Nations: Let deeds do the talking

Did you hear the great news?

It appears that Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder has set out to rescue Native Americans from the scourge of poverty and lack of opportunity, or at least help.

That is so awesome, is it not?

In case you did somehow miss the announcement, consisting of a four-page letter composed by Snyder and posted on the Washington Redskins’ website on Monday night and excerpted ad nauseam by the national media on Tuesday, here’s the gist of Dan’s plan:

Action — like buying backhoes, winter coats, text books for schools and the like for impoverished Native American tribes across the country — is what Snyder’s newly-formed Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation aims to be all about. Placating a few offended Native Americans — or more than a few, depending on which side of the whole “nickname” issue you fall on — is decidedly not on the WROAF’s agenda.

Snyder’s seemingly sudden largesse is in reality not so, according to his letter to Redskins fans. In fact, it seems that Snyder’s eyes have been opened to the plight of so many Native American tribes through the travels he and his staff undertook to no less than reservations across 20 states.

In his letter, Snyder sprinkles a few anecdotes of these meetings with tribal councils as he became aware — for the first time, I guess? — of the everyday struggles faced by Native Americans living on reservations. It’s grim stuff, for sure, from heightened poverty rates to persistent problems with alcohol and drug abuse among many residents. Actually, these are the same issues reservations have struggled with since the very beginning of the entire reservation system, but let’s not make this a history lesson.

Then again, history — defending that proud 81-year-old Redskins legacy against more and more vocal opposition to what some consider the nickname’s derogatory nature — that’s what prompted this four-month journey of discovery in the first place.

Snyder, who has vowed to never change the Redskins nickname, apparently found nothing but support for that position among the Native Americans he encountered on this cross-country trek. Judging by his letter, that seems to be the case.

“There are Native Americans everywhere that 100% support the name,” Snyder quoted Torres-Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians Chairwoman Mary L. Resvaloso as telling him. “I believe God has turned this around for something good.”

There are claims in this letter — specifically, that “overwhelming majorities” of fans (not “Native American fans,” just “fans”) “find our name to be rooted in pride for our shared heritage and values.” That may well be true, but cherry-picking a few examples of grateful Native Americans who’ve just received or will receive tangible benefits for their people from his franchise isn’t exactly the most convincing evidence for Snyder’s point of view.

Instead, he might have pointed out that indeed there is no known majority feeling among Native Americans regarding the Redskins nickname. Some groups, like the Oneida Indian Nation, are certainly on record as against the name. Others, presumably, could have opinions ranging to supportive to frankly none at all. That, after all, is what Snyder and his team set out to discover by meeting with so many different tribes.

The letter ultimately comes off as self-serving and contrived, more dubious public relations schlock, when it really didn’t have to be that way. As Resvaloso stated, something good indeed does seem to be coming from this ongoing controversy over a professional sports team’s name. Snyder and the Washington Redskins have taken real, concrete action, and plan to do more (hopefully for all tribes in need, and not just those receptive to his overtures). That could mean so much more than a name change.

The Redskins are Snyder’s team, and nothing short of a direct mandate from the National Football League can force a change if he doesn’t wish to do so on his own. Frankly, without a measurable and decisive consensus among those ostensibly affected by the name, Snyder shouldn’t change it.

Honoring those Native American communities the team claims the Redskins nickname encompasses — through deeds — is an encouraging step forward, but just a start. Snyder has finally found out something of the population that inspired his team’s moniker. Continuing an open dialogue with Native American tribes, no matter what answers he ultimately receives, may be the path to a real and long-lasting partnership that could be of real benefit to both parties. Anything less is just talk.

Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com>