Under Their Skin Native Americans Plot Large-scale Protest At Super Bowl To Demand Changing Team Names

Posted: January 20, 1992

For the second time in three months, the Metrodome in Minneapolis finds itself hosting both a major sporting event and a Native American controversy.

In October, it was the World Series, with the Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves playing baseball against a backdrop of tomahawk chops and Indian war chants.

This week, it is the Washington Redskins, a team with a nickname many Native Americans consider offensive, coming to Minneapolis for a Super Bowl XXVI date with Buffalo on Sunday.

Many of the same Indian rights activists who protested the tomahawk- chopping Braves fans at the World Series will be back at the Metrodome this week, calling for the Washington team to change its 59-year-old nickname.

"The name is a racial slur; it's no different than a black person being called a nigger," said Joyce Tayac, 28, an Apache who joined in several demonstrations outside RFK Stadium in Washington during the regular season.

Those were relatively small protests, described by Native American organizers as "non-confrontational and education-oriented," but this week's demonstrations will be conducted on a larger scale to capitalize on the Super Bowl media blitz.

"We have commitments from 40 national organizations to stand with us, groups ranging from the National Organization for Women to the Jewish Anti- Defamation League," said Clyde Bellecourt, director of the American Indian Movement.

"We're gaining more support from around the country every day. We will have an impact."

Bellecourt declined to estimate the number of demonstrators who might take part in this week's activities. However, he indicated that it would be a larger turnout than the several hundred protesters who picketed during the World Series.

The American Indian Movement has several events planned, beginning tomorrow with a workshop on racism in the media. AIM will picket the $1,000-a-head NFL Alumni awards dinner on Friday, then stage a rally outside the Metrodome on Sunday.

"It's going to get real hot for the NFL in Minneapolis," said Don Messec, anti-defamation coordinator for the National Congress of American Indians. ''This (demonstration) won't be as small or as passive as what took place at the World Series."

Leaders of the Indian rights movement feel more anger toward the football Redskins than they do the baseball Braves.

There are two reasons for that.

First, the name "Redskins" is considered a direct insult by most Native Americans. Indeed, "Webster's International Dictionary" defines the word as ''a North American Indian - usually taken to be offensive."

Second, unlike the baseball Braves, who at least agreed to meet with Indian representatives after the World Series, Washington management stonewalled the issue.

"We tried to set up meetings with Jack Kent Cooke (team owner), but we've gotten nowhere," said Charlene Teters, 39, of the Native American Students for Progress.

"Mr. Cooke's response has always been the same: 'The name (Redskins) will change over my dead body.' "

Braves president Stan Kasten met with Native American and civil rights leaders in November to discuss the Indian community's concerns.

Kasten listened for four hours while the representatives cited their objections to the team nickname, the tomahawk chop and assorted spinoffs (wearing Indian headdresses, war paint, etc.) popularized by Atlanta fans during the Braves' run to the National League pennant.

No guarantee was offered that the team would change its nickname, and owner Ted Turner announced after discussing the matter with Kasten that the team would remain the Braves.

To date, the Redskins' only reponse to the Indian protests was the release of a formal statement that reads:

"The Washington Redskins were renamed in 1933 to differentiate between the Boston Braves of the National League (baseball) and the Boston Braves of the NFL. (The football franchise moved to Washington in 1937).

"The name was never intended to offend anyone. Over the long history of the Washington Redskins, the name has reflected the positive attributes of the American Indians, such as dedication, courage and pride.

"The Washington Redskins have become an institution in the nation's capital and the team's popularity brings the community together."

That is the team's basic position - that the name "Redskins" is a tribute to the Indian people and absolutely no disrespect is intended.

Dozens of protesters who gathered outside RFK Stadium before the last six Washington home games, congregating at the monument to team founder George Preston Marshall, strongly disagree.

Dressed in Native American clothing and singing to the beat of drums, the demonstrators handed out leaflets ("Being Indian is not a role one simply plays") and carried signs ("If I'm a Redskin, Jack Kent Cooke is a honkie.")

Some fans taunted the demonstrators by loudly singing the team's fight song, "Hail to the Redskins," whose lyrics offend many Native Americans (especially the reference to "braves on the warpath.")

"The fact that a football team in the nation's capital could be named the Redskins in this day and age shows how pathetically ignorant this country is," said Teters, a member of the Spokane Indian nation.

"I've had some (fans) tell me the team is honoring the Indian people by using that name. I said there are better ways to honor the Indian people. They could start by listening to what the Indian people have to say. We don't want to be portrayed as mascots and cartoon characters.

"I don't believe the average person intends to be racist. It's just that the schools have done such a poor job of educating people (about Native Americans) that they don't grasp the issue."

The Indian people - 1.8 million in number, according to the latest census - face many problems, including poverty, inadequate housing and a soaring rate of alcoholism and suicide on reservations across the United States.

According to Teters, the first step toward improving the current conditions is for Indian people to be seen in a contemporary light. Perpetuating 19th century stereotypes, such as "braves on the warpath," makes that first step all the more difficult to achieve.

Tim Giago, a Native American publisher of the Lakota Times in Pine Ridge, S.D., wrote: "The sham rituals, such as the wearing of feathers, beating of tom-toms, horrendous attempts at singing Indian songs, the so-called war whoops and painted faces address more than the issue of racism . . . They also are direct attacks on the spirituality of the Indian people."

The National Football League has done its best to steer around the controversy being generated by the nicknames of its franchises in Washington and Kansas City (Chiefs).

In a November interview with The Washington Post, commissioner Paul Tagliabue said: "The main thing, I think, is that the fans don't identify, for example, Redskins with Native Americans. They think of John Riggins and Sonny Jurgensen (former Washington players).

"When you think of the 49ers, you don't think of a guy going into the mountains and digging for gold, you think of Joe Montana and Jerry Rice."

That's true, but there are no racial overtones to the image of an old prospector.

There is, however, a racial edge to the name "Redskins," and after hearing it shouted and sung for a half-century, many Native Americans want it buried alongside other unflattering racial stereotypes, such as black-face minstrels and the Frito Bandito.

"The NFL is like most Americans, it doesn't see the harm," Bellecourt said from his Minneapolis office last week. "So we have to spell it out for them.

"Do you think (the NFL) would call a team the Atlanta Blackskins or the Atlanta Negroes? Not with Martin Luther King buried in the team's back yard.

"Imagine if they named a team the Atlanta Bishops and fans came to the game waving crucifixes instead of tomahawks. What if there was a guy dressed like the Pope running up and down the aisles, throwing holy water on the crowd. Do you think Catholics would feel honored?

"No, they'd feel angry. That's how we've felt for years, but no one was willing to listen."

Actually, civil rights groups have succeeded in pressuring several universities into changing their nicknames.

In 1972, for example, Stanford changed its nickname from the Indians to the Cardinal. A few years later, Dartmouth went from Indians to the Big Green. Earlier this month, Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, said it no longer will use Redmen and Lady Reds and will choose a nickname that is not offensive to Indians.

Professional teams have been immune to pressure so far. However, the Braves found themselves squirming during the World Series protest, and this week the Redskins could be in a full-blown civil rights cross fire.

Will it have an effect?

Activists believe it will, but change won't come overnight.

"Our main thrust is directed at the schools," Don Messec said. "We hope that by pressuring the pro teams, we can make our point at the lower levels.

"We want to educate kids in junior high and high school so they see names like 'Redskins' and 'Warriors' for the slurs that they are. They will become a tremendous embarrassment and disappear as those (youngsters) grow and get rid of them.

"I'm sure future generations will look back on a name like the Washington Redskins and wonder, 'How could that have been (used) in 1992? How did society

allow it?' "

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