Indian Country Responds to the New Washington Commanders Name

Screenshot from the Washington Commanders twitter page, @Commanders.
Screenshot from the Washington Commanders twitter page, @Commanders.
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On Wednesday, Washington’s National Football League (NFL) Team announced its new team name as the Commanders. The announcement was made exclusively on the Today Show, after weeks of speculation. The announcement was met with varying responses from leaders across Indian Country.

Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians, called Washington’s announcement an “end of a dark era” and said in a press release, “the NFL and the Washington franchise commercially exploited and dehumanized Native people and culturally appropriated our most sacred practices.”

“Roger Goodell and Dan Snyder have yet to take step one, as promised to the National Congress of American Indians, toward owning the genocidal history of the former name,” said Sharp. “They have shown a lack of accountability for the unspeakable harm to our citizens that they accepted, perpetuated, and profited from.”

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Suzan Harjo, who fought to end the use of the slur for decades, said she was relieved the name was changed and said, “as long as they kept their promise not to revive any Native theme with any Native name, or related name, or anything that would signal to us for us to be a target again.”

“The name could be commander, or salamander, or macaroni,” Harjo added. “It’s not the name that matters, as long as it’s not doing harm and injury to living people—that’s all we ever asked for.”

Harjo is Cheyenne and Muscogee Creek and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her service to Native people. In 1992, she petitioned the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) to cancel the trademarked image and name used by the Washington football team. To date, she still receives death threats for her opposition to the use of the name.

While Washington’s new name has been largely accepted as a victory, Sharp said the new name, “Without an apology, without any measure of accountability, and without fulfilling the honored commitments they made to tribal nations in 2020 to right this wrong, the NFL and Snyder are simply ‘Commanding’ a continued course of open, intentional and profit-driven racism and erasure.”

"It's a name that has the weight and meaning befitting a 90-year-old franchise," said Washington NFL Team President Jason Wright of the new name on the Today Show Wednesday morning. “It’s something that broadly resonated with our fans.”

Tara Houska, tribal attorney and co-founder of Not Your Mascots, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to fighting stereotypical Indigenous representation in sports, called today’s announcement a step in the right direction and said, “Generations of advocates have fought for this change, and it’s incredible to see it finalized.”

“Washington couldn’t entirely disassociate from genocide it seems, but it’s better than a reference to a Native scalp on a national stage,” said Houska told Native News Online. “It took George Floyd’s murder and cities burning to get a country talking about racial justice, to spread ripples of change including the removal of a blatantly racist slur from the side of an NFL helmet.”

Lisa Bellanger, co-director of the American Indian Movement’s Grand Governing Council and member of the National Coalition Against Sports and Media was relieved to learn of today’s announcement, but wanted to remind others the work is not done. “Our work is not complete, however, as we have other teams with similar names and mascots that continue to offend our people,” she said to Native News Online.

“Why and how people continue to think that it is okay to mock people shows the continued lack of respect and humanity,” she added.

“Not only do I not expect [an apology from the Washington NFL team], I wouldn’t accept one,” said Harjo. “The damage they have done to Native peoples of nearly 90 years of the use of ‘r’ word is so extensive and so broad that no living person can accept.”

Since the early 1990s, organizations such as the American Indian Movement (AIM) and NCAI have protested at sports games demanding the end of Native-themed mascots, calling the use of them dehumanizing and belittling. “We started with nearly 3,000 teams that used Native themed mascots and we still have about 1,000 team names to go,” said Harjo.

Three professional sports teams in the U.S. still use Native themed names or mascots: the Kansas City Chief, the Chicago Blackhawks, and the Atlanta Braves.

“Onwards to ending the tomahawk chop, to pushing the rest of them holding onto to nostalgic racism to move forward,” said Houska of the remaining sports teams who use Native themed mascots and team names. “We are not your mascot.”

The Washington Football Team’s former team name has been considered a racial slur by many Native Americans, and the organization’s use of the name has drawn some of the largest protests in sports history. In July of 2020, the team announced it would retire its name, which came to a surprise to many as Washington Commanders Owner Dan Synder told USA Today in 2013 that he would never change the name. The slur stood for 87 years.

About the Author: "Darren Thompson (Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe) is a staff reporter for Native News Online who is based in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. Thompson has reported on political unrest, tribal sovereignty, and Indigenous issues for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, Indian Country Today, Native News Online, and Unicorn Riot. He has contributed to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Voice of America on various Indigenous issues in international conversation. He has a bachelor\u2019s degree in Criminology & Law Studies from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. "