Two weeks ago, the Washington Post reported the results of a poll that sampled some 500 Native Americans and found that fully 90% said they did not find the local NFL team’s name “offensive.”
Given the intense and ongoing controversy over the team’s name, and the fact that there have been relatively few polls in recent years about it, this result received a lot media attention. Despite the Post’s insistence that it sought no particular outcome and conducted the poll according to the best practices in the field of opinion research, the team’s owner, Dan Snyder, deemed it a major public relations victory. After all, if the vast majority of Native Americans don’t care about the name, it becomes much easier to frame the opposition to it as the work of meddlesome and out-of-touch politically correct activists.
It’s a fair question as to whether public opinion ought to drive a decision about a term Webster’s dictionary defines as “usually offensive.” As I and many other have pointed out before, offensive Native American imagery, in the context of sports mascots, has persisted when it’s inconceivable that other groups would stand for or be forced to tolerate comparable images.
Though the poll received substantial run in the Post, on ESPN and elsewhere, there has been significant push back in the past few days. Jacqueline Keeler, a Native American and activist in the fight against “Native mascotry,” wrote at length in the Nation about the poll’s many flaws. Among those – it over-sampled older Americans, was geographically skewed and, because it used self-identification as the basis for establishing identity, demonstrated a fundamental ignorance about the particular challenges in polling Native Americans. Keeler told Dave Zirin on his weekly podcast that the average poll respondent was a white male from the South whose average age was over 50 years.
Keeler and others have criticized the poll in a more basic way. The Post contacted everyone in its sample by phone. Keeler and James Fenelon, a Native American and a sociology professor at California State University, San Bernardino who studies these issues say that anonymous calling is an inappropriate approach because so many people claim they are Native American when they aren’t. In a poll he conducted in 2014, Fenelon found that two thirds of sampled Native Americans opposed the name. Fenelon compiled his data by interviewing individuals face to face and ascertaining their tribal identity.
The methodological questions surrounding the poll notwithstanding, the result is one-sided that even subgroups thought to be less sympathetic to the name said they found it inoffensive. Non-southerners, women and those 18-39 all overwhelmingly said the name was, in effect no big deal. These sub samples are, to be clear, so small that a different poll might indeed very different results. But the problem with this poll isn’t just oversampling. Every relevant grouping seemed to think it was OK.
To repeat, a poll doesn’t resolve the issue. There are, in my judgment, good reasons to get rid of the name. The word is a dictionary-defined slur. Many, many tribes and other representative groups of Native Americans have condemned it and called for it to be replaced. None of the names defenders seems ready to go to a reservation or appear in front of tribal groups and so “honor” them by using the term. And then there is what seems an inescapable double-standard in the use of Native American mascotry.
As I wrote a couple of years ago:
“There is an argument that groups can reclaim for themselves words, practices and other traditions that, even if they were originally intended to demean and defame, might now reflect pride and self-determination. But it strikes me as disingenuous to aver that Native American mascot iconography is meant to honor and celebrate when there is no other ethnic group in American life that anyone would dare to “celebrate” in such a manner.”