Native American tribe seeks to force NFL Redskins name change

WASHINGTON (CNN) — President Barack Obama has weighed in. The pro-football commissioner, has too. And now, a Native American tribe hopes recent attention to controversy surrounding the name of Washington’s National Football League team will provide the momentum needed to get it changed.

As NFL executives arrived in the nation’s capital for their annual fall meeting on Monday, the Oneida Indian Nation held a symposium in town to discuss their campaign to find a new name for the Washington Redskins after 80 years.

“We are asking the NFL to stop using a racial slur as the name of Washington’s football team,” said Oneida Indian Nation Representative Ray Halbritter.

The “Change the Mascot” campaign launched last month with a string of radio ads airing in Washington and cities where the Redskins play this season.

The NFL executives were invited to the symposium, but Halbritter said none attended.

In an interview with the Associated Press last week, Obama said if he were the owner of the Redskins and he knew the name was “offending a sizable group of people,” then he would “think about changing it.”

Halbritter began his remarks by thanking the president for weighing in.

“As the first sitting president to speak out against the Washington team name, President Obama’s comments over the weekend were nothing less than historic,” Halbritter said. “Isn’t that the real issue? No matter what the history of something is, if it’s offending people, then it’s time to change it. And this is a great time to do it.”

A Washington Post poll from June indicated that two-thirds of people who live in the D.C. metropolitan area didn’t want the Redskins to change their name, but more than eight in 10 said it wouldn’t make much of a difference to them if the name were changed.

Last month, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who had previously expressed support for the team mascot, changed his tone on the “The LaVar Arrington Show with Chad Dukes” on 106.7 The Fan in Washington.

“I want all of us to go out and make sure we’re listening to our fans, listening to people of a different view, and making sure that we continue to do what’s right to make sure that team represents the strong tradition and history that it has for so many years,” Goodell said.

The NFL confirmed on Monday that it would meet with Oneida leaders.

But Redskins owner Dan Snyder has steadfastly refused to consider it, telling USA Today last spring that he will “NEVER” change his team’s name, even if they lose an ongoing federal trademark lawsuit that would stop the NFL team from exclusively profiting from the Redskins name.

In addition to the federal trademark lawsuit, a group of U.S. lawmakers drafted a bill last spring to cancel trademark registrations that use the name “Redskins.” Two of them, Democrats Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia, and Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota attended Monday’s forum to voice their support.

McCollum, who is co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus, said the use of the Redskins name is “exploitation perpetrated for profit by the NFL and Dan Snyder’s football business.”

“Mr. Snyder, change the mascot. End this ugly history and tradition of your team’s racial slur. Pick a new mascot. Pick one that offends no one, hurts no one, dehumanizes no one. It is time to put dignity and respect for native American people ahead of your profits,” McCollum said.

Snyder did not respond to a request for comment from CNN.

But Redskins attorney Lanny Davis said Halbritter is being “selective in his outrage,” citing other teams named after Native Americans who are not targeted in the “Change the Mascot” campaign.

“Why is he not protesting the Atlanta Braves Tomahawk Chop, or President Obama’s hometown Chicago Blackhawks?” Davis said.

While Halbritter said that there are certain Native American names that “can be unifying and respectful,” he maintains that the Redskins name is “a dictionary defined racial epithet,” that shouldn’t be used to “sell a national sports team to America or to the rest of the world.”

“Washington’s continued use of the current team name is not just a slur against one group of people, it has demonstrable and serious public policy cultural educational, public health ramifications for our entire country,” Halbritter said.

Critics argue that the Redskins’ name is based on a historically offensive slur and presents negative identity issues for Native Americans, a community already distressed by a slew of public health and social crises including high rates of poverty, diabetes, and suicide.

Dr. Michael Friedman, a clinical psychologist who attended the forum, called Snyder’s refusal to consider calls for a name change “textbook bullying.”

“Experimental study after experimental study shows that if you bring a Native American person into an experimental situation and you show them an image of a Native American mascot, their self-esteem goes down, their faith in their community goes down, their feeling that they can achieve goes down,” Friedman said.

But Davis said Friedman is ignoring other data that shows Native Americans are not insulted by the name.

“I ask him, since there’s no intent to disparage or disrespect – and I certainly respect those, and am sorry for those, who are offended – why is he selecting the Washington Redskins? Does he see the Tomahawk Chop of the Atlanta Braves fans? They’re doing that not out of disrespect. They love the Atlanta Braves.”

Others at the forum, like Norton, said the intent behind keeping the name doesn’t matter.

“I want to say this to Redskins fans. No one blames you for having used a name that was always used as this team. They will only blame you if you continue to use it and if you use it with impunity,” she said.

The NFL Redskins were in Boston before the Washington franchise was born in 1933.