A protest against the Washington NFL team's racist mascot. Photo: Fibonacci Blue

Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Ernie Stevens: The racist history of the Washington mascot

Washington Professional Football on the Brink of Ending 87 year Racist Era

Is the Washington professional football team name racist? Yes. It’s racist! “Redskins” is a racial slur against Native Americans based on perceptions of our skin color akin to all the past exploitive racial references used to depict minorities in this Country. We do not normally say it, but we do here to retire the “R” word from use. 

Bounty hunters collected “Redskin” scalps to prove how many “Redskins” they killed: “The Dutch governor of Manhattan, Willem Kieft, offered the first bounty in North America for Indian scalps in 1641, only 21 years after the Puritans landed at Plymouth Rock. The Massachusetts Bay Colony first offered $60 per Indian scalp in 1703,” Indian Country Today reports.   

In 1789, President George Washington signed into law, the policy that “the utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians.”  Yet, by the late 1800s, popular dogma said “the White Man’s Burden” was to “civilize” the “Redskins.” 

Ben Nighthorse Campbell. Robert Cole / U.S. Navy

In the 1868 Treaty, to end Red Cloud’s War to save the Black Hills and the Powder River Country, the United States pledged its “honor” to keep the peace and vowed war “shall forever cease.” In 1873—just five years later—President Grant said, it must be “civilization … or a war of extermination.” In 1876, General Sherman persuaded President Grant to approve a “scorched earth” war to steal the Black Hills for gold. At the Little Big Horn, Custer met his fate attacking our Lakota and Cheyenne village after his soldiers shot our women and children in our tipis.

Sitting Bull, the great Lakota leader, asked why the United States made war upon his people: “What law have I broken?  Is it wrong for me to love my own people?  Is it wicked for me because my skin is red?  Because I am Lakota?  Because I was born where my father lived?  Because I would die for my people and my country?  God made me Lakota.”  

The modern history of the “Redskins” name confirms its racist legacy. In 1932, a year before I (Sen. Campbell) was born, a Washington, D.C., laundry operator, George Preston Marshall purchased part of the National Football League's newest team, the Boston Braves. Perhaps inspired by the era's Saturday matinee westerns where “bloodthirsty Redskin savages” fought “cowboy heroes,” the next year Marshall gave the team a new name: "Redskins."

National Indian Gaming Association Chairman Ernie Stevens, Jr., a citizen of the Oneida Nation, addresses the National Congress of American Indians 76th annual convention in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on October 24, 2019. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

In 1937, Marshall moved his "Redskins" to Washington, DC. After World War II, professional sports franchises faced pressure to integrate. In 1946, Bill Willis and Marion Motley in Cleveland and Kenny Washington and Woody Strode in Los Angeles broke pro football’s “color barrier.” The next year, Jackie Robinson broke the major league baseball “color barrier.” Marshall was strongly opposed to integration and the "Redskins" were the last NFL team to integrate, holding out until 1962, when pressure from NFL owners, Commissioner Pete Rozelle, President Kennedy's Interior Secretary, Stewart Udall, and a groundswell of public opinion finally pushed Marshall to integrate, trading Cleveland for Bobby Mitchell, one of the great players of all-time and a Hall of Famer. Mitchell, an African American, recalled his introduction to Marshall at a welcome luncheon that opened with everyone participating in a sing-along of "Dixie."

Jack Kent Cooke owned the Washington football team sometime after Marshall's death in 1969, until he passed in 1997. With new ownership came new hope that the racism would end, yet NFL Merchandising became big business in the 1970's and 80's, and Cooke had a financial incentive. When pressed, he "doubled down" saying “Redskins” was a "tribute to the courage and strength of American Indians." Mr. Cooke needed a new stadium in the District on federal land and I (Sen. Campbell) introduced a Senate bill prohibiting any new stadium from being built on federal land by any “organization exploiting any racial or ethnic group or using nomenclature that includes a reference to real or alleged physical characteristics of Native Americans or other groups of human beings." Cooke's response was to move the team to Landover, Maryland, where FED-EX Field was born.

In the late 1990's, Daniel Snyder became the latest owner to thumb his nose at the requests of Indian people for respect, even when his team's trademark was revoked by the U.S. Patent Office in Harjo and Blackhorse v. Pro Football, Inc. It was restored by a Supreme Court decision. Snyder said, "We'll never change the name. It's that simple. NEVER—you can use caps."

I (Chairman Stevens) welcome Mr. Snyder to the land of NEVER. The name change is long overdue, and we hope Dan Snyder 'sees the light' and has been touched by the Creator to do what is right. We know FedEX and NIKE brought the light by doing the right thing and pulling corporate sponsorships, including sponsorship of FedEX field. Today, I am more proud than ever to sit on the NIKE N-7 Board of Advisors (Champion) Supporting Native American Youth.

In the 21st Century, the name “Redskins” must go like all other slurs against human dignity. Standing United—even while social distancing—we, Americans, have the power to promote human dignity.

Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, is an Olympic athlete who served in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate prior to his retirement in 2005. Ernest Stevens, Jr., is a citizen of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. He serves as chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association.

Join the Conversation