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Native American Cultural Appropriation Is a War of Meaning

By Dina Gilio-Whitaker

Washington Redsk*ns helmet
Washington Redsk*ns helmet. Photo credit: Flickr user Keith Allison

The war that is Native American cultural appropriation rages on. And make no mistake, this is a war for the control of meaning on what constitutes cultural appropriation, and thus what is considered acceptable in the U.S. American mind when it comes to American Indian culture and even intellectual property rights. In the world of media those with the biggest platforms have a decided advantage when it comes to influencing public opinion. It’s something Dan Snyder, owner of the notorious Washington Redsk*ns, knows full well.

Last week the Washington Post released a new poll claiming that an astounding “nine in 10” of Native American respondents were not offended by the team name. The poll contradicts what decades of tireless work by Native activists have claimed, that yes, the name is racist and reflects a deeply entrenched collective colonial national mentality. In a nutshell, this colonial mentality is built upon centuries of narratives and legal fictions that construct American Indians as inferior people compared to (white) settlers who are supposedly racially and culturally superior.

Such an inherent sense of superiority is the only reason it is possible to suggest that a name that celebrates a history of genocide actually honors the victims of that history. We can talk about how the team name harkens back to an incredibly violent period of U.S. aggression against indigenous peoples, which you can read about in many places, including here, here, and here. But what I want to talk about is why the Post’s poll is BS.

First of all, the methodology of a poll is what confirms (or denies) a poll’s validity. In this case, the Post’s method was to randomly sample 504 “Native Americans” by telephone to find out their feelings about the term. One wonders how a list of “random” Native Americans was compiled to begin with.

But the bigger issue is that the concept of who is actually a Native American is one of the most highly contested aspects of cultural appropriation to begin with. One can claim to be Native American without any verifiable connection to a Native community. And many people do, as a matter of no more than bragging rights, with no more than a rumor of a long-ago Indian somewhere in the family tree.

But if you are going to conduct a poll based on a specific group people, you need a more rigorous set of criteria, especially when it comes to Native Americans who are the only group of people in the U.S. who are required to produce documentation to fit legal definitions of Native identity. A definition more suitable for any serious opinion poll would be based on people with documentable links to a Native community. In Indian country, there is a saying that being Indian is not about what you claim, but who claims you.  

In the Post’s poll, of those claiming to be Native American less than half are people with verifiable claims to a Native community. Only 44% claimed to be enrolled as a member of a Native American tribe. The majority of the poll respondents were what many actual American Indians would consider “wannabes.”

Consider another poll conducted in 2014 at the California State University at San Bernardino. This poll used a more strict definition, drawing from over 400 surveys “directly from individuals who could be verified as being the race or ethnic group they claimed (important for self-identified Native Americans).” The findings of the surveys revealed that 67% found the term “Redsk*ns” to be a racist word and symbol.

Dan Snyder has stridently claimed that he will never change the name of the team. And why would he when to do so would likely interfere with the profitability of his multi-zillion dollar franchise? Given his extreme wealth, it’s much easier (and presumably cheaper) just to try to control the national narrative about what is and is not offensive to Native Americans.  Controlling the flow of information is something Snyder is famous for in the sports journalism world, and he’s been accused of buying off the Washington D.C. media.

Dan Snyder’s grandstanding about the offensive team name is a joke that would be funny if it weren’t so serious for what it means to U.S. American national culture and how it contributes to the common misunderstandings of average Americans. In our upcoming book, “All the Real Indians Died Off” and 20 Other Myths about Native Americans, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and I devote two entire chapters to the controversies surrounding appropriation of Native American cultures.  We discuss the Washington Redsk*ns team name in depth and the broader topic of Native American team mascots in one chapter, and in another we tackle other facets of appropriation including Halloween costumes, spirituality, and identity.  Look for the book’s release this October.


About the Author 

Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes) is an independent writer and researcher in Indigenous studies, having earned a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies and a master’s degree in American Studies from the University of New Mexico, and also holds the position of research associate and associate scholar at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. Her work focuses on issues related to Indigenous nationalism, self-determination, and environmental justice, and more recently the emerging field of critical surf studies. She is a co-author (with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz) of the forthcoming book from ‘All the Real Indians Died Off’ and 20 Other Myths about Native Americans. An award-winning journalist, she is a frequent contributor to Indian Country Today Media Network and Native Peoples Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @DinaGWhit and visit her website