Saturday, November 17, 2018

Hail to the Indigenous People

Knowing me, you might not guess that I'm football savvy, but it's in my DNA.

I was probably five years old when my parents, along with Dad's best friend, purchased season's tickets for the Washington R*dskins at RFK Stadium. Because they had three tickets, my sisters and I would occasionally be given the opportunity to attend a game with Mom and Dad. And I'm here to tell you that no matter what your feelings are about watching a football game on TV, watching it from the tenth row on the 50-yard line behind the Washington bench is a wholly different experience.

Sometimes wet, often cold and always exuberantly noisy and enthusiastic.

So while I never became the obsessive football fan that all five of my sisters did, I attended enough games to appreciate watching them live in a stadium filled with rabid fans, at least once a year anyway. That said, I haven't been to a game since 1999, a fact attributable to several things: my disdain for the new stadium and the madhouse that is getting there, lack of desire to use free time for football and, yes, the refusal of the team to address their racist mascot.

Now let's go back a few years to when the subject of their politically incorrect name first became a hot topic in popular culture. Yes, the R*dskins were part of my childhood and yes, my family had spent thousands of dollars on seats year after year, but it seemed pretty clear to me that the term was offensive. Period.

Yet I remember a lengthy discussion with a local music promoter and major Washington fan about changing the team's name and he was adamantly against it, claiming it was in no way objectionable, especially given its long history as the team's name. We agreed to disagree.

So naturally when I discover that the Pocahontas Reframed Film Festival is screening "More Than a Word," a film analyzing the Washington team and their use of the derogatory term, and presented by the filmmaker John Little, I made sure I was there. If nothing else, so I could report back to my parents.

When I claimed a seat, the woman in front of me turned to explain why there was a blanket on the seat next to her: the Byrd's heating system wasn't working, a fact she'd discovered at an earlier screening and addressed by going to her car for a blanket. Soon another woman arrived with a large leaf bag in hand, her solution to being cold.

Both looked at me in pity for having no covering, but at least I had on my usual five layers of clothing, so I hoped I could manage.

"More Than a Name" got my attention almost immediately when a historian referred to Washington team owner Dan Snyder as "the George Wallace of the NFL" for going on record as saying that he would NEVER change the team's name. His racist words appealed to the fans interviewed - including one in a garish headdress, war paint and a burgundy and gold jersey (gee, no cultural appropriation there) - all of whom basically said the name was meant "in fun" or that Native Americans "should be honored" by its use.

Look, I don't want to make sweeping generalizations about Washington fans, but they came across as a short-sighted and uninformed bunch.

The documentary explained how the team had begun life as the Boston Braves in 1932 before changing their moniker to the Boston Redskins a year later. But it was when their owner George Preston Marshall, an open racist, moved the team to Washington and hired Coach Lone Star Dietz  as well as four Native American players that the name was cemented.

And, lest we forget, the Washington team was the very last one in the NFL to desegregate, so they didn't exactly have a great track record with non-whites at any point.

Despite fans claiming that they saw nothing offensive in the term "R*dskins," as far back as 1898, the Merriam-Webster dictionary listed the word as a "contemptuous term for American Indians." Frankly, I prefer the term used by Native Americans: the "R" word, because, like the "N" word, it's a term no white person should ever consider using.

That it is emblazoned on hats, shirts, sweats, blankets, underwear and just about every other thing you can imagine (I regret to recall that my parents had a folding card table with the logo on it) is a national embarrassment.

Some of the best parts of the film came from Native American lawyers and activists who've been fighting this battle in the courts as far back as the '60s. But, as the historian/professor pointed out, this is a sea change that will not only require proper teaching of American history to school children, but also a massive re-education of adults who either think there are no more Native Americans left or that they're the uneducated savages popular culture has told us they are.

As he so eloquently put it, this effort is about disrupting colonial practices, because that's where this whole mess began.

Which only serves as a reminder that events such as the Pocahontas Reframed Film Festival (incidentally, the largest Native American film fest on the east coast) are hugely important as a means of teaching people both the correct history and current status of the many tribes from whom we stole land to begin this great democratic experiment.

So in case you're wondering if my Thanksgiving festivities will involve watching the Washington/Dallas match-up, my answer is an emphatic hell no. I may be a native Washingtonian, but I don't have to buy into hometown team loyalty when it involves racism.

Not to mention I have far better things to do post-turkey.

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