A painting of the Washington Football teams helmet on the grounds of RFK Stadiums helmet on the grounds of RFK Stadium
A painting of the Washington Football teams helmet on the grounds of RFK Stadiums helmet on the grounds of RFK Stadium Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

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Credit Kevin Gover with not losing hope. At 65, he’s been fighting to change the local NFL team’s racist name for nearly half a century. He began speaking out in 1973 when, at age 18, he wrote a letter to the then-team owner Edward Bennett Williams opposing the derogatory moniker. 

He never received a reply, and through the ensuing decades, the franchise gave no indication it would even consider a name change during his lifetime, especially once current team owner Dan Snyder, a staunch defender of the name, took charge. But Gover, the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian since 2007 and a citizen of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, insists he expected to live to see the day when the team would shed its name. 

And on Monday, improbably, that day came. After a 10-day review period, Washington’s football team announced that the franchise will retire its logo and name, a dictionary-defined racial slur for Native Americans. Financial pressure to drop the name from FedEx, the title sponsor of the team’s stadium, and NFL partners like Pepsi and Nike, coupled with the fact that retailers and Amazon refused to continue carrying the team’s gear, forced Snyder to acknowledge a new reality.

“We were right and we knew it,” says Gover, who believes the rise in social justice movements over the past decade, including Black Lives Matter, helped the cause. “We knew people knew it, and we had very important allies, ranging from different writers, different celebrities, lots of elected officials, the mayor of Washington, D.C., and even President Obama. And so that really gave us confidence and strength knowing that our ideas … were really firmly in the mainstream.”

For longtime fans and followers of the team, the developments of the past two weeks may seem sudden, but for activists like Gover, this moment is the culmination of decades worth of work to reclaim Native American identity from racist stereotypes in pop culture, including sports mascots. It has meant multiple lawsuits against the Washington football team, the creation of nonprofit organizations pushing for change, and countless protests by activists and allies against the team’s name.

That it took corporate America and the threat of losing sponsorship money to get a billionaire like Snyder to finally take action is not surprising. In fact, that was the idea. In 1992, activist Suzan Shown Harjo, who is Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, became the lead petitioner in a trademark case arguing that the Washington NFL team name was disparaging to Native Americans and the trademark should therefore be canceled. After that case ended in 2009, with a U.S. district court ruling that the petitioners had waited too long to file, Amanda Blackhorse, a Navajo Nation citizen, took up the cause, becoming the lead petitioner in a second case to revoke the team’s trademark protection. 

In 2017, the Supreme Court ruled that the provision of the trademark law barring disparaging names was unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds, effectively ending Blackhorse’s case. Gover names both Harjo and Blackhorse as leaders in the movement to remove Native American mascots and imagery from high school, college, and professional sports teams. Harjo, 75, has been working toward that goal since the 1960s. 

“It was Native people who began this effort to try to change the name,” Gover says. “They have been strategic throughout in how they approach the problem. From the point where we realized, which was very early, that there would not be some sudden moment of moral enlightenment in [Washington] team management, the plan and the strategy has been to put economic pressure on the team and to devalue the brand through the patent litigation, and now through their sponsors.”

The team’s name change announcement this week, Native American activists argue, would not have occurred without the shifting attitudes towards racial justice after the killing of George Floyd in late May. Since then, protests against anti-Black racism and police brutality have erupted across the country, leading brands to reevaluate their role in perpetuating harmful racial stereotypes. In June, Quaker Oats announced it would abandon the image and change the name of its Aunt Jemima brand, whose iconography is based on the mammy archetype, “to make progress toward racial equality.” 

When the Washington football team tweeted a black square with the hashtag #BlackOutTuesday in an attempt to amplify Black voices on social media in June, critics pounced on the team’s hypocrisy.

“Want to really stand for racial justice? Change your name,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) responded.

“We have to credit the Black Lives Matter movement with having really created the environment where this message could really take hold and people could see that, one, that it’s not going to go away and, two, that it’s just the right thing to do,” Gover says.

That same month, Mayor Muriel Bowser told The Team 980 that it’s “past time for the team to deal with what offends so many people,” and that the name was presenting an obstacle in the team’s effort toward building a new stadium in D.C. 

Couchiching First Nation citizen Tara Houska, the co-founder of Not Your Mascots, a nonprofit that aims to educate people about the harm that adopting Native mascots can have on Native children, could feel the ripple effects of change.

“This is unequivocally the people’s win,” she says. “Yes, money talks, that’s very obvious, but there has to be someone to actually say what’s happening for the shareholders to understand what to do.” 

Unlike Gover, Houska, 36, wasn’t as confident that she would see the Washington football team change its name during her lifetime. Native people, she points out, have been protesting the Washington football team and other Native mascots since the 1960s. In 2013, Snyder told reporter Erik Brady that he would “NEVER—you can use caps” change the team name, and Blackhorse recently told Brady, a City Paper contributor, that she was skeptical Snyder would change it. The owner has repeatedly said the moniker, which has been in place since 1933 when the team was based in Boston, is a term of honor and respect.

Washington’s decision has also put a spotlight on other major sports teams, like the MLB’s Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves and the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, that also use Native American imagery, mascots, and traditions.

“There’s been many, many decades of advocacy on this issue that formed the basis and foundation for what’s now happening, which is a nationwide conversation on racism,” says Houska, who works as a tribal attorney. “And it’s being brought into the forefront by police brutality and a pandemic that’s got us all paying attention to what’s actually happening right on the ground.”

But there are still concerns among Native American activists about what the next steps will be. In the football team’s statement announcing the change, the outgoing name is used seven times—not exactly a sign that those in the organization are eager for change. It also made no mention of why the change is even being made, and last week, the Washington Post reported that Native American groups have not been consulted about the name change process.

The team’s head coach Ron Rivera has said he wants the name to respect Native American culture and honor the military, and the team announced that Rivera, in only his first year with the franchise, will work closely with Snyder to develop a new name and design for the team. The current odds-on favorite, according to online sportsbooks, is Red Tails, while there is momentum among players for Red Wolves. Warriors, another popular prediction, also conjures up Native stereotypes.

Sports Business Journal reported that trademark issues are preventing the team from announcing its new name. 

“I don’t really have an opinion about that,” Gover says, when asked about his preferred choice for a new team name. “I think as long as there’s no Native mascoting, no Native iconography that invites fans to engage in this obnoxious racist behavior that an Indian logo seems to bring out in every team everywhere … as long as they leave us out of it, I’ll root for the Washington whatevers.”

Gover lives in Alexandria and grew up a fan of the NFL. He watched the first 50 Super Bowls, and only stopped a few years ago when he felt he couldn’t justify his actions anymore. He has 11 grandchildren, and he wants them to grow up in a world where Native Americans aren’t stereotyped as sports mascots, where NFL fans don’t paint their faces red or wear headdresses to games, where NFL, college football, and MLB fans aren’t appropriating a stereotypical idea of Native culture by doing the tomahawk chop.

That’s the future Native American activists envision, and one that’s closer than it’s ever been. 

“I want Washington football fans to understand: This is not about political correctness,” Houska says. “This is not about sensitivity. Native people are some of the strongest people that are in existence today. We survived multiple generations of attempted genocide. It’s about respecting our children. It’s about recognizing that racially stereotyping is harmful for kids … What matters is our children. We don’t want our kids to grow up dehumanizing other kids.”