankly, it is heart-wrenching. It’s not enough to celebrate the values and heritage of Native Americans,” Snyder said. “I want to do more. I believe the Washington Redskins community should commit to making a lasting, positive impact on Native American quality of life.”
They have already done projects like handing out coats and buying a backhoe for a tribe, and there are 40 more projects that are ongoing.
At least they are doing something. You don’t see the owners of the Detroit Lions trying to save those four lions that were put down only weeks after being allowed to eat a euthanized giraffe at a zoo in Copenhagen.
In all seriousness, it is impossible not to recognize the benefit this foundation could be to Native Americans who are facing difficult situations.
But I’m not sure that merely donating money and doing good deeds exonerates the team for using what was originally and consistently used as a racial epithet as a team mascot.
Many detractors are also unconvinced.
“We are glad that after more than a decade of owning the Washington team, Mr. Snyder is finally interested in Native American heritage, and we are hopeful that when his team finally stands on the right side of history and changes its name, he will honor the commitment to Native Americans that he is making today,” Oneida Indian Nation representative Ray Halbritter’s statement read. ”We are 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 Washington’s team’s name.”
Once again, it all comes down to motive.
If Snyder was truly touched and really just wants to help, then I applaud his effort. But a cynical side of me can interpret this foundation as a great way to pay off protestors and save face.
I don’t believe that people who cheer for Washington’s football team are simultaneously mocking Native Americans, but the origin of the term is obvious.
Unlike many high schools and small colleges that used the mascot, a professional football team has a lot of money at risk with a name change.
At one time I would have told you the change was a matter of when, not if. But now, I’m not so sure.
But if Snyder is convinced that keeping the name is important, at least some good is coming out of it.