There are two sides to change. One side represents the headstrong winds of progression, while the other is at the tail end of a long-established past viewed through a modern lens. Washington’s NFL franchise tried to appease both when pressured to reform the team’s controversial nickname, Redskins.
In New Mexico, Native voices such as Notah Begay III, a figure with a strong presence in the Indigenous and sports communities, supported the name change and admired the decision.
He said, “It’s not coming down to interpretation or definition; it’s simply coming down to doing what’s right.”
On the other side, some of the team’s supporters in the state, like Benny “Big Benny” Martinez and Shelby Benallie, took time to adapt or have found the process difficult to accept.
Martinez, an Albuquerque-based comedian and former radio personality, has been a fan of the franchise since the 1980s, its glory decade.
“I became one of the few Washington fans in the southeast part of New Mexico, which is diehard Cowboys country,” he said.
Generally, the state’s football fans offer their loyalties to the Dallas Cowboys or Denver Broncos, but there is also a solid fan base for Washington in a state that has a high Native American population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 11% of the state’s estimated 2.12 million people are Native American, ranking New Mexico third among states in American Indian population behind Alaska and Oklahoma.
Due to the NFL’s presence in pop culture, Washington’s name has become the epicenter of misconception. It played two seasons under the generic “Football Team” tag.
After hearing the finalists for the new name a month prior, Martinez said, “I was kind of like, ‘God, don’t let it be Commanders.'”
On Feb. 2, the franchise settled with “Commanders.”
Martinez added, “I will admit, for the longest time I was against changing the name. I had heard about name changes back in the ’80s when they were winning Super Bowls. … Eventually I came around to it … if any Natives are upset about it, then it needs to change.”
The new moniker has been met with mixed results, especially in the Native American community that was rightfully affected the most by the shift. The conflicting criticism presents a larger scope of perspective beyond the realm of sports.
Benallie, Diné, said he became a fan of the Washington Redskins because “of the imagery and the name.”
He once was the administrator of the 505 Redskins Fan Club on social media. The group, though dormant since 2020, had 490 members on Facebook. Another active online social group, Native American Redskins Fans, has 8,900 members, many of whom have connections to New Mexico.
Benallie resides in Farmington. He feels the shift in name and imagery has taken away his one true connection to the team: representation.
He says the day Washington removed the name was “the day I stopped being a fan.”
“They removed the name and imagery like they are removing us Natives from here,” he said, “but we are here and not going anywhere. To me it’s more than just a football team, it represents me. I wore the apparel because it had the imagery and logo on it. Redskins is something I’m proud to be and it’s not a racial slur to me.”
Some Native Americans, like Benallie, believe there was honor in recognition, in a team with a storied history like their own.
Others believe it was derogatory.
‘A Bad History’
The Washington franchise started in 1932 as the Boston Braves. After relocating to Washington, it was known as the Redskins from 1933 to 2019.
The term “redskins” and the imagery used for the brand stirred the controversy. The origin and meaning of the term have also created a sub-controversy.
Dr. Ives Goddard, senior linguist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, has refuted the argument that redskins spawned directly from negativity.
He told the Journal that, from his studies, he knew “that every single claim was wrong. Suzan Harjo did not argue this is a racist term, she argued this has a bad history. … It’s complicated.”
Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is a consistent advocate for Native American rights and was a key member of the 1992 U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia case aimed at canceling the trademark registration of the Washington Redskins. She fought for the name change until it was made official.
Goddard has been an adviser to the Archean English dictionary for over 50 years, studying English words of Native American origin.
“People thought that saying ‘red’ was bad but, of course, we know that red was used by Native Americans as a self-designation for centuries,” he said. “It was never misused back then. … People thought it was appropriate.”
In a 2005 essay published in Native American Studies 19:2, Goddard explains the earliest examples of redskin have been traced back to 1769 when French translators forwarded a message from Piankashaw chiefs to London during negotiations.
Goddard said, “I’m a linguist; I kind of accept whatever people’s usage is, and usage can change, and opinions can change.”
Translation can be influenced by the times and as generations pass, so do views and meaning.
Crystal Echo Hawk, Pawnee Nation and president and CEO of IllumiNative, has been one of the leading voices regarding Washington’s name change and for the empowerment of Indigenous communities as a whole.
She told the Journal in a statement, “It is not enough to change their names – these teams must work with tribal and Native community leaders and youth to determine ways beyond an apology to begin to address and heal the harm they perpetuated over decades.”
Echo Hawk served as the executive director for the Notah Begay III Foundation from 2009-2014. Begay has been one of the most successful athletes to come out of New Mexico and continues to be a pillar in the local, Native and athletic communities.
Begay, 49, is the only full-blooded Native American to play on the PGA Tour. Born in Albuquerque, he is one-half Navajo, one-quarter San Felipe and one-quarter Isleta. He shared with the Journal that he does have Native American friends and family who still “aren’t 100% sure as to whether this is a good thing or bad thing” but also brought up the absence of firsthand representation in athletics, entertainment and the professional world.
He said, “The way I see it, as I explain it to my children, is that if we continue to hold Native American people in these stereotyped positions that are reinforced by mascots, that are reinforced by romanticized portrayals in Hollywood, then we thereby prevent our kids from seeing their true potential because society refuses to let us out of this compartmentalized version of what they want us to be.”
Washington’s new name is one step, but bringing awareness to Indigenous stereotypes must go beyond the realms of pop culture where they exist.
Begay continued, “I appreciate and respect the choices that schools, universities, professional sports franchises and companies have made to be respectful of Native American people. I think we have to find a way to support our teams, promote our initiative, without putting someone else down. … Invariably, it’s the right thing to do.”
An example has been made through some of the nation’s largest, most popular corporations: sports leagues, which is a massive platform to use for acknowledgement. Said Martinez: “You get to that point that enough people make enough noise about your business, it’s not good for your business.”
Likeness in sports
The Kansas City Chiefs are another NFL franchise that has been targeted by activists to change their name, but the team has no plans to do so. It did retire its longtime mascot, Warpaint, due to Native American imagery.
MLB’s Cleveland Indians became the Cleveland Guardians this season after announcing a name change on July 23, but the Atlanta Braves have refused to entertain the idea of a new name despite facing scrutiny.
In the NHL, the Chicago Blackhawks have been called upon to change their name and logo, but ownership has argued the name and likeness is meant to honor Black Hawk of the Illinois Sac & Fox Nation, “whose leadership and life has inspired generations of Native Americans,” according to a 2020 CNN report.
There’s a line, drawn on the basis of assumption, between honor and arrogance. Echo Hawk said franchises “need to educate their fans on why these racist names and mascots are so hurtful … and for these teams to use their platform to urge the rest of the sports world to follow suit.”
According to a 2020 study by FiveThirtyEight, 1,232 high schools have or had a Native American mascot, 45 of which still bear the name Redskins, including Red Mesa High School, which rests on a stretch of Apache land between northeast Arizona and northwest New Mexico. Twenty-three of the 1,232 schools are on tribal land and operated and funded by the Bureau of Indian Education.
The NCAA has been dealing with an uptick in controversy surrounding the issue for the bulk of the 21st century. In 2005, it adopted a new policy to prohibit member colleges and universities from displaying hostile and abusive racial/ethnic/national origin mascots, nicknames or imagery at any of the 88 NCAA championships – and as of early 2006, none could host any NCAA championship competitions.
But changes have been happening for quite some time. Since 1972, 58 college programs have changed their nickname. Miami University of Ohio (Redhawks) and Southern Nazarene (Crimson Storm) both dropped the Redskins name in the late ’90s.
The University of Utah Utes were also known as the Redskins until 1972. It’s one of five institutions that have the support from local indigenous tribes to retain their Native affiliation.
In 2015, Eastern New Mexico University changed the nickname for women’s sports from the Zias to the Greyhounds.
The 58 NCAA changes kept the new nicknames somewhat in the Native realm. There are an additional nine schools that removed all references to Indigenous culture.
Two voices, same coin
The common ground the Washington name change did provide, if any, was that the voices of Native Americans were being heard. It only took an amped-up challenge directed toward one of the largest corporations in America to inspire the final push.
Individual communities and cultural leaders must “perpetuate the relevance of our belief systems” Begay said. “It has nothing to do with pop culture and how popular these mascots are in mainstream society; it has more to do with, can we continue to adhere to our cultural principles in a time when it’s very easy to lose our way and to not stay grounded.”
Benaillie said, “We need to stand up for more important things that we deal with every day on our reservations.+++”
Each side of the coin retains the same amount of value and each voice shares the same space.
After all, there are two sides to change.