By Guest Contributor Megan Red Shirt-Shaw
On the first morning of this year’s NFL Draft, I turned on the television to see an interview with the league’s commissioner, Roger Goodell. Sitting in a suit and smiling, Goodell was asked about his favorite team growing up. After saying he had initially been a Baltimore Colts fan, he shared that he eventually became a huge Washington Redskins fan. A few voices from the studio audience let out a whoop in solidarity. I stood with my arms crossed watching the remainder of the interview, wishing like many young Native people that I could sit down and have a conversation with the commissioner of the NFL.
Conversations about the Redskins, Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves have successfully gained a lot of attention over the past year, with movements across the country arising including the “De-Chief” movement and Change the Mascot. House Democrats, and the league’s own Richard Sherman have come out in support of why the name change is important, especially with Donald Sterling’s public downfall in the NBA.
Beyond a deeper understanding of what the term “Redskin” means to Native people, there’s the issue of where that term is continuing to rise to the surface. What the adults on the wrong side of the conversation seem to forget, is who images of screaming painted Redskins fans or Eagles fans holding “Indian heads” on stakes truly impact the most – Native kids across the country who are just beginning to form their own identities as young, Indigenous members of society.
In March, Pit River Tribe students in Northern California reported coming to school to find notes that read “Watch Your Redskinned Back” and “White Pride B*tch” sitting in their lockers. It was reported that non-Native students within that community started a “Redneck Club” as a response to elections for Native Youth Council. Parents from this community have started transferring their kids to other schools because of the nature of the hate crimes that have ensued. Families have stood up to the school system, challenging the racist environment and trying to talk to school officials about solutions to make it safer for their children.
According to reports, the school administration has not responded like they have otherwise stated. While this story has gained attention in the Native community, it’s not a conversation that’s happening within the larger context of why changing these national mascots is so important for young Natives people’s perceptions of themselves.
I keep looking at the photograph of the Pit River students who feel unsafe to go to school because of peers who have formed the idea that it is okay to call them “redskins.” I think about their parents and siblings and how deservedly, they should be able to learn without the pressure of being called something that hurts. That. Name. Hurts. Our. Kids.
Goodell, the team’s quarterback, Robert Griffin III, and the fans who paint their faces and wear feathers to games don’t seem to understand this about why the name change is crucial. Goodell loved the Redskins when he was a kid, but there are kids out there who are preventing other students from going to school, demonstrating the argument that his favorite team’s name is a racial slur.
In an attempt to change the conversation about changing the team name, owner Dan Snyder created an “Original Americans Foundation,” but the students in Pit River likely aren’t going to care about Snyder showing his generosity. They care about being able to go to school and learning and voting on their Native Youth Council. These are the ways in which they will progress. The entire nation should be rooting for these students and for other students in Native communities to beat the odds laid out by going to school, graduating, and going on to college.
This is not unique to the Pit River community. This is happening to Native students on reservations and rural and urban communities across the nation. What I was taught growing up was that children are sacred. Ultimately, they deserve to live in a nation that respects and loves them alongside any other kid kicking up dirt on the playground. With every fan donning war paint and every negative image that arises of Native people, Goodell, Snyder and the “Redskins nation” impact our kids. As a young Native woman who has learned to enjoy watching football, they’re impacting my future daughter or son in a negative way. They impact my niece who is growing up now. They’re already deeply impacting the students of Pit River and I’m not totally certain they’re even aware of it.
Until the name is changed, no matter what round, there will always be a player somewhere accepting a Redskins hat during the NFL draft. They might hug Roger Goodell, they’ll smile for the cameras, they’ll eventually shake Dan Synder’s hand, they’ll hug their
mother – the mother who loved them and believed in them as a small child and who wanted a safe environment for them at school. In Northern California, there’s also a Pit River mother hugging her child – the child who loves her and believes her when she says she wants a safe environment for him at school. Wake up, Redskins Nation. Change the name.