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Redskins Or The R-Word?

A Washington Redskins helmet is pictured during their game against the Oakland Raiders on September 29, 2013, in Oakland, California. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

A Washington Redskins helmet is pictured during their game against the Oakland Raiders on September 29, 2013, in Oakland, California. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

This week, the U.S. Patent Office repealed six federal trademarks of the Washington Redskins saying the name is “disparaging to Native Americans.”

The team’s attorney Bob Raskopf issued a statement which said: “We’ve seen this story before. And just like last time, today’s ruling will have no effect at all on the team’s ownership of and right to use the Redskins name and logo.”

The statement went on to say: “We are confident we will prevail once again, and that the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s divided ruling will be overturned on appeal.”

The Redskin’s owner, Dan Snyder, also responded to the Patent Office decision, saying, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple –never — you can use caps.”

But many in the Native American community are hopeful that, this time, things will be different.

Simon Moya-Smith, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota nation and a journalist, speaks with Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson about the recent ruling.

Interview Highlights

On why this time is different from 1999

“This time around, we’re hopeful, because there is a proliferation of voices opposing the name, because people are more aware of what it is. We’re talking about the proliferation of the web. People can access the true history of the name and now people — at least this generation — recognize that it is a pejorative. Maybe back in 1999 it wasn’t, but unfortunately for Dan Snyder, people are becoming more enlightened to the history of the name itself.”

On why changing the name matters

“It’s all systematic of the bigger problem and that’s the dehumanization of native Americans. When we talk about water rights, we don’t always get a response from people. When we talk about high poverty rates on reservations, we don’t always get a response. But when we talk about sports, we get a response … this is just one fight among many fights.”

On the portrayal of Native Americans in culture

“It’s American culture to play Indian. Think of Columbus Day, Thanksgiving. Think of Halloween, go to Bonnaroo … Unfortunately, [people] can’t recognize the racism directed at Native Americans. I mean, painting your face in red face and going to a Cleveland Indians game is offensive. But people think, ‘This is just our sports tradition. It’s something we’ve always done!’ So we’re stepping on their privilege and that’s where this fight gets very contentious and caustic because we ask and demand for respect. They demand their privilege. They want to wear their headdress and dehumanize Native Americans and belittle what the headdress means without a Native American coming in and calling foul.”

On the use of Native Americans as mascots

“I’m against all Indian mascotry. Now, the Redskins is paramount because it is a racial epithet, it is a racial slur. It dehumanizes the Native American in this nation’s capitol, which really sends a strong message … People like to bring up the Fighting Irish … the Irish do have the right to rage against the Fighting Irish … but this is Native American land. You are dehumanizing and belittling the Native American in our own country … The Irish were persecuted here in the United States, but this isn’t Dublin. This is Native American land.”

On the “r-word”

“The chorus of opposition grows … [and] we’re not going to stop until people will say ‘r-word’ just like ‘n-word.’ That matters to us … We want people to shudder when they hear that word.”

Guest

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

This week, the U.S. patent office repealed six federal trademarks of the Washington Redskins, saying the football team name is disparaging to Native American. The team's attorney has already said an appeal will be filed. And that strategy has worked before, following a trademark repeal back in 1999. Joining us to talk about the latest in this story is Simon Moya-Smith, a columnist and reporter and a citizen of the Oglala Lakota nation. He's with us from New York. Simon, welcome.

SIMON MOYA-SMITH: Thanks for having me.

HOBSON: Well, there was a lot of excitement about this decision by people who want the Redskins name gone. You say this has happened before. People shouldn't get too excited.

MOYA-SMITH: Not right away because this is something that we've experienced as a Native American community years ago where these patents were repealed, were taken back. But then they were given right back to Dan Snyder and the Redskins. And we were, again, sitting back going, well, now what?

So this is different, though. This time around, we're hopeful because there is a proliferation of voices opposing the name because people are more aware of what it is. We're talking about the proliferation of the web. People can access the true history of the name and now people are - at least this generation - recognize that it is a pejorative. Maybe back in 1999, it wasn't. But, you know, unfortunately for Dan Snyder, people are becoming more enlightened to the history of the name itself.

HOBSON: Well, and you've even got people on Capitol Hill speaking out about this. Let's listen here to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid speaking on the floor of the Senate in response to the trademark repeal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRY REID: This is extremely important to Native Americans all over the country - that they no longer use this name. It's racist. Daniel Snyder says it's about tradition. I ask, what tradition? Tradition of racism is all that the name leaves in its wake. The writing is on the wall. It's on the wall in giant, blinking, neon lights.

HOBSON: And yet, Simon, we read that there are even some Native Americans who are saying it's not that bad. It's not that big of a deal to have the name the Redskins.

MOYA-SMITH: Usually the argument is people are saying why - and especially in the Native American community - they say we have bigger issues. We've got the highest poverty rate than any other ethnic group. We have the highest suicide rates. We have rampant rape, et cetera. But it's all systematic of the bigger problem, and that's the dehumanization of Native Americans. When we talk about water rights, we don't always get a response from people. When we talk about high poverty rates on reservations, we don't always get a response. But when we talk about sports, we get a response.

But this isn't an issue that's new. Suzan Shown Harjo, the late American-Indian movement leader, Russell Means - they were crying out against this name. But again, the web has provided Native Americans of today a platform to be almost this real-time Indian where we can respond immediately. Letters to the editor don't get lost in the mail. Voicemails don't get ignored. You can't ignore the Native American who has the iPhone and the smart phone. So it is the discussion of the Native American and persecution as a whole. So this is just one fight among many fights.

HOBSON: Well, so why do you think that the Redskins name still exists if that's the case?

MOYA-SMITH: Well, because it's American culture to play Indian. Think of Columbus Day, Thanksgiving. Think of Halloween - go to Bonaroo. All these festivals, and people play Indian. And it's a part of the American milieu. It's something that people, unfortunately, they can't recognize the racism directed at Native Americans. I mean, painting your face - red face - and going to a Cleveland Indians game is offensive. But people think, no. This is just our sports tradition. This is something we've always done. So we're stepping on their privilege. And that's where this fight gets a very, you know, contentious and caustic because we ask and demand for respect. They demand their privilege. They want to wear their headdress and dehumanize Native Americans and belittle what the headdress means without a Native American coming and crying foul.

HOBSON: Well, and defenders of the Redskins name say that it is nothing more than that, though. It's just a name.

MOYA-SMITH: Then change it. That's the thing. If it's just a name, then change it. And that's the whole argument that they're trying to make. It's so trivial. Don't get your chones in a bunch. But this is something that is associated with a brutal history. Redskins meant proof of Indian, kill. We have scalps to trade or sell, and you can festoon your wall with these beautiful, fresh red skins. So this isn't just a simple word. This is something extremely racist that harms the Native American community and our Native American children. There is empirical data - scientific demonstrable data that proves that this mascotry - Indian mascotry - affects the psychological health of the children.

HOBSON: Simon, do you feel the same way about a team that I know well because I grew up in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois which is home to the University of Illinois and the Fighting Illini. Do you feel the same way about any representation of Native Americans in sports or is it just the fact that it's this slur Redskin?

MOYA-SMITH: No, I'm against all Indian mascotry. Now the Redskins is paramount because it is a racial epithet. It is a racial slur, and it dehumanizes the Native American in this nation's capital. So it really sends a strong message to - this is how we're going to treat our Native American community.

Now think of, like, FSU Seminoles. The Seminole nation of Florida gave FSU the right to use their image. But that does not stop kids from going into the stands, tomahawk chopping, wearing these headdresses, painting their faces red and again, it doesn't come with education.

Everybody wants to play Indian, but they don't understand what it's like to be Indian and how to truly honor American-Indians. And that's one of the arguments - oh, we're honoring you. How? You haven't come to us to ask how to honor us. And one way is not to use a racial pejorative. It is not to tomahawk chop, paint you faces red, wear big headdresses - this is privilege run amok.

And when it comes to Native Americans, people like to bring up the Fighting Irish. Well, let's look at it this way. The Irish do have the right to rage against Fighting Irish - that's their choice if they want to. But this is Native American land. You are dehumanizing and belittling the Native American in our own country. This isn't Ireland. So when you look at the Fighting Irish, the Irish were persecuted here in the United States. But this isn't Dublin. This is Native American land. And when you dehumanize - when you divorce yourself from the reality of U.S. history, this is the consequence.

HOBSON: So what are you going to do now, Simon, because, as you know, the Redskins are appealing this decision, and they have won that kind of appeal before?

MOYA-SMITH: Totally different now. We're talking about, again, a more informed populace. But also, the chorus opposition grows. I mean, from celebrities to former Redskins, like Champ Bailey, coming out and likening the term Redskin with the N-word. And that's another thing.

We're not going to stop until people will say R-word, just like N-word. That matters to us. We want it to be our word. We want people to shudder when they hear that word and say you mean the R-word. So this is something that - not just Native Americans raging against it - but also people of conscience. Not just ethnic people, but all people recognizing that you cannot disrespect Native Americans any longer. This is not Buffalo Bill's wild west where you can just parade Native Americans for your entertainment and to fill your pocketbook.

HOBSON: Simon Moya-Smith, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota nation, also a columnist and reporter. Simon, thank you so much for joining us.

MOYA-SMITH: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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