The Washington Post just released poll findings indicating that 9 of 10 Native Americans are not offended by the NFL team Washington “Redskins” name. These results echo similar findings in a 2004 poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center often cited by the Washington team’s ownership in defense of not changing the name.
These recent poll findings will make it harder for American Indian advocacy groups fighting for the change. However, interviews conducted with poll respondents may hold the context for why the majority of Native Americans polled differently about the term than the general public.
In one of the Post’s profiles of 12 poll respondents, Rusty Whitworth from Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana, who identifies as Confederated Salish and Kootenai, remarked: “Let’s start taking care of our people and quit worrying about names like Washington Redskins.” According to the Post, he was one of many who commented that other community challenges such as substandard schools, substance abuse and unemployment were more urgent issues than the NFL team name debate.
Last year, the Huffington Post featured 13 issues facing Native American communities in the U.S. beyond mascots and casinos. Here are a few:
- Mass incarceration: “In states with significant Native populations, Native Americans are wildly overrepresented in the criminal justice system. In South Dakota, for example, Native Americans make up 9 percent of the total population, but 29 percent of the prison population.”
- Poverty and unemployment: “Seventeen percent of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders and 27 percent of all self-identified Native Americans and Alaska Natives live in poverty, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. … In 2014, President Barack Obama visited the Standing Rock Sioux on the border of North and South Dakota, where the poverty rate is 43.2 percent — almost three times the national average. The unemployment rate on the Standing Rock Reservation was over 60 percent as of 2014.”
- Low graduation rates: “Only 51 percent of Native Americans in the class of 2010 graduated high school. … For Native Americans, at least, these disparities are in large part the result of inadequate federal funding, to the point where some schools on Indian reservations are deteriorated and structurally dangerous.”
- Youth suicide epidemic: “Suicide is the second most common cause of death for Native youth ages 15 to 24 — two and a half times the national rate for that age group. In February, following a rash of suicides, the Oglala Lakota Nation in South Dakota declared a state of emergency.”
Bottom line: Respondent interviews showed that Native American poll respondents may have felt that in the scheme of the critical social and equity challenges their communities face, changing “Redskins” as the team name — while derogatory — is a low priority. Removing the name will have little effect on the day-to-day problems in American Indian communities.
While the quantitative poll findings are insightful, qualitative research is essential for complex conversations such as this one. Context surrounding the responses collected through interviews and focus groups can offer qualitative perceptions of an audience and insights into their quantitative responses.
For the Washington team’s name change movement, these poll findings provide an opportunity to shift the conversation away from changing the team name and toward directly addressing and undermining public perceptions that marginalize and keep American Indian communities and their challenges out of our public psyche and conversations.
Once advocates affect the systems, structures and perceptions that challenge equity for Native American communities, perhaps changes in language will follow — whether NFL Washington team owner Dan Snyder wants them to, or not.