October 03, 2013

Why Native polls on "Redskins" are bogus

How The “Redskins” Debate Goes Over On An Actual Indian Reservation

Few Natives in South Dakota are boiling with daily outrage over the nickname of a football team 1,500 miles away. But that doesn’t mean it’s OK.

By Joe Flood
One of the most quoted pieces of data in the debate over the Washington Redskins’ nickname is a poll conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center in 2004 which found that 90% of Native Americans were not offended by the name. It was not the most rigorous survey—respondents were simply allowed to self-identify as “Native,” a flaw obvious to anyone who has a friend who dubiously claims to be one-sixteenth Cherokee, and Annenberg didn’t contact anyone from Alaska or Hawaii, two states with large native populations where sensitivity to indigenous-culture issues is likely more pronounced than it is elsewhere. I’m not Native American—I’m a white guy from Massachusetts—but I live on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, so I decided to do my own informal study. I asked 50 people on and around the reservation a simple question: If it were up to you and only you, would the Redskins change their name?

Twenty-one people said yes. That’s 42%, well above the proportion Annenberg found. But that means 29 said no, which surprised me. To use the common analogy, I’m guessing that 58% of randomly selected strangers from my previous neighborhood—the South Bronx—wouldn’t be quite so tolerant of a team named the Washington Brownskins. While it’s not true that the “Redskins” controversy is entirely a creation of politically correct white liberals—the Oneida Nation of New York is running a season-long protest campaign against Washington’s NFL squad, while advocacy groups like the National Congress of American Indians have been active on the issue of Native American nicknames and mascots since at least the 1960s—it’s also undeniable that Natives don’t always see “Redskins” and other nicknames as an insult that needs to be addressed immediately. In this part of the country, the Standing Rock reservation has denounced the University of North Dakota’s Fighting Sioux mascot, but the state’s Spirit Lake Reservation supports it. Why such mixed reactions to an issue that, to many outside parties, seems like a no-brainer?

“I don’t really worry about it,” said Elaine YellowHorse, a college student and EMT on the reservation, told me. “There are just so many other things that I need to worry about before that.”

But YellowHorse gives the lie to the idea that 58% of the survey respondents actively condone the name. While she said she wouldn’t bother to change it, YellowHorse also told me that she found “Redskins” offensive and was upset by the idea that there were non-Native fans running around in headdresses in the nation’s capital. It’s a difficult sentiment to understand—to find something offensive but not worth worrying about—but when the whole world around you is tinged with racism, you have a high bar for what you deem worthy of worrying about.
Comment:  This commentary encapsulates what I've said about polls that supposedly reflect Native opinion. Many Indians have complex views on mascots that aren't captured by simple yes/no questions. People should discount any poll that asks such simplistic questions.

It might take in-depth interviews to learn why some Indians say mascots are offensive but they wouldn't necessarily change them. But we can speculate about the reasons.

Some Indians may not want to stand out, make waves, go against the grain. They may not want to confront a major institution and anger millions of fans. They may think people will judge them if they put eliminating a mascot before eliminating crime and poverty.

The last point surely has something to do with it. Consider what YellowHorse said: She has so many other things to worry about. But no one asked her whether changing the "Redskins" should be her highest priority, or whether it's worth a significant effort. No one asked her about her worries.

I've heard this same complaint from Indians who act as if they're above the mascot debate. "We have more important things to worry about," they'll say. But it doesn't take any energy or "worry" to say Indian mascots are wrong. You can share a link or click "like" on Facebook in literally a second, so no one's asking you to take time from other activities.

Waving a magic wand

Flood may have introduced his question--"If it were up to you and only you"--exactly the wrong way. A better question might be: "If someone else changed the 'Redskins' name, would you support that change? Or would you want to change it back to 'Redskins'?"

That way, respondents aren't responsible for taking time to change the mascot or worrying about it. They don't have to consider the effort to change the name, because it's already presumed to be changed. As I've phrased it, the effort would be to change it back.

So the question becomes what it should've been all along: whether to change the nickname without regard to personal circumstances. "If someone could change the name by waving a magic wand, would you favor or oppose the change?"

For more on Redskins polls, see Redskins Poll Reveals Fans' Hypocrisy and AP Poll on Redskins Is Flawed.

No comments: