A little more than a month before the kickoff to this year’s National Football League season, a familiar off-the-field spat has emerged again – the controversy over the Washington Redskins' name.
In a move against what they consider to be an offensive name, the leaders of a native American tribe in South Dakota voted Wednesday to reject donations from a Washington Redskins foundation that was founded by the team to support native communities.
In addition to refusing all financial offers from the foundation – which involved sending back a $25,000 check the tribe received in July – the tribe will “cease all unsanctioned communication with the Washington Redskins and any group or person associated with them,” according to a Facebook post from Ryman LeBeau, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux council.
Redskins owner Daniel Snyder has repeatedly vowed that he will never change the name, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has backed him up, calling the name “a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect."
In an apparent recognition of the fractured relationship between native American tribes and the football team, the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation was formed last year. The foundation is spending millions of dollars on nearly 250 projects with more than 50 federally recognized tribes, The Washington Post reported.
Dozens of tribes and interest groups have come out publicly against the Redskins name, calling it an offensive remnant of a history of US discrimination against Indians.
But within some tribes, the name has been a contentious issue, with some individuals viewing it as derogatory and others as harmless. These internal clashes have sometimes spilled out into tribal politics.
Last year Ben Shelly, then president of the Navajo Nation, came under fire when he was seen wearing a cap with the team’s logo while at a football game with Mr. Snyder, the Redskins owner.
Earlier this year, a member of the leadership council of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah was impeached and kicked off the council for accepting an autographed football and a sponsored trip to Washington, D.C., from the team.
In 1933, the team's name was changed from the Braves to the Redskins to differentiate the organization from the Braves baseball team. Although the origins of the term “redskin” have been debated, one theory, according to Smithsonian linguist Ives Goddard, is that it started out in the 19th century as a self-identifier used by native Americans. In the decades since, however, activists say it has evolved into a slur – a criticism that has plagued the organization with public protests since the 1980s.
The team's location near the center of the US political system means that national politicians have weighed in on the issue.
A letter penned in 2013 by a bipartisan group of congressional lawmakers urged the NFL to change the name, and the Obama administration has said it will try to block efforts by the team to build a new stadium in Washington until the name is changed. Currently, the team plays home games at FedExField in Maryland.
Activists against the name have also taken their case to court in an attempt to cancel the trademarks held by the team over the Redskins name and logo.
Last month, a US district court in Virginia upheld a decision from the US Patent and Trademark Office to cancel six trademarks held by the team because it said the logos were "disparaging to Native Americans."
Even amid all the controversy, public opinion on the issue has not moved much. A 2014 poll of Washington residents commissioned by the Oneida Indian Nation found that a majority of people support keeping the name. However, 59 percent also said that native Americans have a right to feel offended by the term redskins, and 66 percent said the term is inappropriate for describing native Americans.