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Native American Leader Responds To Washington Post 'Redskins' Poll


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're going to spend a few minutes talking about one of the third-rail issues in sports, mascots and insignias that strike some as offensive. There's news about one such insignia. Earlier this week, The Washington Post published a poll showing that 9 out of 10 Native Americans they surveyed said they are not offended by Washington's professional football team name, the Redskins.

Yesterday, NPR spoke with the reporter who wrote about the poll's findings, so we thought we'd follow up with one of the people who have been most vocal about changing the Washington team name. Ray Halbritter is the representative of the Oneida Indian Nation and CEO of Oneida Nation Enterprises. He spoke with us from Verona, N.Y., and I asked him for his reaction to the poll.

RAY HALBRITTER: I think that Wade Henderson really said it well when he said the fact we're poll testing a dictionary-defined racial slur against Native Americans shows how much we've ignored and continue to ignore the basic humanity. I

mean, there are other times in our history when if you poll-tested certain issues they would be the majority before them, like slavery, pro-slavery or before there were women's rights or before there were segregation. But America does - as Winston Churchill, I think, said it in a way - and I'm paraphrasing - that America ends up doing the right thing after they already tried all the wrong things.

MARTIN: I think - I understand you draw the analogy - and Wade Henderson, by the way, is the outgoing chair of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a fellow civil rights leader. I think where the analogy perhaps differs is that people didn't survey the slaves about how they felt about slavery.

I think the better analogy might be surveying women at the time of suffrage about how they felt about the vote. So in this instance, the affected people are the ones being surveyed. And I just have to ask, you know, how you feel about that.

HALBRITTER: Yeah, well, I know that not everyone's going to agree, but I do think that this poll itself is a cooked poll. I think they didn't survey - for example, you know, I'm an Indian leader. I meet and met with thousands of Indian people throughout the country. The - every major organization in the United States representing Native Americans has called for the name to change.

MARTIN: Is your objection that the poll was done at all or is it the way the poll was conducted?

HALBRITTER: Well, I don't know enough about the poll to be able to speak in specific terms. But I do understand they never asked the people if the name should change. And if it's such a civil issue, why not do that? Many teams have done that.

Anybody who believes in doing what is right knows that you shouldn't use a slur against someone. You shouldn't say a name to somebody else if they are offended by it, even if it's not defined as a slur, and this is defined as a slur. And you can't change that. No poll in the world is going to change the fact this is a dictionary-defined slur that our people are subjected to on a daily basis.

MARTIN: Let me play a little bit of tape for you here. One of my colleagues at NPR spoke to one of the reporters at The Washington Post who wrote about the poll findings, John Woodrow Cox. And he says that he spoke to a member of the Oneida Nation in Wisconsin, which I believe is related to your group. And this is what the man told him.


JOHN WOODROW COX: He understood why people had an issue with the name, why they were offended by it, but that he didn't at all. And that he looked at it as a very low priority, that among the things that Native Americans were struggling with, that was not anywhere near the top of his list.

MARTIN: What about that?

HALBRITTER: Well, I mean, you take American Indian people, and it's very tragic that - and I understood that one person said - the woman said she wasn't bothered because at least they're remembering us.

I mean, seriously, honestly - you're so beaten down. Our people are so beaten down - have beaten down through so many generations that now we're glad that we're being denigrated? We're happy to have that kind of attention to be denigrated?

MARTIN: Is it possible, Mr. Halbritter, that there is an elite grassroots divide on this as there are among other cultural issues, for example, the N-word among African Americans. I mean, there are many, many people who feel this word should not be used. Is it possible that the R-word is similar to the N-word in that it may be commonly used amongst some people, they don't consider it a big deal, but thought leaders like yours have a different opinion?

HALBRITTER: Yeah. I think that's a good analogy. What's interesting, too, is that no other community's ever been asked to justify their existence or deny their degradation through poll testing - not the African-American community, Latino community or Asian community, no one.

MARTIN: Well, forgive me. Let me argue with you on that. I mean, at the time of, you know, segregation, it was constantly said that African-Americans preferred a segregated state of being. I mean, that is very much a part of American history. It's been said of a number of other ethnic groups - that these groups actually preferred to live in...

HALBRITTER: Yeah, but that's not the same thing as not being offended when you're racially being treated differently. That's not the same situation. We should be able to define the terms that we want to be called. Every people should have that right and do have that right. They have the right to determine what they are offended to and what they're not offended. And here, we're not.

MARTIN: So, Mr. Halbritter, you clearly feel strongly about this as you ever have. What do you do now? What's next?

HALBRITTER: Well, we continue on. I mean, this is a process. the. We know it's not one that - made to be quick and easily done. But all fights aren't fought simply because you may win them. Fights are made because you need to make the fight.

MARTIN: That's Ray Halbritter. He's representative of the Oneida Nation and CEO of Oneida Nation Enterprises. We reached him at the headquarters of the nation in Verona, N.Y. Thank you, Mr. Halbritter. Thanks for speaking with us.

HALBRITTER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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