Written by Emily Mullins
For Joel Barkin, vice president of communications for the Oneida Indian Nation, the debate surrounding the NFL's Washington Redskins team name can be boiled down to one basic question.
"If you were to visit a Native American reservation, would you refer to the people there as 'Redskins' or call them that to their faces?" he asked. "If the answer is no — if you can't use the word in everyday conversation — then how can [the name] be an honor when it's slapped on the uniforms of an NFL team?"
It's the question the Oneidas and the United Church of Christ have asked countless times, and will raise once again as they work to pass a resolution calling for the team's name change at the Central Atlantic Conference of the UCC's annual meeting June 13-15. The conference resolution calls upon the NFL and the Washington franchise to change the team name and refrain from the use of any images, mascots, or behaviors that are or could be deemed harmful or demeaning to Native American cultures or peoples. Among other actions, the resolution also urges the Conference's 40,000 members and 180 congregations in Washington, D.C., New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and parts of Virginia and West Virginia, to join a boycott of the team's games and not wear, display, or purchase any items bearing its logo until the name changes.
The resolution will be introduced during a hearing on Friday, June 13, and voting will take place the afternoon of Saturday, June 14. Oneida Indian Nation Representative Ray Halbritter will attend the annual meeting and deliver a statement on behalf of the tribe.
"We expect it to pass by a substantial majority," said the Rev. John Deckenback, conference minister of the Central Atlantic Conference. "Then we will vigorously forward it to General Synod and seek its passage there in 2015."
The fight to convince the Washington franchise and the NFL to change the team's name is not new, and actually spans back decades, said Barkin. But the recent outpouring of support the issue and the Oneida's "Change the Mascot" campaign has received is somewhat of a new development. In late May, a group of 50 U.S. senators sent a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell expressing support for the team name change, a move Barkin called "unprecedented and historic." Last week, the Oneida Indian Nation and the National Congress of American Indians, which represents nearly 80 Native American tribes throughout the U.S., sent letters to more than 2,700 NFL players asking them to speak out against the team name that instead of honoring people of color "seeks to conceal a horrible segment of American history and the countless atrocities suffered by Native Americans."
President Barack Obama and representatives from the United Nations have also spoken publicly in support of changing the team's name.
"The fact that there has been so much galvanizing support around this says to us that it's a special moment and people are understanding the issue for what it is," Barkin said. "It's not just about one sports team and one name, it's about a society. Do we want to live in a society that values mutual respect or one that says it's OK for a team to profit from and promote a dictionary-defined slur?"
The issue still lacks support from other groups, including the NFL and the Washington franchise. The Central Atlantic Conference extended an invitation to Dan Snyder, franchise owner, to attend the annual meeting and engage in the dialogue surrounding the boycott resolution. Instead of responding to the invitation, one of the team's top officials and three members from the Blackfeet Nation, a tribe based in Montana, contacted Deckenback to explain why the team name was an honor and not a racial slur. The franchise, which has vowed to never change its team name, has since hired D.C.-based public affairs firm McGuireWoods Consulting to work on "discussions of team origins, history and traditions, Washington Redskins Charitable Foundation and youth sports, and activities of the Original Americans' Foundation," according to news reports.
"Changing the name of the Washington NFL team will not solve the problems of our country's many trails of broken promises and discriminatory isolation of our Native American communities," Deckenback said. "However, a change in the nation's capital can send a strong message."