NFL Not The Only League Using The "R-Word"

Nov 26, 2014

There's a growing controversy playing out in the National Football League surrounding one of the team's names. For more than 80 years, Washington's football team has been called the "Redskins", a term many feel is derogatory towards Native Americans. But for one tiny high school on the Navajo Nation, nearly everyone - from students to faculty - embraces the name. Arizona Public Radio's Aaron Granillo reports.

The Red Mesa High School "Redskins" warm-up before their last game of the season.
Credit KNAU/Aaron Granillo

It's game night at Red Mesa High School. Fans pour into the bleachers as the football team makes its way to the field. Red Mesa has had the "Redskin" mascot since the early 1970's when the school first opened. The vast majority of students - past and present - are members of the Navajo Nation. Ambrose Clah graduated in 1986 and says, "The way I see "Redskin" is it's pride. I stand up for it. I'm glad to say I'm a "Redskins" fan. My son goes to school here, he's a senior, and he's part of the team. And I support the team."

That's a sentiment most people at tonight's game seem to share. But outside this small high school community, some are trying to get rid of the "r-word" altogether. Amanda Blackhorse is one of the most prominent Navajo social activists in the country. She says, "The term 'redskin' was used at a time when the Native American population was being exterminated. It's not a word that we use in our community to refer to each other."

Blackhorse is helping lead the charge for Washington's NFL team to change its name for good. Her movement is backed by many lawmakers, sports commentators and even the United Nations. They all denounce the term as deeply offensive. Last month, Blackhorse led a protest outside the Cardinals' stadium when the Washington team came to play. Through a megaphone, she shouted, "I understand that not all people understand the history behind this. So, that's why we are gathered here today, to spread awareness about where that word comes from and how disparaging it is to native people."

But inside the stadium a different message was being sent. Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly created a firestorm of controversy when he was shown on national TV watching the game in Washington territory, wearing a "Redskins" hat. Shelly says he was talking business, but Amanda Blackhorse says it was a deliberate marketing ploy by the team. "They're buying people off," she says. "They're buying off prominent Native American people, and the Navajo Nation president is in that category."

Blackhorse thinks Red Mesa High School is also in that category. About 125 students attended that game after the Washington team gave them free tickets. But, Red Mesa's athletic director Alfred Begay sees it a different way. "I take it vice versa. We're using them," he says. " They offered that to us, and we took the kids down there and they enjoyed it...just to have them exposed to professional sports."

For as much attention and criticism as one NFL team is getting, there are dozens of high schools across the country which also use the controversial mascot. A recent study by the University of Maryland found more than 60 high schools in 22 states that use the moniker. Three of them - including Red Mesa - have a majority Native American student body.

At Red Mesa's last game of the season, sophomores Charity Hoshnic and Jeramie Billie watch the game against a chain link fence because there's not an open seat in the stands. The students say they take ownership, not offense, to the team's name. "It's not offensive to us. It represents us as Native Americans," Hoshnic says. Billie adds, "Yep, it's alright. It's native pride."

Even though many at this small high school embrace the term, the superintendent acknowledges the national controversy. That's why next year he plans to engage the community in discussion about a potential name change.