In the 1980’s, every Washington R--skins Football game began with Princess “Pale Moon” Rose, in full buckskin regalia, singing the National Anthem. As Native protest over the mascot mounted, Princess Pale Moon, as an Ojibwe and Cherokee woman, defended it. Rita Sentz — her legal name — symbolized Native support for the team. The only problem was Rita Sentz was White.
Since its inception, the Washington Football Franchise has used pretendians — White people claiming to be Native — to excuse their team's racist mascot. The most recent public opinion poll, released by the Washington Post last month, is no exception. The poll, conducted by the firm Wolvereye, found that 68 percent of people who "self-identify" as Native American are not offended by the R-word. Predictably, the team’s owner Dan Snyder, rejoiced, staunch critics of the name changed their position overnight, and the results seemingly put the final nail in the coffin in the mascot debate. If Native Americans aren’t offended, why should anyone else be?
Wolvereye’s poll used “self-identification” to select Native American respondents, meaning if the person on the phone said they were Native American, they counted. In contrast, a study that verified respondents were enrolled in a tribe had nearly opposite results: 67 percent of Native Americans are offended. How can two similar studies reach such contradictory results? Because the majority who responded to the poll published by the Washington Post, like Sentz, were White.
Since the dawn of the new age era, the number of White people claiming to be Native American has risen dramatically. On the last U.S. Census, twice as many people claimed to be Cherokee than the number of people enrolled in the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes. Statistically speaking, the Wolvereye pollsters were more likely to phone a White person claiming to be Cherokee, than a tribal citizen.
Native leaders thoroughly critiqued the use of self-identification in a similar poll, published by the Post in 2016, but the paper didn’t listen. In the 2016 poll, only a third of respondents said they were tribally enrolled. While that number is glaringly low, The Washington Post still promoted the results as the voice of Indian Country.
When the football franchise first faced litigation against their trademark — because it is a dictionary defined racial slur — they created an elaborate origin story. In court documents, they argued their mascot paid homage to the “Sioux” man who briefly coached the team in 1932. William “Lone Star” Dietz claimed to be full blooded Lakota, but he was actually full-blooded German. That fact didn’t stop Judge Kollar-Kotelly from citing the Dietz mythology in her 2003 Court decision to rule in favor of the team. As long as the team has existed, there have been fake Indians defending it.
“Self-identification” is only relevant when Native Americans are seen as people with shared — and often vague — ancestry … the descendants of the once great Indian Nations of this land. But Native Americans are not defined by a connection to the past, we are defined by a connection to the present: to our communities, families, and tribes. As citizens of over 570 contemporary Native Nations, we don’t need questionable research to speak for us. We can speak for ourselves.
Native Americans — through tribal governments, advocacy campaigns, petitions, litigation, research, and protests — have made clear we want the name to change. The purpose of this poll was never to hear from Indian Country. We have already spoken.
The purpose was to shut us up.
Rebecca Nagle is a writer, advocate, and citizen of Cherokee Nation living in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.