The shadow of Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., is cast on the backdrop during the Oneida Indian Nation's Change the Mascot symposium, Oct. 7, 2013, in Washington, calling for Washington's NFL football team to change its name.
It’s just a few blocks from the Metrodome to the Little Earth of United Tribes community, where about half of the 1,000 mostly American Indian residents are under age 21.
On Friday evening, a few of those kids sat in the community center and talked about the Vikings’ Nov. 7 game against the football team from Washington, D.C.
You know, the Redskins.
“It concerns me because it makes people see us as cartoon characters,” said Izabella Chaboyea, 14. “They make our skin really red and put on big huge noses. We don’t look like that.”
“My opinion is that it is offensive and racist and mocks our culture and traditions,” said Carmen Olveras-Ironcrow. “We don’t walk around with feathers on our heads.”
These are the kids that a group of Indian leaders were thinking about when they wrote a letter to the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, asking them to refrain from printing or broadcasting the Redskins’ name or logo within the Metrodome during the game.
If the authority ignores the request, the activists believe it will be violating federal labor laws, hate-speech protections and the civil rights of American Indians.
On Friday, the group plans to demand a vote on the issue. If the authority declines to honor the request, the group might file a class-action lawsuit on behalf of American Indian children, said activist and child psychologist Alan Yelsey.
After years of debate, the issue has gained traction this year after Washington’s owner Daniel Snyder staunchly defended the name.
Yelsey said that his experience tells him that indigenous children are subject to more harassment and bullying because of nicknames that seem to give permission to use racial slurs.
The kids agree. “It’s broadcast worldwide,” said Chaboyea. “It’s really public. We are not cartoons.”
“We’re trying to protect indigenous children from prejudice,” said Yelsey. “We feel like we are making some progress [on the issue].” He said it’s not just a moral issue anymore — “using the name is illegal.”
“We are going for some of the bigger decisions they are able to make without infringing on some of the capitalist gains they are making, such as tickets and uniforms,” Yelsey said.
Yelsey said that the authority is already under obligation to abide by the Minnesota Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination, in order to be certified to do state business.
The team and Metrodome also have discrimination polices in place that prohibit discrimination, he said, and promoting the “R” word could violate those policies and open the door to legal action.
Marshall Tanick, a Twin Cities attorney with experience in workplace and discrimination law, said the tactic is highly unusual.
“I think it has more potential potency as a political strategy than a legal strategy,” said Tanick. “It’s the newest and latest approach to bring attention to the issue.”
Tanick called a battle at the Human Rights Department “an uphill fight,” but said that “just because it hasn’t been tried before doesn’t mean it won’t work here.”
There is also debate over whether the name itself is derogatory, Tanick said.
The group is also threatening to sue media outlets that use the name in print or broadcast, but until the team name is actually changed, it’s unlikely to influence the media.
As for the argument that some Indians either don’t care about the issue or are not offended by the nickname, Yelsey said that indigenous cultures sometimes “run parallel to ours. Many people in indigenous cultures will pay no attention to what happens outside that culture, and so they don’t care,” he said.
One Menominee Indian who does care is Richie Plass, who is part of the group pressuring the Vikings to ban the name.
Plass said the name refers to bounties on Indians when pioneers settled the country. Europeans scalped Indians in exchange for money, and the name comes from “the blood running down the faces and bodies of my ancestors,” he said.
Plass has no doubt the name is a slur, and he’s backed up by the dictionary. The current edition of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary defines “redskin” as an “American Indian” and says the label is “usually offensive.”
That’s not recent political correctness. Mother Jones magazine recently reported that the dictionary’s 1898 edition cited the word as “often contemptuous.”
Plass said he has fought against Indian mascot names for 40 years, but sees a real possibility that attitudes finally are changing. That’s partly because a number of high-profile sports columnists and broadcasters have taken a stand on the issue, Plass said.
Plass doesn’t buy Snyder’s claim that the name “honors” Indians.
“If you want to honor me, come to my house and have some chili and fry bread and tell me stories, that’s honor,” said Plass. “Don’t put on chicken feathers and dance at a football game.”
“Our regalia looks nothing like what they wear,” said Chaboyea, who makes traditional clothing and beadwork and dances in powwows. “I would know. We are real people.”
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