Washington – U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum has emerged as one of the public faces of the campaign calling on the National Football League’s Washington Redskins to jettison their controversial name.
As co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus, the congresswoman from Minnesota’s Fourth District has revived a decades-long fight over the moniker, a racial descriptor for indigenous people.
The St. Paul Democrat’s efforts have met criticism and challenges. Legislative work on the issue has stalled and detractors have accused McCollum and her colleagues of bypassing more pressing matters.
“It’s a waste of her time,” said Fourth Congressional District GOP Chairman James Carson. “I’m not saying that she’s being disingenuous. My point is that it’s none of her business what a team in Washington decides to call itself.”
McCollum’s battle to rebrand the football team comes closer to her home turf Thursday, when the Redskins play the Minnesota Vikings at Mall of America Field in Minneapolis. She’ll join American Indian Movement activists in a gameday rally to protest the arrival of Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, who has said he has no plans to change the team’s name.
“It’s not a boycott, it’s not a protest against the NFL, it’s a protest against a racial slur,” McCollum said.
Snyder has framed the issues as a matter of tradition and history for the 81-year-old-team, rejecting accusations of racism and insensitivity.
In May McCollum and nine congressional colleagues urged a name change in a letter to Snyder, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Redskins sponsor FedEx, among others, describing the name as a slur among the ethnic group, “akin to the ‘N-word’ among African Americans or the ‘W-word’ among Latinos.”
The team has long drawn criticism for its name, but the attention-getting letter revived the controversy. Thursday’s rally is the latest development in the name change saga, including comments from President Obama on the matter.
Just this week, City Council members in Washington, D.C., voted to urge the team to change its name, saying it is widely recognized as “racist and derogatory.” Six Minneapolis City Council members also penned their own letter to Snyder and Goodell, denouncing the moniker. In St. Paul the council sent a letter Wednesday to the NFL signed by every member, objecting to the use of the Redskins team name.
“It’s way past time that that ought to be changed,” St. Paul Council Member Dave Thune said. “The more cities all over the country start to register their [opposition], the higher the chances it will go away.”
Jacqueline Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, said that Indians have been fighting use of the derogatory name for more than 45 years, “but it hasn’t had the traction that it has right now.”
But legislative efforts to force a change have stalled. Several House Democrats introduced legislation this year that would ban trademarking of the word “redskin.” The bill has languished in a House subcommittee since mid-April.
In advance of Thursday’s game, McCollum sent a letter to Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, local political leaders and the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, asking that they limit use of the Redskins logo in and around the stadium despite possible contract conflicts with the NFL. The request was denied.
Finding common ground
McCollum became co-chair of the Native American Caucus this year. She joined Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole, one of only two American Indians in Congress. Politically the two are polar opposites but have found common ground in their disdain for the Redskins name.
During a panel discussion they hosted last month in D.C., McCollum accused Snyder and the NFL of looking to “exploit and profit from the racial slur ‘Redskins.’ ”
Snyder has pointed to polls that show two-thirds of people who live in the D.C. metropolitan area don’t want the Redskins to change their name.
Outside the Beltway, the campaign has organized protest rallies at Redskins games in Green Bay, Dallas and Denver. A protest rally is planned for Minneapolis on Thursday, where McCollum is expected to be the first member of Congress to headline one of the demonstrations, according to aides.
Larry Leventhal, an attorney for the American Indian Movement (AIM), said Wednesday that the group has filed a petition with state officials seeking to block the use of the Redskins name and logo in the new Vikings stadium when its built. AIM also wants the state to hold a hearing on the group’s claim that the Redskins name violates civil rights law. State officials have said they are reviewing the petition.
What’s in a name?
The lawmakers and many in Indian Country say the issue has broader implications.
“When you trivialize people, their issues become less important,” said Ray Halbritter of the Oneida Indian Nation. To drive their point home, the Oneidas sponsor “Change the Mascot” radio ads in every city the team plays.
In the Twin Cities market, KFAN-FM will air a “Change the Mascot” spot before its broadcast of the Vikings-Washington game.
McCollum said the fight is worth the time.
“This is an opportunity to enlighten people, to give folks an opportunity to understand what the word means,” she said. “Every American should be treated with dignity and respect.”
Staff writers Randy Furst and Kevin Duchschere contributed to this report.
Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @C_C_Mitchell