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:

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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.

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