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Dehumanization, Racism, and Disrespect: A Walk Through a Tailgate at FedEx Field

Photo courtesy of Anthony Roy

“Where the heck is the bus?” said Joe Horse Capture, one of the day’s speakers. We had arrived at the National Museum of the American Indian, the pickup spot for the bus to and from FedEx Field. Participants armed with ‘Not Your Mascot’ ‘Blackface is Redface’ and ‘Change the Name’ signs milled about. After a few urgent phone calls to the bus company, it turned out the driver had driven past without picking us up, and a second bus was sent. “Probably a R—skins fan,” said Ian Washburn, another scheduled speaker.

It was unnerving, knowing the months of planning that had gone into the first ever large-scale protest at FedEx Field. From the day we met with Prince George’s County (PGC) police and found out we were not allowed on the stadium property and that Mr. Snyder owned the roads around FedEx, to the day before the rally, when Iron House Council managed to secure a PA system at the eleventh hour. Several speakers had dropped out less than two days before the protest, but we were again saved when Amanda Blackhorse texted me, letting me know she’d be there after all.

After a wrong turn and bad traffic, the bus arrived nearly 40 minutes after the rally start time. Minutes later, we had taken up our banners and were marching along Jericho City Drive. Curious Dallas fans snapped pictures; cars honked as they drove past.

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Photo courtesy of Tomas Alejo

As we approached a large tailgating parking lot, it became clear that our internal security and PGC officers were an absolute necessity. “Go back to the reservation!” yelled one fan. “Go the f— home!” Another group began singing ‘Hail to the R—skins’ as we walked past with our hand drums and eagle staff.

Leading up to the rally, a number of people inquired whether it would be safe to bring children. It was heartbreaking speaking with Native parents concerned about angry fans potentially engaging in violence. And their concerns were founded; I will never forget seeing a grown man shout expletives and flip the bird at Kris Blackhorse’s 6-year old son. All of this over a football team name. The American Psychological Association called for the removal of Native mascots back in 2005, in light of a study finding mascots cause harm to Native American children’s self-esteem. But it was not enough. Sports mascots matter more than the self-esteem of our children.

As Henry Boucha, former NHL player and Olympic silver medalist, spoke of his time growing up in Northern Minnesota and feeling shame at the racist depictions of Natives in westerns, a party bus drove past. Drunken fans rolled down the windows and screamed fake war whoops at our crowd. Most participants listened to the speakers, but some stood at the taped-off boundary line, attempting to hand out educational flyers to fans as they walked past. It was on this line that I heard one man say, “Look, real Indians! Look at that one with the braids.” The dehumanization tied to Native mascots was on full display – we were not people to them, we were a sideshow, a historic relic somehow brought to life.

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Photo Courtesy of Tomas Alejo

Again and again I was asked why we had decided to bring the movement to FedEx Field, why we chose this year, this game. 2014 was a year to remember; Amanda Blackhorse and her fellow plaintiffs took Mr. Snyder to court and won, Suzan Harjo was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Clyde Bellecourt and many others spoke to nearly 5,000 people at TCF Stadium during the largest protest ever against the Washington team name and logo.

Choosing the last game of Washington’s season was not a coincidence – it was a message. We are not going to stop. This is for our children, for the next generation. We will be at FedEx Field again next year, and the year after that, until the team no longer has a living race of people as its mascot and a racial slur for its name. For those of us on the ground, the sooner, the better. As Mr. Snyder so often reminds us, we have other things to worry about.

Tara Houska

Tara Houska

Tara Houska is a citizen of Couchiching First Nation and a tribal rights attorney in the Washington D.C. office of Hobbs, Straus, Dean & Walker LLP. She has worked on a wide range of issues affecting Indian Country, including Indian child welfare, land acquisition, language revitalization, and environmental advocacy while at the White House Council on Environmental Quality. She is a founding member of NotYourMascots.org.
Tara Houska