Arizona Navajo high school emerges as symbol in Redskins debate

Dylan Stableford

As the national debate rages over the Washington Redskins name, an Arizona high school on the nation's largest Native American reservation has emerged as a symbol for those defending the NFL franchise's right to keep it.

The Washington Post reports that teachers and students at Red Mesa High School overwhelmingly support keeping their football team's nickname the Redskins. According to a recent poll conducted by the school, more than 88 percent of the students and 70 percent of the faculty at Red Mesa High School are in favor of keeping their longtime mascot. And most students (60 percent) said they did not agree that "Redskins" is a racial slur. Just 7 percent find the word is offensive, while the rest (33 percent) said they weren’t sure.

“I don’t find it derogatory," Red Mesa superintendent Tommie Yazzie told the newspaper. "It’s a source of pride.”

Around the country, the NFL team's name has stirred a contentious debate, with lawmakers, civil rights leaders, and sports journalists protesting the name, and Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder vowing to never change it.

Snyder offered Red Mesa students free tickets and transportation to the Redskins' Oct. 12 game against the Arizona Cardinals in Glendale, Ariz.., and more than half (150) of the school's 220 students accepted them.

Inside the stadium, Snyder sat in the visiting owner's box with Ben Shelly, the outgoing president of the Navajo Nation. Outside the stadium, Amanda Blackhorse, who is the lead plaintiff in a case threatening the Washington Redskins’ trademark protection, criticized parents and faculty for allowing the Red Mesa High students to be used as pawns by the NFL team owner in his charm offensive.

“We want to let our children know who are being used today that we are here for them," Blackhorse said. "We are not going to disparage them ... because they don’t know any better. The adults in that school should know better, and they are not informed of this issue — and shame on them for that."

“I don’t know what she means that it’s a racial slur,” Mckenzie Lameman, Red Mesa’s student government president, told the Post. “It’s not a racist slur if it originates from a Native American tribe. ... It’s always used in the context of sports.”

“This protest feels like it’s coming from one person," Red Mesa athletic director Al Begay added.

Wesley Cobb, a government teacher at Red Mesa High, disagrees.

“The Washington Redskins is a profoundly racist name, and I think we as educators need to provide some history and context,” Cobb told the Post

Most parents the paper talked to called it a nonissue.

“We have far more important issues to expend our energy on," Steven Benally, a grandfather of a Red Mesa High School football player, said. “A lot of the buildings here are from the 1970s. Our grandson doesn’t even have a biology teacher. Tell Snyder we want a wellness center.”

In vowing to keep its controversial mascot, the Redskins are not alone.

According to a study conducted by the University of Maryland, there were 62 high schools in 22 states using the Redskins moniker last year, including three Native American schools: Red Mesa, Wellpinit High School in Wellpinit, Wash., and Kingston High School in Oklahoma.

In June, the Wellpinit school board voted to keep the name. Earlier this month, Oklahoma City Public Schools said it was looking into whether the Redskins nickname at Capitol Hill High School should be changed.

“The Oklahoma City Public School District has been researching how other institutions have addressed similar issues and we are also seeking the perspectives of Oklahoma-based Native American tribes,” district spokeswoman Tierney Tinnin told KGOU.