Why a team name is more than a (racist) word

If you don’t understand this one, ‘you don’t get any of them.’


If football is American as apple pie, then so too are the scandals and controversies that define the sport, from rampant domestic abuse and sexual violence to kneeling during the National Anthem to protest anti-black police violence. Those politics also define this country, and we all debate football whether we watch it or not for that reason.

While such conflagrations sweep headlines, the break room and the president’s Twitter feed, another burns, hidden to most while in plain view to others — a team name.

For some, an especially cringe-worthy moment came when Washington, D.C. football team owner Dan Snyder linked arms with black players during the National Anthem, appearing to show support for calls to “take a knee” and racial justice. But the optics didn’t line up. Depicted on the players’ helmets was a disembodied profile of an Indian head, and emblazoned on their uniforms was a dictionary-defined racial slur against Native people: “R******s.”

Solidarity, evidently, has glaring exceptions. 

For years, Snyder has vociferously defended the racial epithet. What was once a name for Native scalp bounties now reaps profits for Snyder’s multibillion dollar sports empire. The defense of his brand has frequently put outspoken critics, many of whom are Native women, in the crosshairs of legal actions and a loyal fan base, mostly men, who make up a racist troll army, both online and in real life, marching under the hashtag #HTTR (or “Hail to the R******s”).

Fans at a Kansas City Chiefs football game perform the “tomahawk chop,” in a scene from the new documentary “More than a Word.”
Courtesy of John Little and Kenn Little

The documentary More Than a Word by first-time filmmakers and brothers, John and Kenn Little, members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, slices through the cacophonic chatter surrounding the team name. The opening scene, a rapid montage of talking heads giving their hot takes on Native mascots, is followed by an hour-long, insightful meditation on the word. Swept up in that word are the interlocking histories of racism and genocide. It’s no coincidence that the fun had and profit margins made at the expense of Native people are quintessential Americana. 

The Little brothers made a film about a conversation that few want to have, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The horrific police violence against nonviolent protesters at Standing Rock is still fresh in our collective memory. Trumps continued derogatory characterization of Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas” during press conferences blasts on nightly news with little outcry. Black players taking a knee during the National Anthem to protest racist police violence are frequently derided by the highest office as an assault on the sanctity of a game and the country’s honor. 

There may not appear to be an obvious link among these swirling debates. But the Washington D.C. football team’s sordid history and continued assault on Native communities tells us so much about this settler nation, and ourselves.

Native luminaries — Suzan Shown Harjo, Philip Deloria, Tara Houska, Frank Waln, Amanda Blackhorse and others — who narrate the film cut straight to the bone. They upend facile arguments of “pride” and “honor” and the whataboutism that there are more serious issues facing Native communities, such as dire poverty, than mascots.

The team name “undergirds and overarches and surrounds all the issues,” Suzan Harjo, a longtime Cheyenne and Muscogee advocate, calmly instructs. “If you dont get this one, you don’t get any of them.”

The film asks not whether certain mascots should be banned, but rather: What do racist mascots do? And why is it important to talk about them?

“Why have we been reduced to a single word, a single silhouette?” asks Frank Waln, a Lakota hip-hop artist who narrates the film.

Brothers and first-time filmmakers John Little and Kenn Little, members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
Courtesy of John Little and Kenn Little

To find answers, the filmmakers take an unexpected turn to their own homeland, the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Entering the fray of the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, they explore an overlooked caveat — the University of North Dakota “Fighting Sioux” controversy — that preceded violent confrontations with police.

Standing Rock was the last holdout against the mascot in North Dakota when other tribal governments in the state had accepted it. After National Collegiate Athletic Association sanctions and pressure from Indian Country, the university retired the mascot in 2012. As shown in the film, the “playing Indian” culture that pervades Native sports mascots reared its head during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, as white North Dakotans posted social media photos of themselves dressed as “drunk Indians” and water protectors in liquor stores.

The brief segue shows that anti-Indianism permeates the bedrock of this country — and that it’s not about ignorance but rather intent. Ignorance suggests lack of knowledge. The multiple interviews conducted with the Washington D.C. football fan base show awareness of sizeable Native opposition. A black fan blames “political correctness.” A white fan donning a Native headdress laments, “This is supposed to be entertainment.” There is a deep investment in the myths of American innocence when it comes to anti-Indian racism and genocide.

What’s most troubling is that this comes from all sides, the black and white D.C. fan base, and a handful of Native people. Nearly all of these diehards are men, an aspect not explored in the film. The film makes clear, however, that Native women — Harjo, Houska and Blackhorse — are at the forefront of pushing for change. Had this race and gender dynamic been further scrutinized, we could better understand that sexism is part and parcel to racism in a sport, and nation, defined by violent masculinity.

Currently only available for limited release, More Than a Word has a much larger audience in mind. It is an essential educational film for every high school or college classroom or at your family’s holiday gathering. It touches all the bases and leaves little room for any questions, other than: Why are we still having this conversation?

Nick Estes, a member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, has a doctorate in American Studies from the University of New Mexico and is currently an American Democracy Fellow at Harvard University. 

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