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Not Your Mascot: Inside the March Against Dan Snyder's Racist NFL Team Name

Some 5,000 people gathered on Sunday to protest the Washington NFL team's use of a Native American slur and we were there to chronicle the movement's biggest show of power yet.

by Jack Moore
Nov 3 2014, 12:41pm

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota -- Three hours before the Minnesota Vikings and the Washington NFL team were set to kick off Sunday at the University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium, nearly 5,000 people assembled outside the Minneapolis American Indian OIC, a 2.6 mile march away. Mike Forcia, the Minneapolis Chairman of the American Indian Movement (AIM), addressed the crowd. "I want everybody to be awesome when we get out there and just have fun, just have fun," Forcia said. "Hopefully this is the last time we get together for something like this."

Like many of the marchers on Sunday, Forcia also participated in protests against the Redskins name in 1992, when Washington played in the first ever Super Bowl hosted by Minneapolis. Actions have continued since then, against Dan Snyder's football team and against racist mascots in colleges and high schools, but Sunday was expected to mark the largest action since the Super Bowl's pull brought an estimated 2,000 to the now-destroyed Metrodome 22 years ago. Bolstered by the unprecedented turnout, it was clear Forcia was not the only one hoping the Washington NFL team's use of a racial slur as its name and mascot is nearing an end.

"A couple nights ago I didn't sleep very well," David Snowball of the Ho-Chunk Eagle Clan said, "because I was thinking, what if this comes to bring about some change." Snowball attended the 1992 protest and made the trip from neighboring Wisconsin to attend Sunday's rally. "I think this one seems a lot more supported by the community, and I'm really proud to hear that."

Read More: One High School's Insane Quest to Make Students Print 'Redskins'

The seemingly endless wave of marchers first passed through Cedar-Riverside, home to Minneapolis' largest immigrant community, where families pressed up against windows and spread onto the street to watch. After they crossed the Mississippi River, the marchers moved onto the University of Minnesota campus, where confused college students flocked to the porches and balconies of the apartment buildings and fraternity houses lining the road to the stadium. Their blank stares and frizzled hair were greeted by persistent chants of "Change the name," and "We are people, not your mascot."

Richard Merlin Johnson Jr., a local Santee Sioux Dakota, California Indian Shumash, and Chicano artist, was part of the march. He traced his family's history of protests against Native American mascots to 1971, when his father was working as a counselor at Minnesota's Mankato State University. "They had a mascot that was native effigy with a crooked nose, an 'unga-bunga' kind of guy," Johnson said. In response, Johnson's father and some students stole the mascot from the quad. Shortly after, thanks to the awareness created by Johnson's father and the students, Mankato State became one of the first universities to drop a Native American mascot.

Photo by Joseph Leadley

"It's base building," Johnson said, of both his father's action and Sunday's protest. "There has to be a realization that people are dying, that people are still being raped by the system, that there's actual genocide going on. We use the term colonialism, but that connotates an earlier thought. If you say genocide, then you realize the relationship is present day, and ongoing."

The march concluded in a courtyard in the shadow of the stadium. As speakers ranging from Native American government leaders to state politicians to journalists and activists delivered their messages, some protesters faced their signs towards the ticket holders starting to descend on the stadium.

"There's been a lot of racism from Washington fans," David Snowball said around 11:30 AM, half an hour before kickoff. One man in a Redskins shirt responded to a sign held by Iowa City military retiree Kristi Sheldon by pointing at his shirt's logo, asking "How do you like it?" and shoving his middle finger in her face. Another man in a Washington jersey shouted "Get a job, fuckers," at the protesters.

But most of the fans were wearing Vikings purple, and although this group was much quieter, their silence spoke volumes. "Lately what I've been doing is I just put the sign right out there," Snowball said, "and then they'll just turn their head away fast and try to ignore it. Hard to ignore a thousand people standing out here."

The rally took place just feet away from the TCF Bank Stadium's Minnesota Tribal Nations Plaza,dedicated to the 11 American Indian nations in the state. The plaza honors a $10 million donation from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community to the University of Minnesota, the "largest single private gift ever to Gopher Athletics" per its website. But thanks to the terms of the stadium lease with the Vikings, the University had no standing to keep the Washington NFL team out of the stadium Sunday. Consequently, as Melanie Benjamin of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe said at the rally, "Inside those walls, the most degrading word for native people in the English language will be used over and over and over again."

Snowball and Sheldon shared a sign reading, "Historically, the R-word means Native American Scalp. Now you know why we are offended." Snowball said he was at the protest to educate people. "They don't know where it came from. They don't know it came from the government having a bounty on Native Americans. To collect that bounty, they had to bring a Native American scalp," Snowball said. "They called it a 'red skin' to confer that we were nothing more than animals, because the same place where you collected your bounty for Native American scalp you collected bounty for a bear skin, wolf skin, or deer skin. The emblem on the side of the Washington helmet is a representation of the sign that would hang by fur traders who were authorized to dispense the bounty for a Native American scalp."

The focal point for most at the rally was the Native American children forced to deal with these mascots every Sunday and, in some cases, every day at school. "I grew up in a suburb here in Minneapolis and I grew up made fun of for being a Native," one speaker said prior to the march. Others cited the devastating suicide rate statistics among Native Americans, including a suicide rate 2.5 times higher than any other race among people aged 15-34. "They think we don't think," another speaker said. Billy Mills of the Ogala Sioux, the Olympic gold medalist in the 10,000 meter run at the 1964 Tokyo games, was quoted as saying the name "robs young American Indians of their self esteem and invades their dreams."

A number of the speakers urged the crowd to turn and aim their chants at Daniel Snyder's place in the TCF Bank Stadium luxury boxes. Not only did Snyder bring his team and its racist name and uniforms to Minnesota, to a stadium built with Native American money, but he also paid to bus in Native American fans to pose in support of the name. "I want to condemn him," Clyde Bellecourt of the White Earth Ojibwe, a chief organizer of the 1992 protest, told the crowd, "for going to South Dakota and picking some of the poorest tribes in the nation and renting buses for them so they can come down here and sit in the bleachers with him and he can point them out and say that he's helping us."

Tell Dan Snyder to change the name, speaker after speaker implored the protesters, and the chants would go echoing off the glass of the luxury boxes. Does any image better represent America's unjust power structure? Five thousand people, peaceful and unarmed, asked one man to change the name of his business and end his degradation of an entire race of people. Rather than act, or even listen, Snyder cloistered himself in the comfort of a luxury box, surrounded by illusory supporters. Charlene Teters, a Spokane artist and activist, told the crowd "Our ancestors do their work through us." So with the protestors on the ground and so with Snyder in his luxury box.

Snyder doesn't appear poised to change tactics soon. In a letter this October, Snyder rejected any negative characterization of the name, and in May, he infamously told a reporter he would change the name "never... you can use all caps."

Perhaps Snyder remains true to his word. His stubbornness has been apparent since he took over the Washington franchise in 1999, even if the pressure on him is greater than ever and continues to grow in the wake of Sunday's protest. His stubbornness will not deter the people who were in that crowd on Sunday.

"I have a message for Dan Snyder," Melanie Benjamin told the protestors in one of the most satisfying speeches of the day. "You are on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of social justice, the wrong side of human rights. We will not stop until that name is changed, and we will never give up.

"And Dan Snyder? You can put that all in caps."