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UB professor feels ‘Redskin’ sting

Of course it’s personal for her. How could it not be? Hilary Weaver was born Lakota and has proudly carried the identity – without rubbing it in anyone’s face – for her 52 years.

Yes, it’s personal, when the University at Buffalo professor is raising two kids in what she hopes will be a more tolerant, less ignorant America.

Finally, it was in-your-face personal, the time when Weaver’s world collided head-on with Dan Snyder’s racial myopia.

Snyder’s Washington-based NFL team was in town several years ago to play the Bills. They stayed at a hotel near UB’s North Campus. The same hotel was hosting a multi-day conference, which Weaver helped to organize, on substance abuse and Native Americans. Professors, panelists and speakers – many of them Native American – had come from across the country. Imagine the reaction of the Ph.D.’s and CEOs to the banner stretched across the hotel lobby: “Welcome Redskins.”

Geez, these are sensitive folks around here.

“It was jarring to see,” Weaver told me. “I don’t think the hotel people were being malicious. They were just oblivious. They didn’t give it a second thought, that this might be offensive to us. It’s like we were invisible.”

This is what happens when folks reflexively accept the unacceptable, when people assume that something must be OK just because that’s the way it has always been. The challenge of change is to make people think, to get folks to empathize. That is how stereotypes fall, how prejudices collapse. It is how team mascots and nicknames built on racial slurs get tossed into history’s dumpster.

We moved a step closer to enlightenment when the U.S. Patent Office recently revoked trademark protection for the “Redskins” nickname, calling it “disparaging.” Snyder, whose arrogance is matched by his inflexibility, is expected to appeal – having vowed never to change the team’s nickname. But society’s eyes are opening wider. The trademark ruling – which threatens millions of dollars in team and league profits – brings pressure on Snyder from other NFL owners. And it keeps a roiling issue on the front burner.

“Little Black Sambo, the Frito Bandito, Aunt Jemima, these are caricatures we grew up with that aren’t around anymore,” Weaver said. “Native Americans are the last group to still have these images in so many places.”

Weaver is a formidable presence – tall, with dark eyes that lock in and a soft voice that coats an iron resolve. In a half-hour coffee shop conversation, she picked words carefully – having not just researched the issue, but lived it. She grew up in a world where Indians were depicted in movies and TV as whooping savages. She has lived a lifetime of unintentional slights – a colleague once asked if she was a full “pedigree.” She is thankful for how far we have come, upset that we are not further along.

“You’re not naming the team the Lions or Tigers, you’re naming it after a group of human beings,” she said. “It’s dehumanizing. People don’t think of Native Americans as someone you see at the library, or just a regular person in the grocery store. There’s all these stereotypes – we’re aggressive, we’re warlike. These mascot images can be really crippling.”

We are conditioned by years of unthinking repetition to hear words like “redskin” without absorbing the meaning. I doubt that Snyder would be unperturbed if Native Americans nicknamed a team the “Whiteskins.”

“There were bounties placed on Native Americans, with payouts depending on whether it was a man, a woman or a child killed,” Weaver said. “But you had to have proof, and the proof was the scalp – the redskin. That’s the history, but people don’t think about that.”

Yes, various ethnic groups have been discriminated against over time. But Native Americans weren’t immigrants targeted when they came off of the boat. They were here before the boats landed, then – in an American genocide – nearly wiped out by westward expansion. Survivors were herded into “reservations,” a cattle grouping that exacted an economic and social toll still being paid generations later.

So yes, for Weaver and others, “Redskin” is personal.

“There are a few Native Americans who don’t seem to think about it,” she acknowledged. “But I think the majority of us feel very offended.”

There is strength in numbers and – sadly for Native Americans – their numbers are relatively few.

If Cleveland’s baseball team was nicknamed the Sambos, and the baseball caps sold at souvenir stands featured a big-lipped caricature, you can bet the team’s black players wouldn’t stand for it. Yet caps with the caricature of a buck-toothed, wide-mouthed Chief Wahoo are – astoundingly – still unthinkingly sold at Cleveland’s stadium and elsewhere.

Native Americans are scarce in pro sports, and make up just 2 percent of the country’s population. In the war against racist stereotypes, they are badly outnumbered.

“When we stand up and say something, our voices get drowned out,” she said. “But when others stand up with us, as allies, that’s when the tide will turn.”

The tide, whether Dan Snyder likes it or not, is turning. Someday, hopefully sooner than later, we will bid goodbye to “Welcome Redskins.”