What’s in a Name?

What’s in a Name? The Answer: Decades of Work and Relationships

First Nations Applauds the Steadfast Commitment of Indigenous Leaders in Creating Change

It’s a whole new ballgame for sports teams across the country. Recently, the NFL’s Washington Football Team announced they were going to change their name and logo – a change that would come after years of Native leaders protesting the use of the Native American imagery and slurs as racist, insulting, and dehumanizing for Native people.

Why now? Why this season? In part, the removal of the Washington Football Team’s name and logo was prompted by letters sent to Nike, FedEx and Pepsi from 88 investors, asking them to end their business and public relationship with the Washington team. The timing of the letters was spurred by increased nationwide attention to systemic racism brought on by the Black Lives Matter movement and the police killing of George Floyd. Still, it was hardly out of left field.

In addition to these recent developments, for a more than a decade, Native leaders had written, advocated, shared stories, and rallied voices around what we all know as true: The use of logos and mascots like those used by the Washington NFL team is a testament to the deep-rooted systemic racism throughout America, and the portrayal of Native Americans in this fashion has profound and documented effects on the health and well-being of Native Americans. Researchers like Stephanie Fryberg have documented the negative effects of Native American mascots on Native American youth: their identity, sense of self, and overall well-being.

Leaders calling for the Washington Football Team, and others who use racist Native American imagery, to change their name were resolute, and with increased public outcry, finally there was a measurable impact: The end of the Washington team’s brand.

Bringing about this win was no small feat, and it certainly didn’t happen overnight, or even over last summer, said Michael Roberts, president and CEO of First Nations. “There were a lot of people involved, and a source of pride for us is that many of those Native leaders are colleagues, friends, and partners of First Nations and have been for decades.”

A True Team Effort
One of the greatest leaders in the name change movement is Suzan Harjo, who had served on the Advisory Committee for First Nations’ Reclaiming Native Truth project. Indian Country Today highlights how Suzan led a long-term strategy that included pressuring investors and business partners of the sports franchise. Suzan drew from a long list of organizational affiliations that helped advance and champion the name change moment, including her work as the founder of the Morning Star Institute and as former president of the National Congress of American Indians.

Suzan and Carla Fredericks, faculty director of First Peoples Worldwide and American Indian Law Clinic at the University of Colorado Law School (and recently appointed as the First Native American to lead the Christensen Fund), propelled the letter-writing campaign, strong-arming the investors’ $620 billion worth of assets that helped sway the NFL team owners.

This work is further steeped in relationships and history. First Peoples Worldwide was founded by Rebecca Adamson, who also founded First Nations in 1980 and has been a long-term player in Indigenous shareholder activism. It is also rooted in the work of Susan White, an esteemed First Nations Board Member who died in 2018. As director of the Oneida Trust, in 2014 Susan not only urged FedEx to help change the names of recreational teams but also leveraged Oneida Trust’s position as a FedEx stockholder.

And still there were others: Cheryl Crazy Bull, President and CEO of American Indian College Fund, and Carley Bad Heart Bull, Executive Director of Native Ways, each issued statements calling for the end of harmful stereotypes and led social media campaigns maximizing #TheTimeisNow, #ChangeTheName, and #NotYourMascot. Then, as the first plaintiff in the case against the Washington Football Team, Suzan Harjo handed off the baton to Amanda Blackhorse, a friend of First Nations and an honorable mentioned of the 2020 Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship, who led an 11-year legal battle against the Washington Redskins to ban the mascot name.

Tribal leadership also played a role in the name change movement. For example, the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, championed by Ray Halbritter, founded the Change the Mascot campaign to raise awareness and build a grassroots campaign to educate the public about the negative and harmful effects of racist stereotypes.

And, throughout the decades, dozens of tribal organizations and governments united and passed resolutions directly calling for the end of the use of the offensive name and logo.

A Small World, a Big Change
This roll call of Native leaders is not exhaustive, and it does not remotely do justice to the hours, days, months, and years these professionals spent strategizing, advocating, and legislating to accomplish this change for Native peoples. But hopefully, it does provide proof of the power that exists in Indian Country — the ingenuity and capabilities we see every day, and the ability of Native leaders to come together to chip away at the centuries of injustice and discrimination that have plagued all marginalized groups.

First Nations is honored to know these respected leaders, and to be part of the thread that weaves these leaders together. When that Washington Football Team takes the field every Sunday, it is our hope that people throughout the world will know the story behind the name, and will uphold the leadership, commitment, and vision that demanded change from the NFL and made Native voices heard.