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December 25th, 2013

The Debate over the Redskins’ Name

William Reed
President Barack Obama recently said that if he were the football team’s owner he’d “think about changing” the Washington team’s name. The normally non-committal president’s comments fueled a debate over the top sports team in the Nation’s Capital. The debate involves some of the nation’s richest men. A wealthy member of the Oneida Indian Nation has taken it upon himself to lead the charge against the Redskins’ name. Ironically, it will be 31 White men adjudicating the racial issue when National Football League (NFL) owners meet with the Oneida Nation at the league’s offices in New York City.

The Oneida, meaning “the People of the Upright Stone” are a Native American/First Nations people that are one of five founding nations of the Iroquois Confederacy located in an area of upstate New York. Historically, the Oneida were believed to have emerged as a tribe in the 14th century that inhabited acres of land that later became central New York, particularly around Oneida Lake and Oneida and Madison counties.

In a so-called “campaign of conscious,” the man behind the scalping of Dan Snyder’s Washington Redskins happens to be a Harvard Law School colleague of the president. An Oneida Indian, Ray Halbritter wants the NFL’s second richest team to change its moniker. Obama’s college crony is raking in lots of casino money and his face has been all over the media. He’s met with a bevy of groups in the Nation’s Capital, chronicling “The team’s 81 years of history show that the original owner who named the team was an avowed segregationist and the last team owner to integrate his squad.”

What Halbritter says about the Washington Redskins is true, but members of the Redskin Nation are leery. Washington area Blacks know the team’s history and have “gotten over” the team’s legacy under George Preston Marshall. Is this just a “conscious” canard that Oneida is playing, with Obama “cheerleading” for the gambit? Is there any connection to the millions of dollars Halbritter raised in 2012 that helped Obama get reelected?

Halbritter can afford to take his “campaign of conscious” a long way. In 1993, Halbritter negotiated a gaming contract for the tribe with New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, and built the highly profitable Turning Stone Casino in central New York. Gas stations, luxury hotels, media outlets and textile factories that followed made Halbritter a very rich man.

Loyal season-ticket holders and consumers of team merchandise, the African Americans who comprise 32 percent of metropolitan Washington, have been a major segment of a fan base that has made the Washington Redskins one of the world’s most valuable teams. The “Redskins” controversy is decades old and has connotations of the team’s Southern roots. Nowadays, the team is valued at $1.7 billion. The Skins are owned by Snyder who bought the team for $750 million in 1999. Now 46, Snyder has a net worth of $1.1 billion.

Originally, the Skins were the “Boston Braves” and owned by Marshall. He was the owner and president of the team from 1932 until his death in 1969. The team’s second owner, Jack Kent Cooke, built the 100,000-seat capacity FedEx Field home stadium in Landover, Md. Its headquarters and training facility are at Redskins Park in Ashburn, Va., and the newly-built Redskins Complex in Richmond, Va.

The region’s Black community holds great affection for the team and little inclination for a name change. To illustrate Blacks’ devotion to the Skins, Chief Zee, an African American whose real name is Zema Williams, serves as the team’s mascot. He’s been a fixture at Washington Redskins’ home games since 1978, dressed in a faux American Indian headdress, rimmed glasses and a burgundy jacket.  
While we pursue Super Bowl 48, let’s present Halbritter with a conundrum. Which is correct – “American Indian” or “Native American”? The terms American Indian and Native American are synonyms in the same way that Black and African American are often used interchangeably. Is using the term American Indian instead of Native American the equivalent of using Negro instead of Black?

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