How The “Redskins” Debate Goes Over On An Actual Indian Reservation

Few Natives in South Dakota are boiling with daily outrage over the nickname of a football team 1,500 miles away. But that doesn’t mean it’s OK.

Pine Ridge. Washington Post / Getty

SHARPS CORNER, S.D. — One of the most quoted pieces of data in the debate over the Washington Redskins’ nickname is a poll conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center in 2004 which found that 90% of Native Americans were not offended by the name. It was not the most rigorous survey — respondents were simply allowed to self-identify as “Native,” a flaw obvious to anyone who has a friend who dubiously claims to be one-sixteenth Cherokee, and Annenberg didn’t contact anyone from Alaska or Hawaii, two states with large native populations where sensitivity to indigenous-culture issues is likely more pronounced than it is elsewhere. I’m not Native American — I’m a white guy from Massachusetts — but I live on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, so I decided to do my own informal study. I asked 50 people on and around the reservation a simple question: If it were up to you and only you, would the Redskins change their name?

Twenty-one people said yes. That’s 42%, well above the proportion Annenberg found. But that means 29 said no, which surprised me. To use the common analogy, I’m guessing that 58% of randomly selected strangers from my previous neighborhood — the South Bronx — wouldn’t be quite so tolerant of a team named the Washington Brownskins. While it’s not true that the “Redskins” controversy is entirely a creation of politically correct white liberals — the Oneida Nation of New York is running a season-long protest campaign against Washington’s NFL squad, while advocacy groups like the National Congress of American Indians have been active on the issue of Native nicknames and mascots since at least the 1960s — it’s also undeniable that Natives don’t always see “Redskins” and other nicknames as insults that needs to be addressed immediately. In this part of the country, the Standing Rock reservation has denounced the University of North Dakota’s Fighting Sioux mascot, but the state’s Spirit Lake Reservation supports it. Why such mixed reactions to an issue that, to many outside parties, seems like a no-brainer?

“I don’t really worry about it,” said Elaine YellowHorse, a college student and EMT on the reservation, told me. “There are just so many other things that I need to worry about before that.”

But YellowHorse gives the lie to the idea that 58% of the survey respondents actively condone the name. While she said she wouldn’t bother to change it, YellowHorse also told me that she found “Redskins” offensive and was upset by the idea that there were non-Native fans running around in headdresses in the nation’s capital. It’s a difficult sentiment to understand — to find something offensive but not worth worrying about — but when the whole world around you is tinged with racism, you have a high bar for what you deem worthy of worrying about.

To wit: After attending (and winning) a college archery shoot last year in nearby Rapid City, YellowHorse parked her truck in the parking lot of her hotel, turned off the ignition, and found a gun pointed in her face.The truck was surrounded by police officers with their weapons drawn, shouting, “Get your hands on the wheel!” She followed the instructions and yelled, “Please don’t shoot me!” After a few tense moments, the officers lowered their weapons, gave her a confusing story about how there’d been a fight nearby and someone had fled the scene in a truck that “matched the description” of hers, and left.

That kind of treatment is actually something I’ve experienced myself, minus the guns, when I’m rolling 65s. In South Dakota, the first two numbers on a license plate usually identify the county where the owner lives. In my case that’s Shannon County, which is entirely on the reservation — creating just about the most convenient tool for motor vehicular racial profiling imaginable. I’ve driven cars with and without Shannon County 65 plates for years, and they are two totally different experiences. Drive with 65s, and police cruisers make quick K-turns to follow just a few feet behind your bumper, daring you to get nervous and make a mistake; you’re often pulled over for reasons unclear. When this happens to me and the police see a (fairly) clean-cut white guy behind the wheel, they look surprised, offer sheepish explanations, and leave. If you’re Native American, the experience tends to be different.

At a powwow for military veterans on the reservation. Angel White Eyes

The first time this happened to me, I went to the Boys & Girls Club where I worked, still shaking with anger, and told the story to my mostly Native American co-workers. I finished, and they looked at me like I’d forgotten the punch line to the joke. “What’s your point?” asked one. “Did he rough you up?” asked another. When I said no, the universal sentiment was that I was getting worked up over nothing — that those things were just part of life on the rez. I wasn’t getting worked up over nothing — I was getting worked up over an unfair and probably illegal act of racial profiling — but my co-workers were used to it and had come to accept it as another of life’s inconvenient realities.

Followup questions to Natives who said they wouldn’t change “Redskins” uncovered this same shrugging mentality. In Pine Ridge, 80–90% unemployment, rampant poverty, alcoholism, car wrecks, and diabetes combine to give the people there an average life expectancy about 10 years lower than the average person born in Haiti. Something like “Redskins,” or the occasional suspect traffic stop, gets brushed off as irrelevant. But that should possibly make people in wider American society feel worse, not better, about the nickname.

In my small survey, the most distinct indicator of how someone would feel was how much experience they’d had with the non-Native American world. Those who’d gone off-reservation for college, or lived in off-reservation towns like Rapid City, generally wanted the name changed. Those who’d spent most of their lives on the reservation, and dealt with non-Natives on a much more sporadic basis, seemed more likely to shrug it off.

Why is this so? Maybe because people who’ve lived in the white world have first-person experience seeing their culture mocked by outsiders. Sara Jumping Eagle, now a doctor in Bismarck, North Dakota, grew up on the Pine Ridge reservation. When she went off to college her classmates were mostly white, but the school’s mascot was not.

“I graduated from the University of North Dakota in 1993 and was president of the UND Indian Association for two years,” says Jumping Eagle. “Their mascot is the Fighting Sioux. When I went to college I didn’t know much about the issue at all, I was just 17 years old. But then I went to a hockey game and there were people there, drunk and dressed up in feathers, their faces painted up, acting ridiculous. During the homecoming parade, [the UND Indian Association] had a float and students dressed in Native regalia. During the parade, the float behind us started doing the Tomahawk Chop and playing that duhm-duhm-duhm-duhm war drum, [people] yelling, ‘Go back to the rez.’” After lobbying against the Fighting Sioux nickname during her undergraduate years, Jumping Eagle went to medical school at Stanford, where the university had dropped its “Indians” mascot two decades earlier following protests from Native students. She says she’d like to see the end of “Redskins” — and Indians, and Braves, and all other Native-themed mascots.

Compare that to John Reddy, a high school senior and Oglala Lakota tribal member who hasn’t spent a whole lot of time off of Pine Ridge. “Ehh, whatever,” he said when I asked him if he thought “Redskins” was offensive. Then I put the issue into a real-world situation and asked what he would think if a stranger showed up to his house and called his little brothers and sisters “cute little redskins.” His answer: “Well, I’d fuck him up.”

Allen, South Dakota, on the rez. en.wikipedia.org

My question was a variant on a challenge that Ray Halbritter, head of the Oneida Nation’s tribal government and CEO of the tribe’s successful business arm, Oneida Enterprises, has been issuing publicly to Redskins owner Dan Snyder and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

“Come to our reservation,” says Halbritter, whose tribe does business with the Buffalo Bills, “get up before everybody, families with children, and start out by saying how many cute little redskin children you see in the audience. Then try and tell us that you’re honoring us with that name.” (No one has taken Halbritter up on the offer.)

The Oneida Nation is headquartered in upstate New York, near the 93% white town of Cooperstown, New York, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame and, until recently, the Cooperstown High Redskins. After student complaints last year, the school board voted to get rid of the name, eventually replacing it with “Hawkeyes.” To help pay for new equipment and uniforms, Halbritter and the Oneida Nation, which has a reservation about an hour away, donated $10,000 to the school.

“The Cooperstown kids really inspired me and many others,” says Halbritter, “because on their own these kids did something that these billionaire owners and some writers aren’t willing to do.”

Meanwhile, ESPN’s Rick Reilly interviewed teachers and administrators from a handful of reservation and majority-Native American high schools that use the Redskins name. He found that at those schools, the nickname can actually be a matter of pride. But where Reilly errs is in comparing the Washington, D.C., Redskins to largely Native schools — and to Notre Dame, whose teams of course go by the nickname “Fighting Irish.” It’s unclear exactly where the term “Fighting Irish” originated, but most stories have it as an insult directed at Notre Dame players, who then took it on as a mark of pride, turning the insult into a hard-won honorific, just as any number of ethnic, religious and sexual-orientation minorities have taken on derogatory terms in the same way. (People around Pine Ridge do the same thing with insults all the time, wearing Redskins and Cleveland Indians “Chief Wahoo” baseball caps with a mixture of irony and pride.) There’s the key difference between Notre Dame and the Washington Redskins: Notre Dame is a Catholic, largely Irish institution. “Fighting Irish” is their term to use. Ask your average Irish-Catholic South Bend alum how he’d feel if Oxford University, pride of the British Empire, announced that its new mascot was a pugilistic leprechaun cartoon. If he’s a real Fighting Irishman, he might, as Reddy would say, “fuck you up.”

Similarly, the Washington Redskins aren’t a reservation high school re-appropriating a slur, a local teenager wearing an ironic Atlanta Braves hat, or an elite Native American college with powerhouse sports teams. They’re a white-owned team in the seat of the government that waged war against Native Americans for decades, a franchise with a long history of racism and no discernible connection to any particular tribe or Native American cause. (The team’s PR staff didn’t respond to multiple requests for information on whether they have ever been involved with Native American issues.)

A few days after I first asked Elaine YellowHorse about the Redskins name, we spoke again.

“I talked to some friends about it,” she said, “and one of them is a nurse who’s trying to bring [public health] programs into the schools. The other is trying to get a business off the ground. We all felt pretty much the same: that the name is offensive … but that there are other things to worry about. The tribal housing [department] finally fixed the furnace at my house the other day, and for the first time in my life, we actually have good, working heat in the house. The other night me and my mom were saying, ‘Oh, I get the oil heater in my room tonight,’ ‘Oh, I get the Amish heater,’ and my little brother said, ‘Why are you two arguing about space heaters? The heat works now!’ There are more important things to worry about than something like that Redskins name that we can’t change anyway.”

It’s perhaps relevant to note that YellowHorse’s house sits in a small valley formed by Wounded Knee Creek. In 1890, a band of a few hundred Lakotas and Cheyennes under the leadership of Chief Big Foot came to nearby Porcupine Butte under a white flag of peace and surrendered to the U.S. 7th Cavalry, Custer’s old command. They were escorted to the soldiers’ camp and surrendered their guns. But when a small scuffle broke out, the soldiers opened fire with rifles and Hotchkiss machine guns. Estimates vary, but about 150–300 people were killed, along with 29 soldiers, who died mostly from friendly fire.

After a three-day blizzard, the frozen bodies were torn from the icy ground and crammed into a small, hastily dug mass grave at the top of a hill that overlooks the now well-heated YellowHorse home. On a clear day you can walk a few miles from that house to the top of Porcupine Butte, where Chief Big Foot and his band first surrendered, and in the distance just barely make out the faint, white outline of the “President Heads,” the Mt. Rushmore Monument in the heart of the Black Hills, stolen from the Lakota by the U.S. government during a 16-year war that ended with the Wounded Knee Massacre.

People, Native American people in particular, in my limited experience, have the ability to ignore all manner of historical insults — like the Medals of Honor still on record for the soldiers who perpetrated the Wounded Knee Massacre, or the faces of U.S. presidents carved into a site the U.S. government took through warfare, forced starvation, and treaty violations. That resiliency, though, seems a pretty poor excuse for heaping on much smaller insults — like “Redskins” — and justifying them with “See? They’re cool with it.”

Toward the end of our conversation I told YellowHorse about the pressure that’s building on the NFL and the Redskins and about the high school in Cooperstown that had changed its mascot.

“Wow,” she said, “I had no idea. That’s still not the biggest news in the world, you know, but that’s good to hear. Maybe some things really can change.”

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