Story by Nick Coleman/Videos for The UpTake by Bill Sorem
The decades-long fight against the exploitation of Native American images and the highly profitable use of racist sports nicknames returns to where it began when the Washington Redskins come to Minneapolis tonight to play the Minnesota Vikings at the Metrodome.
It was at the Metrodome in 1992 — the 500th anniversary year of Columbus’ “discovery” of “Indians” in North America — that the American Indian Movement sponsored a national Conference on Racism in Sports and Media to coincide with SuperBowl XXVI. It was no coincidence that the conference on racism in media, organized by Clyde Bellecourt and his late brother, Vernon, was staged to coincide with the appearance at the SuperBowl of the Washington Redskins, who beat the Buffalo Bills in the football game that day but who began to lose the long war over the team’s offensive, derogatory and nakedly racist name.
Twenty-one years later, the fight against the nickname has grown into a national movement today, led by the Oneida Nation of New York. Ironically, national media have behaved as if this is a new issue and characterized the protest actions surrounding tonight’s football game as bringing the nickname fight to a new venue.
Wrong. This is a fight that began here. And a fight that may end here.
I attended that 1992 conference on Racism in Sports and Media and wrote about it in the St Paul Pioneer Press. Here’s an excerpt of a column I wrote then:
Jack Kent Cooke, the crusty billionaire owner of the Washington football team that will play the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVI, is a man who likes decisions. For example, he has decided to get married four times, the last three to women who were a combined 97 years younger than he is.
The old goat.
I mean it in a respectful way when I call him an old goat. Just as Cooke means to be respectful when he calls his team the “ Redskins .” The Redskins name is not a racially offensive term, Cooke says. Far from it. The name simply suggests the fiercely proud spirit of American Indians, a people who have red skin in the popular imagination, if not in reality. So when I say that Jack Kent Cooke is an old goat, I don’t want you to think that he is a randy barnyard rut king who can’t keep his smelly paws off of young women.
I simply mean to convey my admiration for the nimble-footed manner in which the 79-year-old Cooke is able to negotiate the singles scene. Heh heh heh.
Mr. Cooke is dead and gone now, but the current owner of the team, Daniel Snyder, has been just as intransigent, insisting that the name is only intended to “honor” Native Americans. As in 1992, the Washington team has steadfastly refused to change the name. But the team is under growing pressure on the issue from tribes, politicians and even some enlightened sports writers. Just this week, the Washington D.C., City Council voted to demand that the city’s team change its name.
The fight against “the R-word” is a touchy subject here in Minnesota, a place that is home to 11 Indian reservations and one of the largest urban Indian populations in the country, where public officials have put together a taxpayer-subsidized boondoggle for a $1 billion new Vikings stadium, and where the chair of the Stadium Authority, Ted Mondale, is a close personal friend of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Recently, the Sports Facilities Authority cowardly rejected a request to prohibit public display or pronouncement of the Redskins name during tonight’s game, ducking an issue that is unlikely to end when the Redskins leave town.
This evening, protesters will march from near the American Indian Center on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis to the Dome for a protest event. The UpTake plans to cover the protest and publish a report on Friday. Today, we are publishing two videos: One of Tuesday’s symposium, above. And another of my interview with Rep. Betty McCollum, Minnesota’s 4th District Congresswoman from St. Paul. McCollum, who sold Redskins memorabilia during the 1992 SuperBowl when she was a young sales clerk for Sears, now is co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus and has been an out-spoken leader of the movement to retire the Redskins name and symbol.