Washington Should Learn from Miami University’s Decision to Change `Redskins’ Name After Tribal Rebuke
Update: The US Patent Office has rescinded patent protection for the NFL Redskins name.
By Ryan Donmoyer
Now that the South Dakota Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota has denounced the Redskins moniker, team owner Dan Snyder should follow in the footsteps of Miami University in Ohio, which dropped the mascot 15 years ago.
A fierce debate raged on the Oxford, Ohio campus for 25 years that parallels the one now. Those who opposed the name compared it to other epithets. Defenders contended it honors Native Americans rather than disparage them and made straw man comparisons to other ostensibly offensive team names such as Padres, Saints, and Fighting Irish.
In the end, Miami changed the name only after the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma withdrew its support for it. That precedent, more than anything, should govern what happens now with the Washington Redskins, which are the NFL’s third most valuable franchise, according to Forbes, worth $1.7 billion and a much wider fan base. The brand alone is valued at $145 million.
Snyder is already fielding criticism from sportscaster Bob Costas, and league commissioner Roger Goodell said this week the league needs to be “sensitive” that it doesn’t “insult” anyone. But the events during a 48-hour span from Oct. 9 to Oct. 11 should be a game-changer. Snyder on Oct. 9 in a letter to fans contended the franchise had the explicit blessing to use the name Redskins. According to Snyder, “legendary” coach George Allen in 1971 consulted with the Red Cloud Athletic Fund on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota to design the Redskins emblem worn on players’ helmets and received subsequent honor from the Fund.
Two days later, however, the primary beneficiary of that fund replied bluntly: “As an organization, Red Cloud Indian School has never — and will never — endorse the use of the name ‘Redskins… Like many Native American organizations across the country, members of our staff and extended community find the name offensive.”
This fact pattern bears remarkable similarity to what happened at Miami University, which had used the Redskins mascot since 1928.
The Miami Redskins name was first challenged in 1971 by a sociology and anthropology professor who complained “it falls into the same category of the epithets that have been applied to Blacks, Jews, Italians, Poles, and other `minorities’ in the United States.’”
Then-University President Phillip Shriver to reach out to the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, a federally-recognized tribe whose ancestral lands Miami University now occupies. The tribe issued a resolution in 1972 endorsed the use of the Redskins name, saying, “we of Miami blood are proud to have the name Miami Redskins carried with honor by the athletic representation of Miami University …”
Problem was, “Miami wrote the resolution,” Bobbe Burke, coordinator of Miami’s tribe relations, said in an interview. It remained controversial within the tribe. Still, the resolution was reaffirmed in 1988 and 1991, the same year Miami University established a scholarship fund for students from the tribe.
For nearly three decades, Miami University resisted calls for a name change based on that resolution. Then in 1996, the tribe suddenly reversed its position, saying that the name “is no longer perceived as a positive by some members of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, Miami University, and society at large.”
“Once the tribe indicated that they ended their support, Miami really didn’t have much of a choice,” Burke said. The university realized it couldn’t say, “‘Oh, now we don’t care what the tribe says.’”
Miami’s Board of Trustees swiftly voted to discontinue the use of the name “Redskins” and Miami changed its mascot to the RedHawks. The university’s relationship with the tribe has only strengthened since then, Burke said.
Now, Miami University's RedHawks are trolling Snyder and his NFL Redskins on Twitter, according to Fox Sports.
It could be coincidence that both George Allen and Miami University obtained blessings from tribes to use the name Redskins.
But invoking such moral authority obligates them to respect tribal wishes if and when they change. Whether or not George Allen won the blessing of the Red Cloud Athletic Fund 42 years ago, the objections of the Oglala Lakota people who live in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation now should be the end of this debate.
Snyder should follow Miami’s example. The RedHawks conjure red-tail hawks, a fierce predator that is indigenous to Ohio. Surely, Snyder could choose a predatory species prevalent in this area. I suggest the snakeheads, a fearsome looking fish that have taken over the Potomac River.