By Any Other Name: The Washington ‘Redskins’ and First Nations Portrayals

By: Chris Dagonas

The 2014 National Football League season kicked off on Thursday, and yesterday the majority of the 32 NFL teams played their first game. But only one of those games had protesters outside.

As you are probably aware, the NFL is a gigantic piece of American society; friends and families come together every week in the fall to cheer on their teams and generally do friend-and-family type things. Nothing controversial about that.

Little kids, mostly boys – but girls in increasing numbers – all over North America use football as a medium for exercise and an outlet for aggression. Yes, there are many studies that show the dangers of concussions, but every sport comes with some danger. Exercise and teamwork; no controversy about that, either.

Teams in the NFL represent the East Coast, Middle America, the Midwest, the South, and the West Coast. They have animal mascots such as the Dolphins (GO DOLPHINS), Rams, and Lions. Nothing controversial with those names, is there?

A protest from last season outside a Washington game

A protest from last season outside a Washington game

So what were the protests about? OK fine, if you read the title you already know. The Washington football team began their season in Houston amid Native American protesters. After owner Daniel Snyder spent a long spring and summer deflecting pleas from various groups to change his team’s name, the Washington football team opened their 82nd football season using an incredibly offensive nickname.

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This past week, I opened the school year at a new school. This school has the distinction, unique in the city of Toronto, of providing education specifically designed for First Nations students. I spent the first few days of my summer attempting to learn as much as I could about “First Nations” culture, before coming to a conclusion I should have reached long before: it is impossible to sum up, through a few Google searches, an encapsulation of “First Nations” culture. I might as well have been looking for “European” culture, or “Asian” culture. The differences, in language, religion, food, and artwork, even from one tribe to the next, are as great as they might be from Greek to Turkish, or Japanese to Korean.

I began to meet my students on Tuesday, and immediately realized everything I had looked up, even the stuff I thought was useful and intelligent, might as well be thrown out. Each student has their own skills, traits, abilities, and areas of improvement. And their own tragic stories.

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The history of Native-Western relationships in North America (not to mention South America, the Caribbean, and Australia) is fraught with examples of dishonesty, abuse, and even genocide. In 1534, the French explorer Jacques Cartier arrived in what is now Quebec. He met a local Native tribe, and after spending a summer with them, realized he had to prove to the King of France that he had made contact. He then kidnapped the two teenaged sons of the Chief to take them back to France. Cartier is considered a Canadian hero by many.

It is all too easy to find such stories. Fraudulent treaty negotiations, using alcohol and diseases to wipe out entire villages, and the terrible history of residential schools and reservations, have created an underclass of First Nations and Native people who have struggled to come to terms with their past, keep their traditions alive, and also participate in the modern world. Drug and alcohol abuse run rampant in Native communities, while depression and suicide rates are higher than many other cultural groups. In some provinces, First Nations adults comprise over 80 percent of prison inmates, despite only accounting for about 10 percent of the population.

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My students come from Blackfoot Cree, Ojibway, Algonquin, and other backgrounds. They like to paint, dance, and solve mathematical problems. They listen well, especially to stories, and are rarely heard to make fun of another student. Some of their parents are absent, some in jail, some dead. They represent the next generation of First Nations people in Toronto, and our school’s goal is to put them on a path toward success – and keep them on it, despite everything.

Yes, I plan on telling them all sorts of interesting things in the classroom. I will tell them how to e-mail me assignments, and how to properly source online research. I will tell them how to multiply 4-digit numbers without calculators, and how to show their work on their long division.

But more importantly than what I will tell them, is that I will listen to them. I will listen to them when they need to vent about their families, or about their friends, or about anything else. I will listen to them when they give their opinions and ideas about books and poems. I will listen to them talk about their weekends. I will do what so many generations of authority figures have not done for First Nations people. I will listen, and they will have a voice.

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Robert Griffin III

In Houston yesterday, members of the American Indian Alliance, a multi-tribal Native group, protested outside of NRG Stadium before and during the game. You might have missed it, as few protestors showed up, and little attention was paid in the media. But the fact is that this could turn into a growing protest, as more and more people, particularly Natives, will see this as a uniting cause. Many newspapers have already moved to ban the use of the word “Redskins”, referring to them only as Washington.

Imagine, if you can, a team called the San Francisco Slant-Eyes. Or the Houston Wetbacks. Or the Atlanta N****rs. You can’t. Obviously, those teams would have quickly moved to change their names, and many years ago at that. But African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Latino-Americans, despite the many, many problems with race relations in America, do have a voice in national media. Native people still struggle to have one of their own. It may not be Snyder’s fault that the team name was chosen in the first place, but he has the power to make a move this year to help heal deep and ancient wounds. And if he chooses not to, perhaps commissioner Roger Goodell should act instead.

The Washington football team is not the only one with a derogatory nickname, either. The Cleveland Indians also use a misnomer, albeit a less offensive one, in their portrayal of a Native mascot. However, since Indian is still a name some Native groups use to self-identify, it can at the very least be defended. The same goes for the Atlanta Braves, the Florida State Seminoles, and others that refer to specific tribes with a modicum of respect towards their histories.

First Nations and Native groups all across North America, particularly those from the United States, have made their voices heard. The name has got to go. Who will decide to listen?

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