What the Washington Commanders’ new name means for Native Americans : NPR

A detailed view of a Washington Commanders logo during the announcement of the Washington football team’s name change – an announcement welcomed by Native American activists who felt that the team’s former “Redskins” nickname denigrated their identity and their culture.

Rob Carr/Getty Images


hide caption

toggle caption

Rob Carr/Getty Images


A detailed view of a Washington Commanders logo during the announcement of the Washington football team’s name change – an announcement welcomed by Native American activists who felt that the team’s former “Redskins” nickname denigrated their identity and their culture.

Rob Carr/Getty Images

When the Washington Commanders announced their official name change last week, it ended a dark chapter for many Native Americans.

The NFL franchise unveiled its new name, logo and uniforms on Wednesday, more than 18 months after dropping its 87-year-old name. The “Washington Redskins”, as the team was once known, are offensive to many Indigenous peoples who viewed the name and branding as both an insult and a derogatory stereotype based on America’s history of violence. against indigenous peoples.

Suzan Harjo, a 76-year-old lawyer at the center of the fight to change the team’s name, called the change “a huge step forward”.

For Harjo, it was a victory after decades of disappointment. When owner Daniel Snyder announced in 2020 the team’s plan to change its name after bowing to corporate pressure, she didn’t hold her breath. She had seen many encouraging signs since her efforts to change derogatory team and school names began in the 1960s, but progress has long been elusive.

In 2009, she saw the Supreme Court refuse to consider her motion to resolve a years-long legal challenge to the name that lower courts had dismissed on legal grounds. Even when then-President Obama spoke out on the matter and said he would “think about changing” the name if he owned the team, Snyder didn’t budge.

“You might be flippant about it and say, well, you know, look how long it took,” she said, “but deep down, it’s remarkable.”

And it’s one that she says represents a sea change in society.

“A lot of people are getting it now,” she said. “That it is not acceptable to use derogatory terms, derogatory names, slurs, images, behaviors.”

The name caused deep pain to Native Americans

In his experience, the “R-word,” as Harjo calls it, is inseparable from harmful and racist attitudes that have resulted in “emotional and physical violence” against Native Americans.

“If it is permissible to say such things to us, such names, then it is permissible to do anything to us,” she said.

“I’ve had a lot in my personal life using that word,” said Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal member Harjo. “When I was a girl, you could barely go through your young life without getting attacked by a bunch of white people – whether they were boys or girls, men or women. And they always used that word.”

The origin of the term has long been debated by linguists and historians. Some say “redskin” didn’t start out as an insult. But for many Native Americans, including Harjo, the word refers to the grotesque act of hunting down and skinning the scalps of their ancestors for cash bounties.

A tipping point has come amid protests for racial justice

Snyder had ignored years of advocacy and litigation by Native American activists to push for change, saying his team’s name was a “badge of honor” that upheld a long tradition. But in 2020, the tipping point has arrived. The killing of George Floyd sparked a moment of racial awareness in America that prompted FedEx, the team’s title sponsor, to threaten to sever ties with the team unless it changed its name.

At no time during conversations about selecting a new name did the NFL team consult with the National Congress of American Indians, after such commitments were made to include leaders of the organization in the process, according to NCAI President Fawn Sharp.

Washington Commanders did not respond to a request for comment on their name change process.

Hundreds of teams still use derogatory names

Sharp, like the rest of the public, learned of the team’s new name when it was announced last week. And she thinks the “Commanders” moniker is on the mark.

“It seems to align with how they relate to tribal nations,” said Sharp, who is also vice president of the Quinault Indian Nation in Washington state. “On the one hand, saying they’re going to be inclusive. But on the other hand, making sure that [change] without a single meeting with us, as promised – he is definitely taking on a leadership role.”

Even so, she says, the official name change marks “the end of a dark era”. It means younger generations will no longer enter a stadium in the nation’s capital that “operates some of our most sacred practices,” Sharp said.

Still, she knows the movement isn’t over as hundreds of teams across high schools, colleges and professional sports continue to use derogatory names, mascots or logos that reference Native Americans.

But Harjo thinks it’s only a matter of time before other professional sports teams follow suit, namely the Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Chiefs and Chicago Blackhawks.

Nohemi M. Moore