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12/20/2014 07:30 am ET Updated Dec 22, 2014

Why The 'Redskins' Name Can't Be Separated From The Bigger Issues Native Americans Face

A group protests the Washington Redskins name across from Levi's Stadium before an NFL football game between the Redskins and
A group protests the Washington Redskins name across from Levi's Stadium before an NFL football game between the Redskins and the San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

Earlier this year, the on-field humiliation of the Washington football team was briefly overshadowed by increasingly vocal disapproval of the team name and Native American imagery associated with it, even among the team's faithful. But as the NFL season winds down and the organization counts the days until the misery finally comes to an end, the national debate over the franchise's embrace of an un-trademarkable, dictionary-defined racial slur appears to have faded.

Groups like "Change the Mascot" and the National Congress of American Indians are working to keep the issue visible. The country can apparently only handle one news cycle each year focused on offensive Native American mascots, but billionaire team owner Daniel Snyder and the overwhelming -- though slowly shrinking -- majority of Americans who support the name are proof there's plenty of work left to do. Especially after a year that marked the public emergence of a misguided argument in favor of keeping the mascot.

Many of the team's supporters have traditionally relied on ignorance or racism to argue that they shouldn't have to shoulder the inconvenience of changing, well, anything. This year, however, Snyder apparently realized that his organization's image problem was real, and that he needed a new strategy beyond simply telling Native Americans they were wrong to be offended. So he attempted to reinvent himself as a well-intentioned supporter of both his team's name and the people it offensively refers to, creating a foundation intended to help indigenous communities.

"[Native Americans] have genuine issues they truly are worried about, and our team's name is not one of them," Snyder wrote in a letter announcing the program. This basic argument has been tossed around by the team's supporters -- and even among some Native Americans -- for years. And with the most vocal defender of the name now throwing money behind it, it was finally brought fully into the mainstream.

A recent poll suggests Snyder is actually wrong about how Native Americans feel about the name. But more importantly, says Erik Stegman, associate director of the Half in Ten Education Fund at the Center for American Progress, Snyder fails to see the inseparable connection between the so-called "genuine issues" and his team's name.

"If people that we're trying to convince on these policy issues still have the vision of the Washington Redskins or the Cleveland Indians or any of these others as their reference point for an actual group of people, that's a problem," Stegman told The Huffington Post. "It impacts how [Native people] can advocate on all of these other very important issues."

This is particularly significant, because Snyder is right about one thing: Native Americans face many challenges beyond his team's name. Less than a century removed from some of the darkest chapters of U.S. policy on Native Americans, one in four Native people now lives in poverty. More than 16 percent of Native adults have diabetes, one of the highest rates among any ethnic group in the world. Native lands are regularly auctioned off by Congress in sweetheart deals for resource extraction. Native women are more than 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than other women in the U.S. And drug and alcohol abuse run rampant in indigenous communities around the nation.

And as Stegman says, making progress is difficult when most of the nation is only aware of Native Americans on game day, and even then, only as caricatures. To many people in American Indian country, no amount of Snyder's money can help address these problems so long as he says he will "NEVER" (in all caps) change a name that serves to perpetuate them. If Snyder genuinely cared about Native communities, opponents of the name argue, he would acknowledge the role his team plays in marginalizing them.

Ray Halbritter, representative of the Oneida Indian Nation and an occasional Huffington Post blogger, says that instead, Snyder and other supporters of these names and mascots are denying Native Americans a simple request to be seen as equals in the eyes of their non-Native peers.

"They're so desensitized, they think Indian people are not real people; our children and our concerns are not real to them," Halbritter told The Huffington Post. "They don't think [the debate] is even real, they don't even think it's even worth bringing up or talking about. We're not human beings, we're not even part of humanity. And that's the problem. They think of us as just something to entertain them, or mascots -- relics out of a museum."

With only 5.2 million Native Americans in the U.S. -- 2 percent of the total population, according to the 2012 Census, with much of it concentrated on reservations in certain areas of the country -- these representations can be particularly hard to recalibrate. Halbritter says teams like Snyder's feed these misperceptions and allow the broader public to ignore the real power these words and images have on actual people.

"Denigrating Native Americans as mascots dehumanizes them and it pretends that their challenges are simply not important, that their children are not as important as white children or any other race," he said. "At the heart of the issues in Indian Country and virtually every organization of people in the world is what they think of themselves. ... It goes to the issue of our children and how they're affected and how their minds are shaped about how think about themselves."

The next generation of Native youth is regularly highlighted in the debate over offensive imagery, and its members have become increasingly visible as both primary stakeholders and leading activists. Earlier this year, Stegman published a report on the social and psychological impacts of these mascots and team names on Native youth. It concluded that the presence of organizations built on Native American stereotypes negatively affects the self-esteem and mental health of young Native Americans, who are already faced with inferior educational resources and a suicide rate 2.5 times higher than the national average.

"School is a tough place, and when you're a young person having to deal with your identity, in this case as Native people, these representations really matter," Stegman said. "They impact the way that you learn, they impact how you interact with your fellow classmates and they impact how you feel about your own culture and your own community."

People like Snyder often suggest that Native Americans tackle their most pressing challenges directly, rather than focus on a team name. But Native Americans have no intention of choosing between addressing the individual issues and combatting the broader environment of disrespect, ignorance and ostracization that contributes to them. Earlier this month, representatives from the nation's 566 federally recognized Native tribes gathered at the White House Tribal Nations Conference in Washington, D.C., to discuss the state of affairs in Indian country and outline a blueprint for moving forward.

The backlash again Native mascots and team names may have gotten increasing attention for a few weeks this year and last, but Native Americans have been fighting these battles for decades. And few today are downplaying the formidable opponent they face in Snyder and his billion-dollar profit machine. Empathy is hard enough to come by as it is, and in this case, a small minority group is working to win over a sports-obsessed public that feels entitled to a team name and mascot that shouldn't be theirs to define.

But both Stegman and Halbritter are optimistic that the debate is at least headed in the right direction. They see a growth in productive conversations about these damaging depictions of Native people, which have in turn produced some tangible victories. Earlier this month, the Oklahoma City School Board voted unanimously to change a local high school's "Redskins" mascot after impassioned testimony from a number of Native Americans.

It's a small step forward, but Halbritter says if American principles hold true, it will be followed by much larger ones.

"That's one of the fundamental values and principles of this country, that it finds its way to gravitate to doing what's the right thing," he said. "And that's what this is about. It's trying to get the consciousness of America to line up with the principles of America so that the needle aligns to the pole of right and people just do the right thing."

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