Native Americans are firing back at a Washington Post poll published Thursday claiming most native people are not “bothered” by the team name and mascot of the Washington Redskins.
The poll surveyed 504 Native American adults, 44% of whom said they are an enrolled member of a native tribe. “As a Native American, do you find that name offensive, or doesn’t it bother you?” the poll asks. Ninety percent of respondents said the name “does not bother” them. The Post also surveyed 340 self-identifying Native Americans about whether they thought the word “Redskin” is disrespectful: 73% said they didn’t.
The debate over whether the Washington Redskins should change their team name, the Post‘s Dan Steinberg writes, “has plunged into the most 2016 of waters: a red-blue politicization which ignores the opinions of actual stakeholders.”
“Actual stakeholders” in this conversation—including leaders of the National Congress of American Indians, the Oneida Indian Nation, the United South and Eastern Tribes, and native people using #IAmNativeIWasNotAsked on Twitter—were swift in voicing their skepticism of the poll’s results. The NCAI leadership told me the poll seems completely at odds with what has been a long, concerted effort from diverse native groups to get the team to change the mascot and name.
NCAI, “the oldest, largest, and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native organization” in U.S. and one of the more vocal native groups calling for the team to drop the name and mascot, said the poll’s small sample of Native Americans (there are 5.4 million Native American and Alaska Native people in the U.S., according to the last census) obscures the dehumanizing connotations of the racial slur.
“The survey doesn’t recognize the psychological impacts these racist names and imagery have on American Indian and Alaska Natives,” Jacqueline Pata, Executive Director of the NCAI, said in a statement to Fusion. “It is not respectful to who we are as Native people. This poll still doesn’t make it right.”
Those psychological impacts were apparent in a 2015 report from the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education. A group of native students from around the country went to the White House and talked about being bullied in the classroom: some of them spoke specifically about what it felt like to be called a “Redskin” by their classmates.
“When I’m playing football, basketball, or baseball, I usually beat them, and then they are mean to me. They call me a ‘Redskin,’ ‘Brown Head,’ ‘Black Head,’ and I really don’t like it,” said one sixth-grader, Dontay Cloud (Ho-Chunk).
“It is true some Native people do not find the word offensive,” Pata said of the racial slur that originated in the 1800s. “However, thousands of Native people across the country have voiced their opposition to the name and the historic, disparaging connotations it carries to this day.”
Native Americans took to Twitter with the hashtag #IAmNativeIWasNotAsked, saying they are not represented by the Washington Post poll and that its conclusion misses the point: that the word “Redskins” and the use of a native man as a mascot are symbols of colonial racism they face every day.
A major criticism of the poll—that fewer than half (44%) of the people surveyed said they were registered members of a tribe—reflects the complexity of Native American heritage: Unless someone is a registered member of a tribe, it’s harder to
That said, the criteria for being a tribal member varies from tribe to tribe, according to the Department of the Interior. Some tribes require that a person is descended from someone included on an original list of tribal members, while others make the decision based on contact with the tribe or what’s called “blood quantum” (how many of a person’s recent ancestors were part of the tribe, usually quantified as a proportion between full and 1/32).
So this criticism leads to a grey area, because some legitimately native people also don’t register with the government as members of a tribe because of a sense of mistrust sown by generations of government abuse. And tribal membership is not the only criteria that determines if someone is Native American. Some people have native ancestry without being affiliated with one specific tribe, or don’t meet sometimes very specific requirements to register.
That’s the same criticism that was leveled against a 2004 poll from the National Annenberg Election Survey, which surveyed 768 people who self-identified as Native American and found that 90% of them didn’t take issue with the word “Redskins.”
One Native American social scientist at California State University San Bernardino, James Fenelon, questioned the results of that poll to the extent that he did his own study, surveying Native Americans at pow wows and other community gatherings. He spoke to just 400 native people, but took measures to make sure he was including only people who “could be verified as being the race or ethnic group they claimed (important for self-identified Native Americans.” In Fenelon’s poll, 67% said the name and mascot were offensive.
The football team, for their part, has repeatedly rejected the idea of changing their name or mascot. “We will never change the name of the team,” the team’s owner, Dan Snyder, told USA TODAY in 2013. “As a lifelong Redskins fan, and I think that the Redskins fans understand the great tradition and what it’s all about and what it means, so we feel pretty fortunate to be just working on next season.”
“We’ll never change the name,” Snyder said. “It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”