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The Oneida Indian Nation of New York demanded the Washington Redskins NFL franchise change its name during a symposium in Washington, D.C., on Monday, declaring the nickname an offensive “racial slur.”
Democratic members of Congress, Native Americans, and others joined a panel at the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown to decry the 80-year-old team mascot. One panelist argued the name should be changed because it is detrimental to Native Americans’ health.
The event came following President Barack Obama’s comments on Saturday that the Redskins should change their name because it offends a “sizable group of people.”
The group said Obama’s remarks were “historic” and are giving their cause momentum.
“As the first sitting president to speak out against the Washington team name, President Obama’s comments over the weekend were nothing less than historic,” said Ray Halbritter, Oneida Indian Nation representative and CEO of Nation Enterprises.
Dr. Michael Friedman, a clinical psychologist, said the Redskins name is not a “victimless crime.”
“It’s really more of an issue of public health,” he said. “The continued use of a dictionary-defined racial slur as the team name for a prominent sports team in the nation’s capitol has direct public health consequences.”
Friedman said Native Americans have high levels of psychological distress and are twice as likely to suffer from depression and alcoholism as other groups. They also have high rates of diabetes, asthma, tuberculosis, and suicide, he said.
Friedman said the Redskins name is adding to Native Americans’ stress.
“When you consider that public health context, anything, anything, any kind of stressor that causes more suffering, loss of functioning, loss of productivity, or loss of life has to be considered—not a political correctness issue, but a public health issue,” he said.
“We have a public health problem of an at-risk population that’s already suffering tremendously, already facing discrimination, is under a stressor that we know—as much as we know anything in psychosocial research—is going to make the mental health of this population worse,” Friedman said.
Friedman said the name should be referred to as the “R word.” He claimed that even if Native Americans say the name is not offensive, they do not realize it is hurting their self-esteem.
“Even a positive image, if it’s stereotypical, will lead to psychological distress, lower self-esteem, lower sense of achievement,” Friedman said.
A 2004 poll conducted by the University of Pennsylvania’s National Annenberg Election Survey, found that 90 percent of Native Americans said the Redskins name did not bother them. Only 9 percent found the name offensive.
D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.) told the Washington Free Beacon that the survey was “totally irrelevant,” suggesting Native Americans have only recently become aware of its offensive nature.
“I hate to tell you what would have happened if you had polled African Americans in 1900,” she said, when asked about the poll. “Totally irrelevant, because Native Americans, just like Washingtonians like me, have grown up using the name. Their consciences haven’t anymore been raised than mine have been, until I heard what Native Americans were saying.”
Holmes Norton said the poll has no bearing on the current debate because it is “almost 10 years old,” and that the name Redskin has “not always been offensive.”
“So it wasn’t offensive 10 years ago?” the Free Beacon asked.
“The fact is the answer I have for Native Americans is that this word, this epithet was used on certain Native Americans, it was not used across the board,” Holmes Norton said. “Now, when they know that some of their brethren—who they were really talking about, and what it meant and the history of that name, and the brutal history, very gruesome history, I don’t think you have the same answer.”
“You can’t give me a 10 year old poll when the consciousness of everybody, including Native Americans, had not been raised, and say that is definitive—in no way,” she said. “It’s not only not definitive, it’s totally irrelevant in 2013.”
The panelists as a whole were not concerned with the history of the term but said it must be changed since some find it offensive. Native Americans themselves first used the word as a self-identifying term, according to Smithsonian historian Ives Goddard.
“No matter what the history of something is, if it’s offending people then it’s time to change it,” Halbritter said. “Regardless of the history, regardless of its legacy, it’s offensive.”
Another panelist, who works for the Smithsonian, also said he did not care about the term’s history.
“I’m really not that interested in where the word comes from,” said Kevin Gover, a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma and director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian.
“I know how it was used,” he said. “And it’s been used in a disparaging way for at least a couple of centuries. Up to and including the time when I was growing up in Oklahoma.”
Rep. Betty McCollum (D., Minn.) said Redskins owner Daniel Snyder refuses to change the name because he is driven by profits. She welcomed protests against the Redskins when the team travels to Minnesota on Nov. 7 to play the Vikings, whose mascot is a caricature of Germanic people.