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When the Washington Commanders announced their official name change this past week, it brought a sense of closure to a dark chapter for many Native Americans.
The NFL franchise unveiled its new name, logo and uniforms on Wednesday, more than 18 months after it dropped its former name of 87 years. The “Washington Redskins,” as the team was formerly known, is offensive to many Indigenous people who viewed the name and branding as both a slur and a disparaging stereotype grounded in America’s history of violence against Native peoples.
Suzan Harjo, a 76-year-old advocate central to the fight to change the team’s name, called the change “a huge step forward.”
For Harjo, it was a victory that came after decades of disappointment. When owner Daniel Snyder announced in 2020 the team’s plans to change its name after yielding to corporate pressure, she didn’t hold her breath. She’d seen many hopeful signs since her efforts to change derogatory team and school names began in the 1960s, but progress was long elusive.
In 2009, she watched as the Supreme Court declined to consider her petition to resolve a years-long legal challenge to the name that lower courts had dismissed on a legal technicality. Even when then-President Obama weighed in on the issue and said he would “think about changing” the name if he owned the team, Snyder didn’t budge.
“You could be glib about it and say, well, you know, look how long it took,” she said, “but at bottom, it is remarkable.”
And it’s one she says represents a societal sea change.
“A lot of people now get it,” she said. “That it’s not all right to use disparaging terms, derogatory names, slurs, images, behaviors.”
The name has brought deep pain for Native Americans
In her experience, the “R-word,” as Harjo calls it, is inseparable from harmful, racist attitudes that have translated into “emotional and physical violence” against Native Americans.
“If it’s permissible to say such things to us, such names, then it is permissible to do anything to us,” she said.
“I had lots of things in my personal life using that word,” said Harjo, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. “When I was a girl, you barely could make it through your young life without getting attacked by a bunch of white people — whether they were boys or girls or men or women. And they would always go to that word.”
The origin of the term has long been debated by linguists and historians. Some say “redskin” didn’t start out as an insult. But to many Native Americans, Harjo among them, the word refers to the grotesque act of hunting down and skinning their ancestors’ scalps for cash bounties.
A tipping point came amid protests for racial justice
Snyder had ignored years of advocacy and litigation from Native American activists in pushing for the change, saying that his team’s name was a “badge of honor” that respected a long tradition. But in 2020, the tipping point arrived. The murder of George Floyd sparked a moment of racial reckoning in America that drove FedEx, the team’s title sponsor, to threaten to sever its ties with the team unless it changed its name.
At no point during the conversations around selecting a new name, did the NFL team consult the National Congress of American Indians, after such commitments had been made to include the organization’s leaders in the process, according to NCAI president Fawn Sharp.
The Washington Commanders have not responded to a request for comment about their name-change process.
Hundreds of teams still use disparaging names
Sharp, like the rest of the public, learned of the new team name when it was announced last week. And she thinks the “Commanders” moniker is on brand.
“It seems right in line with how they are relating to tribal nations,” said Sharp, who is also vice president of the Quinault Indian Nation in Washington state. “On the one hand, saying they’re going to be inclusive. But on the other hand, making this [change] with not one meeting with us, as promised — it’s definitely taking a command role.”
Even so, she says the formal name change marks “the end of a dark era.” It means younger generations will no longer walk into a stadium in the nation’s capital that “exploits some of our most sacred practices,” Sharp said.
Still, she knows the movement isn’t over given that hundreds of teams across high school, college and professional sports continue to make use of disparaging names, mascots or logos referencing Native Americans.
But Harjo thinks it’s only a matter of time before more professional sports teams follow suit — namely the Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Chiefs and the Chicago Blackhawks.