Commentary Race

The Washington Football Team’s Name Feeds Into Violence Against Native Women

Jacqueline Keeler

Native American women experience the highest rates of sexual assault in the country. Some of this is clearly the result of sexualizing and devaluing stereotypes white men are still taught about Native women—including Native mascotry.

Native American women experience the highest rates of sexual assault in the United States. According to the Department of Justice, one in three Native women will be raped in her lifetime; Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than any other race. Nearly two-thirds of the time, white American men are the perpetrators of these assaults—Native women are the only group to be more likely to be victimized by someone not of their race.

Some of these issues are related to jurisdictional gaps on reservations, which the Violence Against Women Act of 2013 was meant to address (though it is still too early to determine its efficacy). But others are clearly the result of sexualizing and devaluing stereotypes white men in the United States still learn about Native women.

One of the most egregious and enduring depictions of this kind is Native mascotry, which the NFL still practices today. The Washington football team’s continued insistence on using the Redsk*ns as a team name continues to promote an idea that Native people’s bodies are inherently a matter of monetization and objectification.

This anti-Native rhetoric is nothing new: White Americans’ perception of the “dirtiness” of Native people goes back for centuries. This is made evident, for instance, in an 1885 ad for Ivory Soap, which reads:

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

We were once factious, fierce and wild,
In peaceful arts unreconciled
Our blankets smeared with grease and stains
From buffalo meat and settlers’ veins.
Through summer’s dust and heat content
From moon to moon unwashed we went,
But IVORY SOAP came like a ray
Of light across our darkened way

This also emerges in white Americans’ use of the word “redskin” as shorthand for referring to Native people as ignorant, violent, or otherwise inhuman.

For example, an October 8, 1879, Rocky Mountain News headline reads, “Merrit Meets the Enemy. Victory over our Frontier Foes. Thirty-Seven Redskins Sent to the Happy Hunting Grounds. The Indian Problem Reaching a Conclusion.” An article in the same publication from November 19, 1890, reads, “And excited by firewater they dug up their rusty hatchets and prepared for blood and thunder. ‘Ugh,’ said every greasy redskin.”

And in the 1940 movie Northwest Passage, the character Major Rogers, played by Spencer Tracy, urges his fellow soldiers to break into Abenaki homes and “find scalps” after telling them, in lurid detail, about how one of the Native men had supposedly slaughtered his brother in cold blood. Rogers also says to one of his men, “Good luck, get a redskin for me,” implying, again, that Native people are somehow not humans so much as trophies.

In fact, these historical media stereotypes cannot be divorced from the attacks on Native bodies through the sale of our ancestors’ body parts for real-life bounty—as seen, for instance, in this 1863 newspaper clipping promising the modern equivalent of $3,800 for “every red-skin sent to Purgatory”—and the cutting of body parts of Native men, women, and children for keepsakes by U.S. soldiers (particularly genitalia). And, in turn, this view of Native people as nothing more than body parts used for amusement or profit translates to the perception of Native women as inherently “rapeable.”

In her book Conquest, Andrea Smith, a Native American professor at University of California, Riverside, explains that the sexual violence against Native women is inextricable from the racism depicted in “redskin” stereotypes:

When a Native woman suffers abuse, this abuse is an attack on her identity as a woman and an attack on her identity as Native. The issues of colonization, race, and gender oppression cannot be separated. This fact explains why in my experience as a rape crisis counselor, every Native survivor I ever counseled said to me at one point, “I wish I was no longer Indian.”

Smith goes on to quote New York University Professors Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, who note that the “disappearance” of Indian people and the subsequent promotion of stereotypes about them—including those in Native mascotry—is not a benign phenomenon in American society. Rather, they write, it is “an ambivalently repressive mechanism.” Through mascotry and other stereotypes, they say, “Living Indians [are] induced to ‘play dead,’ as it were, in order to perform a narrative of manifest destiny in which their role, ultimately, was to disappear.”

Even after reading all this, you may still be asking yourself, “What does cheering for my favorite football team have to do with Native women being sexually assaulted at rates three times that of other American women of any race?” All you have to do is look at old footage of the “Redskinettes,” cheerleaders for the Washington Redsk*ns who wore black “squaw” braids and “Pocahottie” outfits—or the YouTube comments on that footage exclaiming at how “sexy” the costumes were. Or at the fans who come to games wearing Redface. Or the extremely insulting and threatening behavior Native women and children face from these same fans while protesting at games; at a recent Washington, D.C., protest, a fan made an offensive gesture at a Navajo mother, her sister, and her 6-year old child. Our organization, Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry (EONM), has recorded further derogatory fan behavior at games, and feature it in our YouTube series “How NOT to be an NFL fan.” The practice of Native mascotry engenders hostility like this in fans.

All of these incidents are evidence of the ways white Americans reduce Native people to being inhuman by feeling entitled to buy, sell, and use their identity through mascotry as they see fit. As in the past, this often extends to justification for treating Native bodies as if they are disposable, which therefore suggests that raping and assaulting them is not a crime. And too frequently, the U.S. justice system reinforces that belief by not prosecuting the perpetrators of these atrocities.

Native Americans and Native American organizations like EONM, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the American Indian Movement (AIM), the National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media, and many tribal councils have repeatedly called upon the NFL to ban Redface from their games and to stop using Native people as mascots. NCAI and AIM first made these calls in 1968—47 years ago. Studies done by Emory University’s Sports Marketing Analytics website found that NCAA teams who dropped their Indian mascots actually made money and enjoyed greater fan participation and identification one to two years afterward. This suggests there exists, even for the majority of non-Native Americans, a deep-seated unease with the mascotting of Native people. But this is not about money; it is about Native people’s lives, and how we are viewed and understood by other U.S. residents.

Repeatedly, we at EONM have cited studies that show the reduction in self-esteem Native people experience when exposed to Native mascots. Our population is already extremely vulnerable, with suicide rates, murder rates and sexual assault rates that are on average three times that of the every other racial group in the United States. Still, there has been little response from NFL officials acknowledging these facts.

This silence is even more striking when compared to the NFL’s response to domestic violence within the league. Although the actual policies are still lackluster in terms of execution, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell at least issued a statement in August saying:

The public response reinforced my belief that the NFL is held to a higher standard, and properly so. Much of the criticism stemmed from a fundamental recognition that the NFL is a leader, that we do stand for important values, and that we can project those values in ways that have a positive impact beyond professional football. We embrace this role and the responsibility that comes with it. We will listen openly, engage our critics constructively, and seek continuous improvement in everything we do. We will use this opportunity to create a positive outcome by promoting policies of respect for women both within and outside of the workplace. We will work with nationally recognized experts to ensure that the NFL has a model policy on domestic violence and sexual assault. We will invest time and resources in training, programs and services that will become part of our culture. And we will increase the sanctions imposed on NFL personnel who violate our policies.

In his resolution to enact policies of respect and progressivism, Goodell’s words mirror what Native people are asking for too. We hope he will recognize that parallel, and that he will eliminate the mascotting of Native people and the promotion of stereotypes—relics of American history we should be educated about but not participate blindly in.

NFL players, including some on the Redsk*ns, have already stood in solidarity with Ferguson protesters and with domestic violence survivors—a message arguably undermined by their sporting a mascot on their uniforms that Native people have asked them to stop wearing. We now ask them to stand with us and say not only #NotYourMascot but #StereotypesNoMore, with a nationwide campaign to ban Redface from stadiums. So far, only the San Francisco Giants have agreed to amend their dress code to forbid “culturally offensive attire” at games at AT&T Park. To draw attention to this action, we and other Native American and domestic violence activists will be protesting at the Super Bowl in Phoenix on February 1.

And we ask all Americans to join in, too. It is but one step in correcting outdated portrayals of Native people as simply “savage warriors” that needed to be conquered for civilization to take root. When you play out these fantasies on any given Sunday, you are breathing life into these stereotypes that hold Native people back, mask the modern lives of Native people all around you, marginalize yet another generation into obscurity, and leave all Native people vulnerable to abuse.

Analysis Violence

Conspiracy of Indifference: Press and Police Ignore Violence Against Native Women

Mary Annette Pember

In Indian country, cases of the missing and murdered are often not covered by the media. They grow cold and are forgotten.

This piece, the fourth and final installment, was cross-posted from Indian Country Today with permission as part of a ​joint series​ about the missing and murdered Native women in the United States and Canada. You can read the other pieces in the series here.

The “missing white woman syndrome,” explains the lack of media attention for missing Native women, according to Makoons Miller Tanner of Duluth. “Pretty, young, middle class white women make good victims versus Native women who may have criminal pasts,” noted Miller Tanner, who maintains the Justice for Native Women blog.

In Indian country, cases of the missing and murdered are often not covered by the media. They grow cold and are forgotten.

Sarah Deer, professor of law at William Mitchell College of Law who has an extensive history of working to end violence against Native women, described the lack of data and attention to missing and murdered Native women as a conspiracy of indifference on the part of the U.S. government and law enforcement. “If we had the funding to search and assess our data, I think we would find that we in the U.S. have absolutely similar numbers to Canada in terms of missing and murdered women,” she said.

(Read more about the U.S. government and law enforcement’s responses to the violence against Native women in the second and third installments of this series, here and here.)

According to a 2015 report by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, nearly 1,200 Indigenous women have gone missing or were murdered between 1980 and 2012. In 2014, 11 indigenous women went missing. Advocates claim that the actual number is much higher.

Deer noted that the United States and Canada have similar social and economic dynamics affecting Indigenous women such as histories of boarding schools and migration to urban settings. “We share a parallel trauma,” she noted. “Terrible things happen to our women, but it never seems to reach a priority among law enforcement. Our communities must empower themselves at the grassroots level to make change, otherwise it will never happen.”

Change is beginning to come, and as Deer noted, it is at the grassroots level. There are numerous ad hoc efforts to keep databases of missing and murdered Native women, as well as a growing number of social media sites dedicated to spreading the word about missing girls and women in Indian country.

The Save Wiyabi Project (“Wiyabi” is Assiniboine for “women”), the Justice for Native Women blog, and the Sing Our Rivers Red project are examples of such groups.

Lauren Chief Elk and Laura Madison created a map as part of the Save Wiyabi Project to help track missing and murdered women. “This was created by Indigenous women for Indigenous women, because our governments and media erase the large scale violence against us,“ according to a statement explaining the site.

According to Chief Elk, Save Wiyabi has verified 1,050 violent incidents involving Indigenous women, those who have disappeared, been murdered, or been assaulted. “We also found that many of the tribal law enforcement agencies we contacted basically have no established procedures at all for collecting missing person’s reports,” she said.

“There seems to be a very cavalier attitude about missing women even among our own people.”

News Violence

Tribal Leaders Call for Expanded Jurisdiction Over Non-Native Domestic Violence Offenders

Kanya D’Almeida

Advocates and tribal leaders briefed Congress Tuesday, saying that the Violence Against Women Act should be expanded upon to grant greater protections to tribal citizens at risk of assaults by non-Natives, and that Nations should receive adequate resources to implement the law.

Tribal leaders and advocates gathered in Washington, D.C., Tuesday to brief Congress on implementation of a provision in the 2013 Violence Against Women Act, which affirmed tribes’ ability to exercise special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction over non-Natives who commit domestic assault, or engage in dating violence, on tribal lands.

Recognizing that the Department of Justice’s 2014 decision to grant special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction under VAWA was a “historic” step toward upholding tribal sovereignty, advocates and tribal leaders say that the law should be expanded upon to grant greater protections to tribal citizens at risk of assaults by non-Natives, and that Nations should receive adequate resources to implement the law.

The special provisions were introduced in 2014 when the justice department announced that the existing jurisdictional scheme, which prior to VAWA 2013 had effectively banned tribal governments from prosecuting non-Natives on tribal lands, was failing to “adequately protect the publicparticularly native women—with too many crimes going unprosecuted and unpunished amidst escalating violence in Indian Country.”

Native women experience a disproportionately high rate of domestic violence, with some sources suggesting they face assault rates that are 50 percent higher than other demographics. By various estimates, between 23 and 39 percent of Native women identify as victims or survivors of domestic violence and intimate partner abuse. The vast majority of domestic and sexual abuse cases involve a non-Native perpetrator, according to the National Congress of American Indians.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Prior to the implementation of special criminal jurisdiction under VAWA 2013, “there were few, if any, legal avenues through which Native women could seek criminal charges against non-Indians who committed intimate partner violence on tribal lands,” said Jessica Mason Pieklo, vice president of law and the courts at Rewire.

While the special provisions have enhanced tribes’ ability to prosecute violent offenders on Native lands, many say that they don’t go far enough.

“For one thing, there are many hurdles to simply implementing the statute,” Jacqueline Agtuca, a policy consultant to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC), told Rewire. “What many people don’t understand is that each sovereign Indian Nation has its own Constitution, its own criminal and civil codes, its own body of law—so meeting the criteria under the statute typically requires changes to tribal law to exercise special jurisdiction as just the first step.”

Among the criteria that the Department of Justice requires tribal governments to meet are protections for non-Native defendants under the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968, and additional protections under the 2010 Tribal Law and Order Act, including “[f]ree, appointed, licensed attorneys for indigent defendants” and “[l]aw-trained tribal judges who are licensed to practice law.”

“For another thing,” Agtuca said, “the law itself is so narrowly tailored that tribal police and prosecutors can only respond to the charge of a non-Indian perpetrator for domestic violence—they cannot, for instance, charge a non-Indian with child abuse, abuse of elders or senior citizens, or destruction of property. They are also unable to charge a perpetrator or abuser who is violent towards responding officers. Domestic violence cases are very complicated and often involve more than just an abuser and his victim—they can involve the parents of the victims, neighbors, cousins, pets—anyone who happens to be in the home at the time of the assault. So while the [granting of special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction] is historic, we feel it ran short of offering comprehensive protections to Native women.”

The eight tribes exercising special jurisdictions over non-Natives under VAWA 2013—out of an estimated 562 federally recognized Indian Nations in the United States—have so far made 44 arrests, resulting in 18 guilty pleas. Five cases have been referred to federal prosecutors, 12 were dismissed, six are pending, and one resulted in an acquittal by a jury.

Three of the implementing tribes—the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona, the Tulalip Tribes of Washington, and the Umatilla Tribes of Oregon—have more concrete data on the efficacy of the legal provisions, on account of receiving advance clearance for implementation under a justice department pilot project that began in 2014.

The Pascua Yaqui Tribe, for instance, has made 21 special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction arrests involving 16 different offenders, as of September 2015, resulting in seven convictions, six guilty pleas, four referrals to federal prosecutors, and ten dismissals. The tribe says that since it began exercising special jurisdiction, cases involving non-Natives have accounted for 25 percent of its domestic violence caseload.

Prosecuting non-Natives is an expensive exercise. Alfred Urbina, the attorney general of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, told Rewire in a phone interview that his tribe’s domestic violence caseload has increased by 12 percent since implementation began, resulting in a 10 to 20 percent spike in operational costs for the tribal court system.

“We’ve had to hire prosecutors, two public defenders, and additional court staff,” Urbina said. “We also have additional costs associated with expert witnesses and evidentiary analysis. And because these are multi-jurisdictional cases they are also more complex than average cases: they take longer, they generate more paper, they require more court time.”

He said that exercising special jurisdiction in domestic violence cases also incurs “indirect” costs.

“Relationships generally involve children, either of the mother or the perpetrator. For instance three of the cases we’ve seen have been pretty violent, and we’ve had to remove the children from their homes and place them in foster care. The cost involved with administering those cases and the placement of children in foster homes was something … the law didn’t account for.”

These additional expenses represent a significant financial burden for tribal governments.

“Tribal budgets are like federal budgets,” Agtuca said in a phone interview with Rewire. “Everything is line-itemed. Nobody, least of all tribal governments, has money sitting unallocated, waiting to be spent. But tribes recognize this problem as a life or death issue, and so they are pouring their limited resources into addressing the situation.”

She said that Congress initially authorized $5 million to assist implementing tribes. “This was very little, but at the time everyone was grateful for it,” she said. However, to date Congress has released $2.5 million of the promised funds.

“Today we are asking for, minimally, full appropriation of those funds, and hopefully in the next VAWA reiteration we will be able to increase the allocation that was initially authorized,” Agtuca explained.

“There is much work to be done to successfully implement this law,” Melvin Sheldon Jr., chairman of the Tulalip Tribes, said in a press release issued before the congressional hearing. “We have stretched our tribal resources and have engaged in advocacy for better access to national criminal databases and for children to be included under the umbrella of [special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction]. Every life is important and every victim’s voice should be heard.”