Washington Redskins racist? What do the Navajo really think?

Navajo Nation president Ben Shelly sat next to Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder on Sunday. Does that mean Navajo people approve of the NFL team's name? 

Navajo Nation president Ben Shelly was an honored guest of Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, sitting next to him during yesterday’s NFL game between the Redskins and Arizona Cardinals. And this viral photo of Native American leader is being hailed as a rebuttal to those who say the team’s name is racist.

What do Native Americans, whom the name supposedly offends, actually think? Is Shelly's support representative?

Public statements and opinion polls show mixed feelings on the name, and the photo – complete with Mr. Shelly in a Redskins cap – is raising more questions about a team name change.

While some saw the gesture as a powerful public handshake, others were quick to criticize.

“This is some heinously ham-handed PR,” Tom Logue tweeted in response to the photo. Then Deadspin reported that Shelly, who will finish his single presidential term in January, has clashed with his own tribal council, which voted 9-2 in April to formally oppose the Washington Redskins name. He was also accused of going behind the back of tribal leaders when he co-hosted a golf tournament with Mr. Snyder’s Original Americans Foundation.

Snyder recently told ESPN he won’t bow to pressure to change his team’s nickname as it is not derogatory, claiming it’s actually a term of honor and respect. He cited William Henry “Lone Star” Dietz, the team’s first coach and namesake, and Walter “Blackie” Wetzel, a former president of the National Congress of American Indians and chairman of the Blackfeet Nation, who helped design and approve the team’s logo.

Positive history aside, how do Native Americans today feel about the name?

The Center for Indigenous Peoples Studies at California State University in San Bernardino surveyed 400 individuals, 98 of them Native Americans, and found that 67 percent of Native Americans agreed the “Redskins team name is a racial or racist word and symbol.” Whites were 32.8 percent in agreement that the name was racial or racist.

A June 2014 Rasmussen Reports poll found 60 percent of respondents said the team should not change its name. Similarly, a September 2014 poll conducted by Langer Research for ESPN found 71 percent in favor of keeping the name and that 68 percent think the name is not disrespectful of Native Americans.

Shelly is not the first Native American to be touted as a supporter. During the NFL's “Salute to Service” month and Native American Heritage month, the Washington Redskins recognized four members of the Navajo Code Talkers Association. One of them, Roy Hawthorne, told the Associated Press he would endorse the name. “My opinion is that's a name that not only the team should keep, but that's a name that's American,” he said.

Hawthorne is just one of a number of Native Americans who have voiced support for the name in the media.

Even so, IJReview reported Indian Country Today says Shelly is out of touch with his constituents:

“It is unfortunate the Navajo Nation administration of Ben Shelly is so out of step with the Navajo people, particularly the young people, regarding this issue. Obviously, offensive cultural appropriation done by non-Native fans of Native Mascots does not generally include Navajo culture. We do not see them performing Sand Paintings at halftime or dressed like Yeii, but we should understand that most Americans are unable to differentiate between tribes enough to understand that and that Navajo children, two-thirds of whom live off the reservation, are subjected to these ignorant ideas about who they are as Native Americans.”


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