Working to change the overtly racist Washington football team name has been an arduous process for many, many people. No one knows this better than activist, journalist, and podcaster Jacqueline Keeler. So, when the word came from various sources on Sunday night that Washington’s management was going to announce that they were finally dropping both the name “R*dsk*ns” and the iconography, I knew I had to reach out for a chat. Keeler, after all, co-founded the #NotYourMascot hashtag back in 2013 that was a big part of why the name was finally changed.
On Monday morning, the team made it official. The R*dsk*ns were no more. I was elated, along with a massive swath of Indian Country. Decades of protesting had finally paid off. A few short hours later, I was on the phone with Keeler talking about how much has been done with #NotYourMascot and how much there’s still left to do.
While the is a big victory for non-racists, there’s still a lot of work to do. There are still huge national teams and small local teams peddling in very racists Indigenous iconography. And we both hope that Washington’s team management taking the first step will be like a domino finally falling so the rest can fall too.
Can you walk us through the creation of #NotYourMascot?
In 2013, I helped co-found Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry. I actually invented the word “mascotry.” I did it with a group of Native parents who I met on Twitter. We were using #ChangeTheName and #ChangeTheMascot as our hashtags. Then suddenly our tweets were being buried, basically. There were all these Twitter accounts from India that were all tweeting out those hashtags and using it to sell real estate in India. And Native people are a small group and we weren’t being heard.
A Cherokee mother from Oklahoma came up with #NotYourMascot and I made the call to use it. We basically had an email list going of people, and a lot of us had some pretty prominent followers on Twitter even though our accounts were not large. For some reason, Chuck D was following me and Yoko Ono. I don’t know why. And so we just messaged them directly and asked them if they would retweet our hashtag to help us out, and a lot of them agreed. I was genuinely surprised.
We decided to do a test run the Saturday before the Super Bowl. We created what we called a “Twitter storm.” Because Natives are such a small percentage of the population, even on Twitter, we basically had to be very concentrated in our efforts to be heard. So we created a tweet list, and then we sent emails out announcing what the hashtag was going to be, and then we released it. Then we trended for the first time that Saturday, and we trended again the following Sunday.
— Jacqueline Keeler (@jfkeeler) February 9, 2014
2013 feels like a long time ago. A lot happened in those seven years from online harassment to Dan Synder fighting you pretty hard. What were some of the difficulties you’ve seen over the years?
Well, so we actually developed a lot of our arguments through actually arguing with trolls and Redskins fans. It was interesting. Being Native American and looking Native American, a lot of times white people won’t say things to my face that they may say to each other privately, right? So we are sort of clueless about what they actually think or feel because they conceal it from us.
So Twitter was an opportunity for us to actually see what people actually thought. On Twitter, they were telling us these arguments and their ways of rationalizing that they wouldn’t tell us in real life. So we were able to basically create very short responses to that — because Twitter was still only 140 characters — and really refine our response. And then of course social media really allowed us to coordinate our activities. We ended up keeping tabs on Dan Snyder because after we made some headway, he started fighting us.
How is #NotYourMascot different from #ChangeTheName?
I’d have to say #ChangeTheMascot and #ChangeTheName is a sort of a different thing. Those were coordinated by a Native American billionaire, Ray Halbritter, who hired a white PR guy to run that whole campaign. He paid him several hundred thousand dollars. #NotYourMascot has always been done with no money with just Native parents doing the work on behalf of our children. And also Ray Halbritter is sort of a problematic figure to represent all of us. He actually made it harder for us to be taken seriously because people would write us off as being paid off by him. We didn’t receive any money from Halbritter.
So, you mentioned you were keeping tabs on Snyder during all of this. What was he getting up to?
Snyder was flying all over the country, giving out money to buy support. And he was doing it pretty secretively. So we were able to immediately go get these stories, put them in the news, and really embarrass him.
On my podcast — the Pollen Nation podcast — last week, I had Frances Danger on to talk about #NotYourMascot history. She’s a Native mother from Oklahoma who was following the situation with Synder. She noticed that he had hired this sort of “vice president of social media” to fight us. She noticed that the guy had deleted his blog after he was hired for this position. So she went through all his old blog posts using the Wayback Machine for like two days, and she found a blog where he was saying really racist things about Native Americans after losing money at a casino. We were able to get that into media. And then within 24 hours of us having that reported on, he resigned.
I don’t know of any other social media campaign in Indian Country that quite worked that way with that level of sort of grassroots support that targeted a billionaire pretty effectively.
One of the things I found that I’ve had to fight against the most is that Washington Post survey they put out a few years ago saying that x-percentage of “Native Americans,” are fine with the Redskins’ name. Even though that poll has been thoroughly debunked, white people still throw it at me every single time this issue comes up.
So before the Washington Post, there was the Annenberg poll as well. The problem with both of those polls was that they allowed the “Native American” respondents to self-identify over the telephone as “Native American” and didn’t take into context the issue of pretendians — people pretending to be Native for whatever reason — and just how common that is. I wrote a piece in response to the survey in The Nation. I examined it pretty closely and it was fact-checked by The Nation and the Washington Post was allowed to respond, of course.
So one of the things I noticed right off the bat was that most of the respondents were from the Deep South. That’s simply not an area where we have a lot of intact tribes because of the Trail of Tears. They are there, but most of them were removed to Oklahoma. So that seemed strange to me. Secondly, most of the respondents were men over 50. We have such a low life expectancy. I mean, by the time my dad was 55, he told me he was the last Native guy left from his high school. Native men die very young. So the idea that a survey of “Native people” would be a lot of men living in Alabama over the age of 50 is just completely ridiculous.
Most Native people live in the far West, and we’re a very young population. Over 50 percent of The Navajo Nation is under the age of 29. Navajo Nation is the largest Native nation in the country. The data really made it pretty evident that it was not a representative sample, and that just calling people over the phone and letting them identify is not legitimate science. A lot of white people will lie about being Native or exaggerate, just like Warren saying, “I have a family story,” but there’s no proof.
Is there a poll out there that is better?
Well, the thing is that there’s only one study — that I know of — that checked to make sure people were Native or not. That was the California State University poll that was done at a powwow. It was the only one where the data seems reasonable to me. It found that 67 percent disapproved.
And I think it really varies too. There is an education level that has to take place even with Indian Country. Here in Oregon, there was a young man, Jay Butler, who really led the fight against mascots. He put together a PowerPoint presentation and talked to a lot of elders in the Portland Native community, and they said that they hadn’t really thought about it that way until they saw Butler’s PowerPoint. It really crystallized the racism for them because there’s a level in which this sort of racism is normalized.
I also think that Dr. Stephanie Fryberg’s study is important. She did it at Stanford where she would ask Native students how they felt about mascots, and then she would expose them to a Native mascot, and then test them afterward. She found was that Native youth who said they were okay with the mascot actually experienced a greater decline in self-esteem after being exposed to a mascot. So simply saying you’re “okay” with it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a negative effect on you. It’s a way of coping.
Fryberg and some other researchers funded by the Kellogg Foundation did another study that came out in 2018. They did a lot of focus groups of white people, college-age and older, and they found that only 30 percent of them were sympathetic to the mascot issue or could understand it. So it’s a very different issue in that way. It’s harder to comprehend for white people.
And the University at Buffalo did a whole survey of research back in 2015 and found Native mascots not only promote stereotypes but primarily negative stereotypes. They also found racist mascots increases negative stereotypes of other racial and ethnic groups as well. So it’s pretty harmful in a pluralistic society.
We’re not exactly out of the woods yet. We’ve still got the Cleveland Indians, the Kansas City Chiefs, the 49ers, Blackhawks. Plus there’s still a chance Synder could screw this up and stick with some sort of Indigenous iconography that allows these bad practices to continue. Do you think Americans can really move on from this?
I did see a report last week saying that the Washington team wasn’t going to choose a Native mascot, but that remains to be seen. It’ll be interesting. I know the Cleveland Indians are also announcing the same thing, and I’m glad. I was born in Cleveland, and my parents were with the generation that started the fight against Chief Wahoo in the late 1960s. I wrote about it in Salon in an essay called ‘My Life as a Cleveland Indian.’
But yeah, I’m excited. The other teams — the Atlanta Braves, the Kansas City Chiefs, Florida State Seminoles, the 49ers — definitely need to change. With all the statutes of Columbus falling and people starting to question the colonial history in California, it seems very problematic to name something after the 49ers. It’s not a harmless thing. I’ve spent time with the survivors of the genocide that happened there. They educated me quite a bit about the role that those “49ers” played in that genocide.
I interviewed a lot of Native folks from Florida State who fought back in the ’90s against that mascot. The Seminole Tribe in Oklahoma issued a statement years ago decrying the whole issue. They don’t want to be mascotted. But, the thing is, the Seminole Tribe in Florida is the one that signed off with the school. They’re a much smaller group because, of course, most of the Seminole were force marched to Oklahoma.
I interviewed tribal members of Seminole in Florida and they felt that the main motivation was getting their casino contract signed by the legislature. So they have a financial interest. Plus, they don’t live in that part of Florida. So they don’t really deal with the problematic mascot and culture that much. But when they have gone up there to the college, they’ve been treated in ways that were really racist.
In the case of Kansas City and Chicago, both of those teams have really tried to turn the Native community against itself by sponsoring things like “Native urban centers” or something and then paying off the board of directors of those Indian centers to turn against the local Native community’s protests of those mascots. They’ve practiced really horrible, divisive politics in order to keep the mascot by dividing the Native community.
So what’s next for #NotYourMascot?
Right now, I’ve been doing a podcast three times a week for Pollen Nation Magazine focusing on how the Native community is dealing with the pandemic. It’s called Indigenous-Centered Conversations Around Coronavirus. And it’s really grown in scope because we’ve had to deal with the COVID-19, the checkpoint fight with the governor of South Dakota, and then, of course, the George Floyd protest, which happened right in the heart of the Native community in Minneapolis-St. Paul.
We want to actually do a whole history of #NotYourMascot going back before 2013. My parents were active in the Cleveland Indian protests back in the ’60s and ’70s. Then there’s Vernon Bellecourt with the work he did in the ’80s and ’90s on the issue. My grandmother’s cousin was a plaintiff on the first Redskins trademark case back in 1999. Then there’s the long term fight in Cleveland within the Native community there with all the local work being done at the school district level. I did a podcast, Not Your Disappearing Indian, where I interviewed a whole bunch of mothers who’ve been working in the communities and at schools trying to get these changes for decades now. There’s a whole history there which I’ve been really privileged to learn about and to meet folks who’ve been in this much longer than I have.
This fight has been going on for a long time…
It’s funny. My husband’s people are from Canada. They fought against the Americans during the Revolutionary War because they didn’t want Americans taking over their land. But they lost and that’s where they’re in Canada. Anyway, his great-grandfather, Hilton Hill, who was the chief at Six Nations, wrote an op-ed back in the ’50s opposing Native mascots.
We led the protests here at Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, asking them to stop using Chief Wahoo and the Florida State Seminole and other Native mascots on their gear. And as my son was protesting, I was looking at him and thinking, “God, that’s the third generation of my family to be protesting Chief Wahoo.” Then I saw that op-ed written by my son’s great-great-grandfather, it made me realize that the fight has been even longer than that.