The past few months there have been whispers, rumors, and tales in Indian Country of Dan Snyder’s ‘people’ calling up tribal members, community organizations, and tribal councils–of offers of cash, of closed door secret meetings, of requests to fly tribal members out to DC for photo ops, of passing out team gear at powwows, of a desperate, covert PR campaign. Up until now, the stories remained just that–stories. But now we have actual proof of the inner workings of the Washington Racial Slurs “Original Americans Foundation” (OAF), and a new story of a community that had the strength to stand up when faced with an unbearable decision.
On Tuesday night, my friend Will from the Ft. Yuma Quechan (Kwatsan) community called me with the news that their community had been contacted by the OAF for a meeting the next day. I then chatted with his cousin, Kenrick Escalanti, who has, along with Will and others in the community, been working hard to raise funds for a memorial skate park for their tribal youth. Their tribal grant writer had responded to a phone survey, which had apparently tagged them for this meeting, and tagged the skatepark as a possible project.
In the Wednesday meeting, the Executive Director of OAF, Cherokee (WHY do they ALWAYS gotta be my tribe?!?!) Gary Edwards basically offered Kwatsan Media Inc. (Kenrick’s organization) a blank check, saying that they could fund the park, and had partnerships with developers who could build it as well. They brought in one such developer, who showed Kenrick digital renderings of parks, all done up in signature burgundy and gold. While they insisted that they didn’t want anything in return from the community, that OAF didn’t even have to be affiliated, they constantly brought up the fact that they have “147 projects” occurring in “over 40 tribes” throughout Indian Country, and mentioned, again, that damn backhoe that they helped buy for Omaha. Clearly, they do want the recognition.
Additionally, Mr. Edwards is super confused about who is “the opposition” to the name. He seems to think it’s only white people, and that “we” as Natives are all like him, “proud” to be a “Reds***” (which he called himself repeatedly). He told Kenrick, “The opposition is creating the old assimilation policy now being enacted today,” and even made a reference to The Lone Ranger (definitely the epitome of Native knowledge, right?), “In trying to annihilate our image its like that new Lone Ranger movie with the White Man point a gun at the Indian saying It won’t be long until its forgotten your kind ever existed on this continent.”
Right, dude, “the opposition” is trying to “annihilate our image”? What about the hundreds of Native peoples passing resolutions against the name? or the fact that Suzan Harjo (a Native woman) has been fighting your trademark since 1969? Or the fact that I have a running list of over 4000 Native peoples against the name? “Our image” if you’re speaking for the white, outsider-created image of American Indians. That is what we’re seeking to destroy.
But let’s go back to the money, and let’s think about the choice here–a choice that Native peoples in this country have had to make over, and over, and over throughout our history. We have deep and pressing needs in our communities. We have tribal members freezing to death, we have students unable to learn because their schools are falling apart at the seams, we have suicide rates 3.5 times higher than national averages. Because of centuries of colonialism, our communities have limited options. We are bridled by geographic location, federal red tape and bureaucracy, poverty, and any other number of factors. Then, outsiders come in. They offer us cash, in exchange for natural resources, for land, for mining rights, for oil–and our leaders and communities are faced with a lesser-of-two-evils choice.
Do we take the money even if it is tied to politics and choices that may negatively affect our people further down the road? Of course we would like to think “no”–but it’s not that easy. And it’s a choice we shouldn’t have to make.
In Kwatsan’s case, this skate park isn’t just about having a place for kids to skateboard. It’s tied into suicide prevention and awareness, creating a space for the community to reflect and talk about the issue as well. So here’s a billionaire (Edwards mentioned in the meeting that Snyder is a “billionaire over again”) offering to build the park now, creating that space immediately, saying they don’t need their named tied to it or even to be mentioned.
But Kenrick said no. They escorted the OAF team off the reservation quickly, not letting them hang around, not welcoming them, not letting them feel they were doing something “good” for the Indians. That act is one that needs to be applauded. Kenrick says, “We say no. There are no questions about this. We will not align ourselves with an organization to simply become a statistic in their fight for name acceptance in Native communities. We’re stronger than that and we know bribe money when we see it.”
It just disgusts me, as someone who cares deeply about how are communities are represented, that this is the choice we are forced to weigh. The media has created a “hierarchy of needs” in our communities around the mascot issue, saying that we have “more important” issues to worry about than mascots, and this is a message that has been internalized by many of us as well. Then throw the money of a billionaire behind it, “helping” us decide what our “real” issues are–what are we supposed to do?*
The Quechan Memorial Skate Park plans exist because suicide is so rampant in our communities. Many Native children suffer from low self esteem, feelings of low community worth, and limited visions of possible selves. You know what contributes to all of those feelings? Indian mascots. I’m not making that up–the research backs me up. The OAF funding the park, to me, is like a bully trying to fund an anti-bulling project while continuing their behavior unchanged.
But now we have a chance to look at this from a very positive direction–Kwatsan tribal members have stepped up. They’ve refused what Kenrick is calling “bribe money” and “blood money,” and have made public the backwards actions and thinking of the OAF and its director. Now the youth in their community can look to the leadership and see them making a stand, saying they care about how their people are represented, and that they don’t want to be associated with a racial slur and ongoing stereotyping of Native peoples. That is a representation their youth can be proud of, and a model they can emulate moving forward.
Now it’s our turn to support The Quechan Memorial Skate Park, to show Dan Snyder that Indian Country and its supporters can take care of our own, and that we don’t and won’t stand for forcing tribes to co-sign on a racist name and depiction of Native peoples in order to gain desperately needed resources in our communities. Donate here:
And all that BS, Mr. Edwards, about us disappearing if mascots disappear? Take a look around. Over 500 years of colonialism have tried to erase us from the planet. Yet we are still here. If we survived war, famine, disease, cultural genocide, termination, relocation, loss of land and resources, we certainly will survive when your beloved sports franchise removes its racist name and depiction from the side of its helmets. I, personally, would like to be associated with speaking truth to power and the ongoing vibrancy of our communities rather than an ancient stereotype “honoring” a fictional archetype that reeks of imperialist nostalgia. But maybe that’s just me.
Just as I’ve been writing this post, the story is getting great coverage, much thanks to EONM and their press release which can be found here. A statement from Kenrick and his organization, along with the ongoing coverage can be found here. This USA Today piece is great, and makes it clear, which I was unaware of, that the tribe itself is still weighing their options (though Kwatsan Media is adamant in their opposition).
*Note: I also don’t want to seem that I’m criticizing the tribes that have decided to partner with OAF. Those are decisions I don’t know anything about, and I also can’t possibly, as an outsider to those communities, understand their decisions and needs. They have the right to decide.
Also, I’ll be moderating comments. Here are the comments I’ll be deleting: Anything that says “get over it” in any form, anything that says we have “bigger issues” to worry about (I answered that here if you’re curious), anything that makes a reference to you being Irish/Viking/other non-marginalized group and not caring about those mascots, anything that says “you wouldn’t do it if it were <insert other racial group>, and anything that can be found on this bingo card. Hooray!