Real Indians Protest Racist Name Used By Fake Ones: Fighting “The R Word”

Story for The UpTake by Sheila Regan/Video by Todd Billings&Bill Sorem

Celebrities, sports stars, politicians and civil rights leaders joined hundreds of American Indian protesters and their allies Thursday night as they stormed the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis to protest against the Washington D.C. football team whose team name they say is racist and offensive. Among the all-star cast of supporters of the protest, which was organized by the American Indian Movement (AIM), were former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, Olympic Gold Medalist Billy Mills (a Lakota Sioux from Pine Ridge, S.D.), St. Paul Congresswoman Betty McCollum, Ex-Minnesota Viking Joey Browner and Minneapolis’s newly elected mayor Betsy Hodges. They stood with AIM leader Clyde Bellecourt and an estimated 700 Native Americans who marched to the Dome to demand a stop to “the R-word”.

The protest was a response to Washington team owner Dan Snyder’s refusal to change the team’s name, as well as the Minnesota Sports Authority’s denial of a request by the American Indian Movement and the American Civil Liberties Union to block the team’s name from appearing in the stadium.

“We’re not going to stand it anymore,” said former Vikings safety Joey Browner, who said he’s faced racism all his life, even today. “That negativity, that bullying — the R Word has to go!”

For Just Kii Huenemann, the founding President of the Native American Community Development Institute who now works for the Northwest Area Foundation, it’s not just the name of the team that’s the problem. “Indian folks are not seen as humans,” he said. “We’re somehow not alive, and in the past. It’s important to just be here to say, ‘We’re here, we’re alive!’ ”

Doug Limon, a local Native artist, said he attended the rally because, “It’s for the children, it’s for the future.”

His friend, Jaime Witt, who works at Little Earth, came to the rally “to honor my ancestors,” she said. “These mascots, they are dehumanizing.”

Rep. Betty McCollum is co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus and one of many politicians to call on the NFL and its Washington franchise to change the team name. Others include President Barack Obama, Gov. Mark Dayton, outgoing mayor R.T. Rybak, Rep. Keith Ellison, six members of the Minneapolis City Council, the entire St. Paul City Council, Bob Costas and numerous sports journalists. McCollum said Native Americans needed to be treated with dignity and respect. “Ask Dan Snyder to write a new chapter in history in which Native people are honored,” McCollum said.

Minneapolis Council member Cam Gordon also spoke, reading an open letter that members of the city council wrote, expressing disapproval of the team name and mentioning Minnesota’s own sullied past with racism, including the largest execution in U.S. history, when 38 Dakota warriors were hanged in Mankato in 1862. The letter also brought up the Washington D.C.’s team own history of racism, including its refusal to integrate from the 1940s to 1960s.

Besides the hundreds of Native protesters, other groups came to support the rally as well. For instance, a contingent of organizers who protested the Ordway’s production of Miss Saigon came out to show solidarity. Kurt Blomberg, a Korean adoptee and interdisciplinary artist who acted as the MC during the recent Miss Saigon protest, said it was important to stand in solidarity with other people of color. “There’s a lot of commonality,” he said between the Miss Saigon protests and the protests over the team name. “It’s people in power not listening to people without power.”

Another ally that showed up to support the rally was civil rights and tribal attorney Larry Leventhal. “We’re not just standing next to the Dome, we’re standing in the field and running toward the end zone,” he said. He equated the team name with using the N-word. “Stop using the R-word!” he said.

Former Gov. Jesse Ventura said that when he was an NFL broadcaster, he made a point to refer to the Washington D.C. football team as Washington, rather than its racist team name. “To my knowledge, I don’t think I ever slipped up,” he said.

There were a few displays of animosity between the Washington fans and the protesters. According to R. Vincent Moniz Jr., some Washington fans booed him and the protesters he was with. In a Facebook post, he wrote, “Seemed like the farther away from the protest we got, the more obnoxious people were. People were yelling crazy things, booing us.”

One hostile Washington fan named Marc Orem spoke to a crowd of people filming and listening to him outside of Hubert’s bar and restaurant, across from the Dome. “If you look at domestic violence, if you look at alcoholism, if you look at unemployment, it’s through the roof in that culture,” he said, apparently referring not to football fans but to Native people. “They should worry ’bout that instead of the name of the team. And really the name of the Redskins — it’s about bravery, it’s been a symbol 80 years.”

Native Americans, however, have experienced racism and prejudice longer than 80 years. Protesters say the fight against The R Word will continue until it is no longer considered acceptable to be used in public.

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