After more than 50 years of pressure from tribes across the country, Washington D.C.’s football team will take the field for the first time Sunday without its heavily criticized name and accompanying imagery.
Social justice protests sparked by George Floyd’s death while being arrested by Minneapolis police officers in June heightened awareness around offensive terms, leading to changes from many American companies. Pressure from sponsors, led by the team’s stadium sponsor FedEx, helped finally convince longtime Washington owner Dan Snyder to remove his team’s infamous moniker and call it The Washington Football Team this season before a new mascot is chosen.
The National Congress of American Indians published its first resolution against the name “Redskins” in 1968, and tribes across Washington state celebrated when the racial slur was finally removed in July. For Wapato girls basketball coach Joe Blodgett, the decision was long overdue.
“Obviously, we get a name like the Redskins and the meaning behind it,” said Blodgett, a member of the Yakama Nation. “That needed to change with people opening their eyes and realizing that it’s not socially acceptable to use derogatory terms.”
The Yakama Nation tribal council did not respond to requests for comment.
The Redskins always held a special interest for many tribal members, engendering a wide variety of feelings.
For Yakama Nation principal and Yakima Valley women’s basketball coach Adam Strom, the name brought a sense of pride. In a country where native tribes are mostly forgotten, Strom said he and others enjoyed seeing a nationally known reference to their culture, no matter how misguided it may have been.
“I could see when it becomes mimicking and comical and ridicule,” Strom said. “I looked at the good that the mascot brought.”
Although he didn’t consider himself a fan, Strom grew up watching Joe Gibbs’ teams in the 1980s and even bought a hat and shirt with the logo. It served as a rare representation of the culture, and he remembers thinking it was “cool” to sometimes see even non-Natives wearing beadwork depicting the face of the mascot.
Other football fans in the Yakama Nation, like White Swan native Daniel Sherwood, saw the discomfort it brought to some people and wanted a change. He believes representation can be found without so much controversy, although he understands why some felt it was a way to not feel left out of American culture.
Sherwood has discussed the topic often with friends and family, including his cousin, Ferrell Aleck. The White Swan firefighter doesn’t agree with the derogatory label and worries if names keep getting removed, no one will know what the word ‘Redskin’ means or know anything about Native Americans in 60 or 70 years.
“I thought it was probably one of the dumbest moves ever to be made,” said Aleck, a fan of the D.C. team until he learned about the Native origins of the Seahawks logo as a 10-year-old in 1993. “It’s hard enough to get people to still believe Natives are here.”
He travels around the western U.S. and encounters plenty of ignorance from people surprised to learn the Yakama Nation exists or that they live like a modern society. Sherwood could relate, noting a friend recently confounded a TSA officer unfamiliar with a tribal ID.
But he’s not worried about the lack of a controversial name heightening that problem and said in fact those mascots can cause racial attacks, especially at smaller levels. Blodgett agreed, adding it can be harmful for kids to see stereotypes on TV that denigrate their sacred culture and sometimes leads to insecurities.
Most common among those are the face paint and headdresses worn by fans to mimic Native Americans. Aleck and Strom agreed those traditions can be offensive, especially considering those things were never part of the culture for many tribes, including those in the Yakama Nation.
A First Step?
Naturally, Washington’s name change prompted questions about whether teams such as the Kansas City Chiefs, Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves and others should follow suit.
Yakima Valley College responded to pressure from the Yakama Nation in the late 1990s, when students voted to change the school’s name from Indians to Yaks. White Swan girls basketball coach Don Jones disagreed with the move at a school where he’d created many fond memories as the only Native player on the team.
Blodgett has plenty of good memories from his father’s tenure as a coach for the YVC Indians. Still, he saw the name change as a meaningful gesture to recognize the value of the nearby Yakama Nation.
Aleck believes changing more names would be political correctness going too far and Strom recalled strong attachments to some of those other pro mascots as well. Although he understands how the stereotypes can be harmful, Strom said his entire softball team would wear Cleveland Indians hats with the cartoonish Chief Wahoo logo.
Blodgett said the term ‘Redskins’ carries a more negative connotation than others, and it often depends on the context. For instance, he wouldn’t question the use of the mascot at Welpinit High School, where the mostly Native student population uses it as a source of pride.
Similarly, Blodgett and Sherwood said it’s acceptable when teams use a name with the approval of local tribes, such as the Florida State Seminoles. But Sherwood doesn’t believe history should be used as a reason to stick with hurtful stereotypes and offensive imagery.
“Instead of sticking with old ways that people are uncomfortable with, it’s time to change things and get better,” said the 36-year-old. “America, in my opinion, always gets better and so we should expect that out of all things, even sports teams.”