Bill Means, a born and bred Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, had seen racism when his mother was denied service at a local retail store, but he could never do anything to fight it. That changed during a high school basketball game in 1963.
Suiting up for his Mission High School Falcons, the 11th-grade guard ventured to the reservation border town of Murdo, South Dakota to play the rival Coyotes.
“As we were running onto the floor, these people start hollering, ‘Go home, Redskins … Go back to the reservation, Redskins,’” said Means, now 68. “They knew immediately that it would bring a strong reaction. It really got us mad, so we really beat that team.”
Indeed, Mission whipped Murdo 60-38 that night, one that is now largely forgotten. But Means hasn’t forgotten.
“My first chance to fight racism was on a basketball floor,” Means said. “There’s something about athletics that makes the playing floor a little bit more even.”
And it’s in the realm of athletics where Means, and thousands of other indigenous people, continue to fight.
Means was just one of about 300 people who marched and rallied outside of Levi’s Stadium on Sunday, Nov. 23 in Santa Clara when the San Francisco 49ers hosted the Washington Redskins, a team that’s name and mascot have drawn the ire and spurred activism among various indigenous groups and peoples nationwide for decades.
“This whole mascot is part of the remnants of racism against Indian people,” Means said. “The roots of this mascot come from the atrocities like Wounded Knee, 1890, Sand Creek, 150 years ago when they would kill hundreds of our people and nobody would be penalized, nobody would be held accountable.”
But the lone man responsible for refusing to yield to activists and indigenous people who are demanding that the Redskins mascot and name be changed is billionaire Daniel Snyder, owner of the NFL franchise since 1999. Snyder has openly deemed his team’s name a “badge of honor” to Native Americans, and told USA Today in May of 2013 that he will “never change the name.”
But Snyder’s campaign to save the name seemingly suffered a blow last June when the U.S. Patent and Trademark office voted to cancel the team’s trademark registration, deeming the name and mascot disparaging.
The franchise was founded in 1932 as the Boston Braves, and changed to the Boston Redskins a year later. Snyder maintains that the name honors four of the founding players and their head coach, William “Lone Star” Dietz, who Snyder claims were Native Americans.
“Why don’t he honor his own people … And make them the Washington Jews,” said Jose Cuellar, retired Chicano Studies professor at San Francisco State, who calls himself a mixed up, undocumented Tex-Mex Indian. “Or if he wanted to be really as offensive as he has to Native Americans, he could say ‘the Washington Kikes.’”
Dietz’s past, however, is as controversial as the name of the team he once coached. He was convicted of draft dodging in 1920 after falsifying in his draft questionnaire that he was a non-citizen Indian. That registry exempted him from military service and gave him a government allotment. Dietz, who claimed to be the son of a German father and full-blooded Sioux mother, served 30 days in jail.
“I’m proud,” said 49ers fan Jessie Alvarez-Poemoceah outside of Levi’s Stadium, whose family is Camanche from Oklahoma. “I’m glad we’re standing up for something that’s right. Obviously, racism is not dead.”
Not all of those who attended the rally found the term “Redskin” derogatory.
“This is a wonderful country, and we have opposing views. I strongly disagree with their wanting the name to be changed,” said Rob Santucci, a 56-year-old lifelong Redskins fan from upstate New York, who wore a “save the name” shirt to the game and argued that the name “Redskin” refers to the red war paint and not skin color. “I’m not using it as a slur, I never have. In 45 years that I’ve been a fan, I never thought of it as a slur once. I still think it’s a proud name. Some people object to it. That’s their cause. And I’m ok with that.”
But protesters have continued to argue that the term “Redskin” is the equivalent to any other racial or ethnic slur, which was one widely used during the American Indian wars of the 1800’s by soldiers and settlers to distinguish their enemy. But regardless of its origin, the name hasn’t turned away the thousands of people who continue to rally everywhere the Redskins play.
Nearly 5,000 people rallied in Minneapolis, Minnesota on Nov. 2 when Washington played the Vikings, and many are expected to protest on Dec. 28 for Washington’s last home game.
“It’s not going to take much more,” Cuellar said. “The President has gone on record. The mayor of D.C. has gone on record. Congressmen are going on record…slowly but surely, it’s going to happen.”
And Means, who while serving in Vietnam was spurred to civil rights action after seeing his activist brother Russell’s picture in a newspaper, will likely be there.
“Why are we the only mascot of the ethnic groups?” Means said. “Sambo is gone. Frito Bandito, he’s gone. But yet we still have this Washington football team mascot.”
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