W. Richard West Jr. thinks the recent move by Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder to launch a foundation addressing poverty and other social issues among Native Americans is a classic “bait and switch” — an attempt to divert attention from the fact that his team’s nickname is coming under increasing heat from people who think it’s an offensive racial term.
“Looking at the word ‘redskin,’ it’s not even close,” West, a member of the Cheyenne tribe who’s president and chief executive of L.A.’s Autry National Center of the American West, said in an interview Friday. “It’s an openly derogatory term. It always is and it always has been.”
But in his role as a museum president whose most important tasks include raising money to fund its programs, West said he’d have to be more judicious if, in an admittedly unlikely scenario, the National Football League team owner’s new foundation were to offer a grant.
West said he would not reject a donation from Snyder’s Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation out of hand, assuming that, in addition to his stated mission of tackling social problems, Snyder also wanted to support programs on Native American culture.
The Autry has one of the world’s largest and most prized collections of Native American art and artifacts, along with a diverse array of other objects associated with the West. Its mission, as West once put it, is to explore “the good, the bad and the ugly” of how the different peoples who make up the West have converged and interacted to shape the region’s history, culture and landscape.
Saying he was speaking for himself rather than in his official position as the Autry’s leader, West made it clear that he thinks the Washington Redskins’ name definitely falls in the “ugly” category.
Nor is he keen on sports nicknames that seem to reflect positive or at least neutral images of Native Americans, such as Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians, the Kansas City Chiefs of the NFL and the National Hockey League’s Chicago Blackhawks. He thinks they still project a narrow view of who Native Americans are and can pose a problem when appropriated without consent.
If Snyder’s foundation were to make a funding offer to the Autry, West said, “as a good director, there are others I would feel compelled to consult, my staff and the trustees,” before deciding whether to accept the money. “It’s not up to me to presume outcomes. I would tell them what my viewpoint is, that I’m troubled about the name, and we would have a discussion about it.”
Snyder has been under pressure from some members of Congress and some Native American groups to give up the Redskins name. The issue grew hotter last fall when President Barack Obama told the Associated Press he’d consider a name change if he were the Redskins’ owner because it offends “a sizable group of people,” and Peter King, a senior football writer for Sports Illustrated magazine, pointedly stopped using the name “Redskins” in his coverage of the NFL.
Snyder has vowed not to give up a name that goes back 77 years. In a written announcement this week of the new foundation on the Redskins’ website, he reaffirmed that “our team name captures the best of who we are and who we can be, by staying true to our history and honoring the deep and enduring values our name represents.”
Snyder claims the name is supported by many Native Americans, after a series of visits with tribes over the last four months to “hear firsthand what Native Americans truly thought of our name.”
During those visits, he said, he became more aware of issues such as disproportional rates of poverty, substance abuse and suicide in many Native American communities. “It’s plain to see they need actions, not words,” Snyder wrote, and the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation is his response.
“If he wants to take a shot at addressing problems he’s found in the last four months in Indian country, that can be a good thing,” West said. “But Daniel Snyder has owned the Washington Redskins for a decade and a half. He has had this issue of that name in front of him for the entire time. It’s taken him a decade and a half to determine that poverty exists on this scale in the native community?”
West, who lived for many years in Washington, D.C., first as a lawyer specializing in Native American rights issues, then as founding director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian and interim director of Washington’s Textile Museum, said it appears that Snyder is trying to change the conversation from his derogatory team name to a new program of good works for Native Americans. He thinks it will be telling whether the foundation makes grants to Native American groups that oppose the team name as well as to ones that are OK with it.
By leaving the Redskins name in place, West said, Snyder “hasn’t gone all the way” and is ignoring a key cause of the social and health issues the new foundation wants to address: “a discriminatory and racist attitude toward native people that persists.”
He was a law student at Stanford in the early 1970s when the university replaced “Indians” with “Cardinal,” the school color, as its sports teams’ nickname. West said that if Native Americans object, as they did at Stanford, a name should go.
On the other hand, he said, it’s OK to use Native American names when there’s no such dissonance. He cited the example of Florida State University, which has the Seminole tribe’s approval to use “Seminoles” as a nickname, along with imagery associated with the tribe and a human mascot who impersonates the historic Chief Osceola.
West said he didn’t have to make a personal choice during his years in Washington about whether to root for the home football team despite its objectionable name. “The question was slightly academic. I play tennis.”
He’s pretty sure that Snyder’s field position for defending the Redskins name is deteriorating, with the clock running down. “This issue is in a different place from where it would have been a decade or two decades ago,” West said. “I think it’s a matter of time until names like this become mementos of history.”