Some Native Americans want more than a name change from the Washington Commanders

After many decades and generations, Native Americans can claim a victory in the fight against NFL stereotyping.

Today the Washington Football Team — previously known by a wildly offensive name — became “The Commanders.”

Crystal Echo Hawk calls it “a win against racism.”

Echo Hawk is the founder of IllumiNative — a nonprofit dedicated to changing the country’s deeply ingrained views of Native Nations and Native Americans.

This change “a first step,” she said, because there is so much damage to correct and so much healing to be done.

Brandon Yellowbird Stevens agrees. He said he believes the continents’ Indigenous people are victimized by a narrow and belittling view of their lives and history when many Native communities are thriving and successful. He and Echo Hawk want to celebrate those positive images instead of perpetuating the negative ones.

Yellowbird Stevens explains that some people’s view of Native Americans is “stuck in a moment of time,” like back when the West was one.

He says the era of John Wayne movies always painted the cowboys and settlers as good guys — and his people as bad. Even today, he said he thinks many Americans don’t understand what really happened as Manifest Destiny displaced and killed so many of his ancestors.

The Oneida Nation man and Crystal Echo Hawk believe this name change is just one act to address hundreds of years disrespect and inequities. And even though the fight for it started in the 1960s, Yellowbird Stevens says it was seriously jump-started by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Echo Hawk calls it “a new chapter” too. But she wants the football team to work on repairing “the harm that it perpetuated by having a dictionary defined racial slur” for a name. And she also wants it to recognize “the harm it caused to Native Americans for such a long time.”

Yellowbird Stevens was on the committee to choose the new name. And yet he says it won’t mean much without follow through. That starts with education.

He says if we change the school systems and what they teach, “we will have students who will be voters” and who’ll be part of school boards and legislatures.

And if they’ve learned the honest history, Yellowbird Stevens said they’ll understand that “marginalizing native communities into one stereotypical sports image” doesn’t do Native American communities justice.

However, as far as he’s concerned, sports leagues like the NFL and MLB still have a long way to go with improving the image of Native Americans because of the use of names like the Kansas City Chiefs and the Atlanta Braves.

In Yellowbird Stevens’ opinion, those names enable schools across the country with racist mascots or logos to keep them because those leagues continue to embrace them.

Echo Hawk hopes the Washington Commanders will build on this first step. She says it now has the “opportunity to really share its story and help eliminate all Native American mascots in sports.”

She also said the team should give a public apology about the because saying you’re sorry behind closed doors isn’t the same as saying it in front of the public.

Hillary Howard

Hillary Howard is a longtime Washington, D.C. broadcaster and storyteller who also hosts "It's Academic," the world's longest running TV quiz show on NBC Washington.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up