News & Politics

Oneida Nation Tells Redskins to Change Their Name Already

A panel condemning the name of Washington's football team was designed to overlap with an NFL owner's meeting, but was booked at the wrong hotel.

Ray Halbritter of the Oneida Indian Nation, left, talks to Suzan Shown Harjo, an activist who has spent decades trying to get Washington's football team to change its name. Photograph by Benjamin Freed.

“This is not going to go away this time,” said Ray Halbritter, a leader of the Oneida Indian Nation, on a panel of Native American leaders, members of Congress, and psychologists spent nearly two hours today at the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown, arguing that it’s well past time for Washington’s professional football franchise to change its name. 

The panel, which the Oneida convened the day before the NFL’s owners arrive in DC for their fall meeting, was the latest salvo in an ongoing push to get the Redskins to switch their name to a term that is not seen as a racial slur. The call for a name change has been waged loudly for much of the past year, though owner Dan Snyder has said he will “never” accede to such requests. But the Oneidas’ event came after what panelists and people in the audience say is a major turning point in their fight—President Obama’s statement in a recent Associated Press interview that if the choice was his, he’d “think about changing it.”

“What he said was historic as the first sitting president to address the issue,” Halbritter told Washingtonian after the panel concluded. “There’s no gray area here.”

Halbritter also dismissed an oft-cited 2004 survey by the Annenberg Institute that found that nine out of ten Native Americans are not bothered by the team’s name. “This about doing the right thing,” he said. “You can’t just poll away damage.”

The Ritz’s Fahrenheit ballroom was crammed with those who take offense to the team’s name, including DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who has sponsored legislation that would strip the team of its federally protected trademark. Michael Friedman, a clinical psychologist from New York, said offensive team names are harmful to mental health, and can leave young children with the impression that such terms are acceptable. Friedman was unmoved by arguments that the Redskins’ name connotes “strength, courage, pride, and respect,” as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told Congress in June.

“This is a racial slur,” Friedman said. “It’s not even close.”

No representative of the NFL was in evidence, though the Oneidas extended invitations to the league. (Though the NFL’s absence might be partly explained by the fact that the NFL’s meeting, to the apparent surprise of the Oneida Nation, is actually convening at the Ritz-Carlton in the West End.) Halbritter, though, may get a chance soon to address the league directly. He said he has been approached for a meeting by Adolpho Birch, the NFL’s lobbyist in Washington.

Still, it was Obama’s interview that hung over the symposium, giving participants more confidence that a team rebranding might not be that far off. Suzan Shown Harjo, a Native American activist who was the lead plaintiff in an unsuccessful lawsuit to remove the team’s trademark, said Obama’s commentary is a “huge” milestone in her decades-long crusade to remove Native American stereotypes from scholastic and professional sports teams.

“You have Native people saying it’s offensive, owners saying we’re lying, and the President saying, ‘Hey, it is offensive,’” Harjo said. “It’s validation. Any time the President says anything, it’s important.”

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.