A new strategy in the movement to replace the Washington Redskins’ long-maligned moniker has taken root in Minnesota, the place an American Indian coalition says is ground zero for eradicating the NFL logo and mascot they consider defamatory.
A letter co-written by representatives of the Minneapolis-based American Indian Movement asks the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA) to refrain from printing or broadcasting the Redskins’ name or logo within the Metrodome during the team’s Nov. 7 matchup against the Minnesota Vikings. Doing so within a publicly owned facility, they reasoned, violates federal labor laws, hate-speech protections and the civil rights of American Indians.
Failure to honor the request could result in legal action ranging from a temporary injunction to a class-action lawsuit on behalf of American Indian children, said activist Alan Yelsey, who co-wrote the letter. Similar letters will be sent to Twin Cities media outlets urging them to stop using the Redskins name, also under threat of legal action.
“There’s no difference between the R-word and the N-word,” Yelsey said. “There’s no reason why this discriminatory and damaging term needs to be used when alternatives exist.”
The letter was written as part of a growing movement inspired by Change the Mascot, a national campaign started by the Oneida Nation of New York targeted toward American Indian mascots. The Minneapolis campaign for now is focused only on the Redskins name. The name has long been challenged in lawsuits and other protests.
Minnesota’s large Indian population, combined with a soon-to-be-built publicly owned stadium and the support of Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus, are perfect elements for the coalition’s first attempt, Yelsey said.
“We’re not trying to change the name, although we prefer it changed,” he said. “We’re saying it’s illegal to use the name in a public facility and place of employment, and to ensure its use is the very definition of institutional racism.”
A protest is also planned outside the Metrodome before the Thursday night game.
MSFA Chair Michele Kelm-Helgen said Thursday that the board heard and understood the concerns at last week’s meeting, but that it’s too early to make a move.
“The NFL has very specific rules about what happens when teams play in our facility, and that’s what we’re looking at with the NFL and our attorneys,” she said. “At this point, I’m not even sure what our options would be.”
Vikings Vice President Lester Bagley said he has had “a couple of good conversations” with Richie Plass, a Menominee from Green Bay who began educating groups about offensive Indian mascots in 1968.
“We understand and are sensitive to the concerns they raise. At this point, we are talking with the NFL about the best way to respond,” Bagley said.
Spokespeople for the NFL and the Redskins did not respond to requests for comment.
Redskins owner Daniel Snyder has refused to change the team’s name, despite years of protests and controversy. In a letter to season-ticket holders, he said he considered the name as a “tradition” and a “badge of honor.”
‘One step at a time’
That’s not how it’s viewed by native people, said Plass, who was humiliated as a teenager when he was asked to be his high school’s Indian mascot. The Redskins name doesn’t stem from skin color, but from the blood running down their bodies after they were scalped by European settlers, he said.
“There’s a man in Washington, D.C., who owns a professional football team and wants everyone to know that he is not going to change the name,” Plass said. “He is taking my way of life, my identity, and he is making millions and millions of dollars off it and he’s saying, ‘You Indian people should feel honored.’ There is no honor in that.”
Larry Leventhal, an American Indian Movement attorney, said there are no intentions to file a lawsuit while the coalition awaits a response from the MSFA. He said workplace discrimination laws or an injunction to prevent use of the Redskins name could apply in this case.
Yelsey, who compares the coalition’s cause to the drive for the Clean Indoor Air Act, which led to the banning of smoking in public places, said they are cautiously optimistic.
At this point, activists would be happy simply if the team’s name weren’t printed or broadcast, he said. Perhaps down the line, they can assert the same claim on uniforms and helmets, then take the complaint to other teams with American Indian names.
“It’s one step at a time, and even this would be a monumental step if we can make it happen,” Yelsey said.