There is a groundswell of pressure to change the Washington Redskins' team name, which some argue is offensive, a movement that gained some steam with a letter signed by 50 U.S. senators calling for action. The letter referred to the Redskins' name as being an example of "racism" and "bigotry" and managed to make a connection to the NBA fiasco with outgoing Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling.
This prompted a reaction from the Redskins. Team president Bruce Allen countered swiftly with a response to Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid in a letter of his own. The theme of Allen's three-page letter, which clearly was carefully and thoroughly researched, was that the name is a respectful, positive one — not the racism that Reid and others are claiming.
Some notable pieces of the letter, including the facts that Allen presents:
• "More than a decade ago one of the foremost scholars of Native American languages, Smithsonian Institution senior linguist Ives Goddard, spent seven months researching the subject and concluded that the word ‘redskin’ originated as a Native American expression of solidarity by multi-tribal delegations that traveled to Washington to negotiate Native American national policies.”
• "The highly respected Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania surveyed Native Americans nationally and reported that an overwhelming 90% of respondents said the name was not offensive. More importantly, Native Americans continue to embrace and use the name and logo."
• "The vast majority of Americans are in favor of keeping the team name. In 2014, the Associated Press conducted a national survey confirming 83% of Americans are in favor of keeping the Washington Redskins name."
Allen concludes the letter by encouraging the senator to join the team for some of its social and charitable endeavors and that "Native Americans deserve our support."
It's a fascinating response, one that surely has been in the works for some time and carefully chosen as far as the timing of its release.
This is a complex issue and one that needs clarity. In this writer's own opinion, the senatorial letter drawing a connection to Sterling is absurd and misguided; but on the flip side, Allen's citing of the AP poll only tells part of the story, as it's not clear what percentage of those responders were Native Americans?
Too many people are trying to gauge the zeitgeist of the nation on the Redskins name issue without really getting at the core of it. Simply changing the name without really investigating the reasons why it might be just and beneficial would be window dressing. And yet snoozing on this issue or accepting it as respectful because one team owner and one team president say it is also represent improper dismissal.
It might not be the popular response, but we need more time on this. We need to hear from the majority of the hundreds of registered Native American tribes in this country. We need to understand more of the history of the name while also understanding that definitions change over time; words take on new contexts, and public feelings can change like the sea, with ebbs and flows.
The Redskins are not backing down from pressure now, but the debate is healthy in the meanwhile until we come up with a more intellectual and carefully considered response. Social change is not about forcing people to believe what the majority does, but rather opening up minds to the possibility that the way things used to be done might not always be the best and proper way to do them now and in the future.
As it stands, we don't have a clear picture where the Redskins team name change lies. I can't cite statistics to back me up on that, but isn't that exactly the point?
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