On Monday, 15 Native American organizations, advocates and authors signed a letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell asking him to force Washington’s NFL team to change its name. By Wednesday, more than 450 other groups had expressed their support.
In addition to changing the name, the letter asks the NFL to require the team to cease the use of Native American imagery, cease the use of polls to justify continued use of the name and ban the use of Native imagery from the league.
The Washington team name has been controversial for decades, and in 2006, Navajo social worker Amanda Blackhorse was the named plaintiff in a federal lawsuit seeking to strip the federal trademark rights from Daniel Snyder’s team. But as national conversations about systemic racism have intensified after the death of George Floyd and others, many Native leaders believe change may be coming soon.
Crystal Echo Hawk, executive director of a nonprofit Native advocacy group called IllumiNative, recently launched a campaign called “The Time Is Now” advocating for a name change and has already seen results – like the letter to Goodell.
“Nothing’s happened yet,” Echo Hawk said. “But this is the closest I think Native peoples have come in nearly 30 years.”
Among those who justify the team’s name, the 2004 National Annenberg Election Survey and a 2016 Washington Post poll are widely cited as polls that found that 90 percent of Native respondents were not bothered by the team’s name.
Native groups and researchers say there’s more to the story, though. Harvard professor Joseph Gone was part of a research team that compiled academic studies on Native American mascots. Although the studies looked at different names, logos and imagery, none of them found that these logos had a positive impact on Native Americans. Gone emphasized that no study can quantify the impacts of every single mascot in use, but that overwhelming evidence showed a negative impact. Specifically, Native American mascots lead to more stereotyping by non-Native people, and lower self-esteem from Native people.
“In light of this evidence, there’s reason to doubt that a democratization, or simple polling of people’s opinions and majority should rule, is the right way to proceed because this evidence suggests that there are negative impacts,” Gone said. “ … So it’s not really a question of how many people agree or disagree, it’s the evidence.”
In addition to the letter from Native organizations, a group called Athletes for Impact also wrote a letter to the NFL and the Washington team emphasizing the results of the research studies and calling for a complete ban on Native mascots and team names as well as racist behavior by fans. The letter was signed by Native and Indigenous athletes, including golfer Notah Begay III, track athlete Rosalie Fish and boxer Shiloh LeBeau. Among other notable signees were WNBA players Layshia Clarendon, Kelsey Plum and Katie Lou Samuelson, soccer star Megan Rapinoe and Olympians Hilary Knight, Simone Manuel and Ibtihaj Muhammad, and NBA player Kyle Korver.
“As athletes, we know sports have power and we exercise tremendous influence and can inspire people of all ages,” the letter read. “As an intersectional collective of athletes representing a range of races, genders, sports and religions who are actively involved in movements for justice, we ask that you immediately end the use of Native mascots in the NFL.”
Another letter asking to end the use of Native American mascots and team names, as well as racist fan behavior, was sent to the NFL by a group of singers, actors, directors and models, including Minnie Driver, Jewel and Mark Ruffalo.
To Echo Hawk, the increased public support, especially from non-Native people, shows how much the conversation has shifted. While her organization’s demands go beyond simply changing the name – she hopes for an end to Native mascots everywhere, including in professional and college teams, as well as K-12 schools, and an apology to Native Americans for the prior use of racist imagery – the recent momentum of her movement has her hopeful for the future.
“I’m really hopeful in this moment that as more Americans begin to be educated about why these things are harmful, why they’re racist,” Echo Hawk said. “And we understand there’s some education to do, but we see the groundswell and we see I think that the American public and sports fans are going to increasingly stand with Native Americans.”