News & Politics

Dan Snyder Starts Foundation to Benefit Native Americans

His football team's name is still considered racist.

He cares. Photograph by Carol Ross Joynt

Dan Snyder has spent the NFL off-season learning about Native American communities, he writes in his newest letter to fans of his football team. And while he hasn’t changed his self-affirming position that his team’s name “honors” Native Americans, Snyder has learned that many tribes suffer from deep crises of poverty, drug addiction, and economic hardship.

In his four-page letter to season-ticket holders, Snyder writes that he and his staff have visited 26 Native American reservations over the past four months, discovering some jarring statistics, like the fact that nationally, reservations have poverty rates of 29 percent, and 36 percent for children, according to Census Bureau statsitics released in early 2013.

“I’ve listened. I’ve learned,” Synder writes. “And frankly, it’s heart wrenching. It’s not enough to celebrate the values and heritage of Native Americans. We must do more.”

So, while he continues to celebrate the values and heritage of Native Americans by running a football team that brazenly insults them, Snyder writes that on Thursday, he is launching a foundation to send financial assistance to reservations in need. Snyder’s new outfit, the “Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation,” has already started its work, he claims, with projects including the distribution of coats to residents of reservations in cold-weather states and the purchase of a backhoe for a tribe in Nebraska. Snyder claims he has already funded 40 such projects, with more on the way as Native American communites request them.

Few would argue that many Native American reservations couldn’t be helped by the largesse of someone as wealthy as Snyder, but this move strikes like another attempt to distract people from the ongoing controversy surrounding the name of Snyder’s team. And the project’s name—”Original Americans Foundation”—sounds a lot like the work of Frank Luntz, the wedge-issue wordsmith and member of Snyder’s spin-doctor collection. (Luntz’s achievements include the phrase “death tax,” a scary way to describe taxes on inheritances.)

Snyder, who is worth $1.1 billion, does not say how much money he is actually committing to this foundation, and the letter comes across as a bald PR maneuver. It is padded with quotes from tribal leaders who are also described as fans of the Washington NFL team.

“For too long, the struggles of Native Americans have been ignored, unnoticed, and unresolved,” Snyder writes. “As a team, we have honored them through our words and on the field, but now we will honor them through our actions.”

Perhaps Snyder thinks that a little bit of charity—which has surely improved conditions for its recipients—will quiet the criticism of his team’s name, after a similar attempt last October failed to do so. After saying he listened to the critics, he fired off a letter saying the feelings of Native Americans are secondary to the team’s history. 

While Native American groups have put out statements in appreciation of Snyder’s newfound charity, some would also still like him to change his football team’s name.

“We’re glad that after a decade of owning the Washington team, Mr. Snyder is finally interested in Native American heritage, and we are hopeful that when his team finally stands on the right side of history and changes its name, he will honor the commitments to Native Americans that he is making,” says Ray Halbritter, a leader of the Oneida Indian Nation, which has funded a campaign against the team’s name.

Representative Betty McCollum, a Minnesota Democrat who co-chairs the Congressional Native American Caucus, is far less forgiving. “Dan Snyder wants to keep profiting from his team’s racist brand and use those profits to attempt to buy the silence of Native Americans with a foundation that is equal parts public relations scheme and tax deduction,” she says in a press release.

It could all by a cyncial move on Snyder’s part designed to tie his detractors into moral knots, but at least it’s actually helping people. Meanwhile, Merriam-Webster continues to define his team’s name as “usually offensive.”  

Dan Snyder Letter March 24

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.