The Price of a Slur
By David Treuer
MINNEAPOLIS — THE idea of the “Indian giver” has always been deeply ironic, since it’s Indians who have been on the receiving end of some very bad gifts indeed. Last week’s offering from Daniel Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins, was only the latest.
On March 24, Mr. Snyder announced the creation of the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, a charitable organization with the stated mission “to provide meaningful and measurable resources that provide genuine opportunities for Tribal communities.” To date, the foundation has distributed 3,000 winter coats, shoes to basketball-playing boys and girls, and a backhoe to the Omaha tribe in Nebraska.
The unstated mission of the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation is clear: In the face of growing criticism over the team’s toxic name and mascot imagery, the aim is to buy enough good will so the name doesn’t seem so bad, and if some American Indians — in the racial logic of so-called post-racial America, “some” can stand in for “all” — accept Mr. Snyder’s charity, then protest will look like hypocrisy.
In his news release and public statements, Mr. Snyder refers to “our shared Washington Redskins” heritage. To be clear: There is no “our” that includes Mr. Snyder. And there is no “Redskins” that includes us. There has been a sustained effort for decades by activists to change the name of this team and others. Members of my tribe, the Ojibwe, have been a big part of such efforts.
But the franchise, valued at $1.7 billion, has a long history of sacrificing decency at the altar of commerce: George Preston Marshall refused to integrate the team until 1962 (the rest of the N.F.L. began doing so in 1946). When the government forced the team to include black players, fans protested outside carrying signs saying “Keep Redskins White!” At stake back then was money (Marshall was afraid that he’d lose fans if African-Americans were on the roster). Money is similarly at stake now. According to Forbes, the Redskins are the eighth most valuable sports franchise in the world. Just consider the merchandise alone.
Seldom has the entwined nature of ethics and money and influence been revealed as so unavoidably intestinal in its smell and purpose: to consume the material, to nourish the host and to expel the waste. American Indians — who do not see or refer to ourselves as “redskins” and who take great exception to the slur — are that waste.
This isn’t merely symbolic. In 1863, the Cheyenne chief Black Kettle traveled to Washington to protest the government’s treatment of his people. Instead of redress, he received a presidential medal presented by President Lincoln. He was wearing the same medal when he was gunned down by the United States Cavalry at Sand Creek in 1868.
Census data shows that four out of the five poorest United States counties are found within the borders of Indian reservations. So, sure, the gifts of a backhoe and coats are much needed and much appreciated. But gift-giving to Indians rather than systemic change has been an all-too-familiar practice over the centuries, and whether the gifts are beads, backhoes or presidential medals, we know just how much they’re really worth.
Mr. Snyder has been quick to point out that he has the support of a handful of those he calls “tribal leaders,” such as the Lower Brule Sioux tribe vice chairman, Boyd Gourneau, and the Pueblo of Zuni governor, Arlen Quetawki, both quoted in the news release.
“Tribal officials” might be a better term here than “tribal leaders” because although they are elected, it is in no way clear that they actually represent the sentiments of their constituents any more than John Boehner represents the sentiments of most Americans. These officials’ public-relations-ready comments — “I appreciate your sincerity” and “the entire tribe is so appreciative” — are the diplomatic words of dignitaries, nothing more. It would be a mistake to assume that those words imply democratic consent.
The pity that Mr. Snyder seems to feel for Indians and our plight is intimately connected with age-old ideas and images — strength, bravery, a warrior spirit, noble savagery — all of which are conjured by the cartoonish use of Indian names and mascots. We are pitied and feared as Macbeth and Caesar and Achilles are pitied and feared: great but for a fatal flaw (a heel, an ego, ambition). Our tragic flaw, however, is having been subjected to hundreds of years of warfare, colonialism, racism and exclusion.
To pay tribute only to brave warriors and pitiful reservations is to engage in a fantasy that erases the lives of real Indians for whom the racial slur “redskins” is intolerable.
The name will change. Either the N.F.L. will make Mr. Snyder change the name, or we will. But in trying to buy off that inevitable end, Mr. Snyder has made a terrible mistake in confusing charity with donations. Charity, or caritas, can be defined as an act of generous love. Donations, on the other hand, are material objects for which the owner has no real need and can part with easily and painlessly. What Mr. Snyder has created is not a charity. It is a donation depot.
If Mr. Snyder’s hope is that by offering his donations and having them be accepted he has forged a kind of treaty with American Indian tribes — the exchange of coats for the return of good will — he can be sure this is a treaty Indians will break.
David Treuer is an Ojibwe from the Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota and the author of “Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through the Land of His People.”