Shortly after the Washington Redskins announced plans to retire their controversial nickname and logo, Navajo Nation president Jonathan Nez offered a suggestion that would honor both Native Americans and the United States Military.
“(This) is now a historic day for all Indigenous peoples around the world as the NFL’s Washington-based team officially announced the retirement of the racist and disparaging ‘Redskins’ team name and logo,” Nez said in a statement. “This change did not come about willingly by the team’s owners, but by the mounting pressure and advocacy of Indigenous peoples such as Amanda Blackhorse, and many other warriors who fought long and hard for this change.
“For generations, this team name and logo has misrepresented the true history and events that define the term ‘redskins.’ History tells us that the term derived from bounty hunters, which identified Indigenous peoples by the color of their skin. Bounty hunters killed Native Americans, referenced as ‘redskins,’ and brought to the market the stained bloodied scalps in exchange for payment. This is the tragic and disgusting history that the world is not often told.
“We must continue to work together to correct these issues and to shed light on the historical and current injustices that affect all Indigenous people. One of those remedies is to cease the use of the disparaging terms and logos among all teams and organizations. We must stand united in correcting our storied history. It is our responsibility to ensure that our children and their children have the benefit of historical facts.
“We strongly encourage the NFL Washington organization to rename their team in such a way that truly honors and respects the First Americans of this country. Renaming the team ‘Code Talkers’ to honor the Navajo Code Talkers, and other tribal nations who used their sacred language to help win World War II, would set the team on a path to restoring its reputation and correcting the historical misrepresentation of Indigenous peoples.”
During World War II, more than 400 Navajos joined the Marines to become code talkers, using their little-known and unwritten language to transmit tactical information to troops in the Pacific. The code talkers successfully translated, transmitted and retranslated messages that were practically indecipherable to anyone who wasn’t of Navajo decent.
The Redskins honored the code talkers with an on-field ceremony during a Monday Night Football game in 2013. The men who made the trip met with team owner Dan Snyder, with one saying afterward he considered the nickname to be a symbol of loyalty and courage rather than a racial slur.
“My opinion is that’s a name that not only the team should keep, but that’s a name that’s American,” said Roy Hawthorne, who was the Vice President of the Navajo Code Talkers Association until his death in 2018.
Hawthorne was joined that evening by fellow code talkers Peter MacDonald Sr., the late George Willie Sr. and the late George James Sr. Some believed their appearance was a publicity stunt concocted by Snyder to deflect criticism over the nickname.
The franchise’s nickname has been a point of contention for years, but the pressure increased in recent weeks amid the nationwide protests against racial inequality. Several sponsors – including FedEx, Nike and PespiCo – have threatened to end their relationship with the team. Others, such as Dick’s Sporting Goods, Target and Walmart, have removed all Redskins merchandise from their websites.
As a result, the team announced it will retire the nickname and logo upon completion of a “through review.” A new nickname and logo is expected sooner rather than later, though the former is reportedly tied up in a trademarking dispute at the moment. The franchise hopes to have it settled in time for upcoming season, though.
UPDATE (July 16, 2020 – 1:45 pm ET): Nez has since withdrawn his suggestion, citing the negative feedback he received from those within the Navajo community.
“In my previous statement regarding the retirement of the name and logo of the NFL’s Washington team, my intent was to have the team honor and recognize the contributions and sacrifices of all First Americans, all of our Indigenous brothers and sisters, including the Navajo Coe Talkers and code talkers from other tribal nations. Many of our Navajo people have since shared their disappointment and disagreement with the way this was conveyed, and rightfully so. I hear your concerns and I respect your thoughts and opinions on all matters.
“The Navajo Nation, under this administration, will not pursue the renaming of the Washington NFL team after the Code Talkers. I strongly agree that our Indigenous people should not be used as mascots. Many Native Americans across our country have served and contributed to the freedom of this country. I did not mean to undermine the long and hard fought efforts of those who have been fighting for this name change for many years. Our administration will continue to oppose racist and disparaging names and images of Indigenous peoples.”
Photos courtesy of the Washington Redskins.