'Redskins' name draws hundreds to Metrodome protest

Roman Vizenor, 7, at center, protests the Washington Redskins' nickname.
MPR photo/Jon Collins

In anticipation of Thursday's Vikings game, a classmate of 7-year-old Roman Vizenor at Hale School in Minneapolis drew the Washington Redskins' logo during class. Roman, whose mother, Lynette, is enrolled in the Oneida Nation, explained to the student why he opposed the word "redskin" as a Native American: "The name 'Redskins' hurts."

Roman and his mother put that on their sign at a protest on Thursday evening outside the game between the Washington Redskins and the Minnesota Vikings. Organizers estimated that about 500 people marched from the Native American Community Development Institute on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis to the Metrodome, where they rallied as thousands of Vikings fans streamed into the stadium.

Sasha Houston Brown's first protest against the Redskins' name was in 1992. She said she still has the shirt that says "Racism is not a sport." She said the slow pace of change is largely due to the fact that many sports fans can't put a face to the issue.

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"It's really easy when it's just a picture on your jersey, but it's another thing when you look straight into the eyes of a native kids and say that you're a sports fan and, 'It's OK, it's Redskins,'" Brown said.

Protester Forrest Simon, originally from the Upper Sioux Community, said names like the Redskins feed into the traumatic history and current discrimination faced by Native Americans in North America.

"I know my history. I am Dakota, I'm familiar with what happened, and it really is too much," Simon said. The Redskins' name "is just like a little bit of what I feel is wrong with everything with the way natives are treated."

American Indians and their supporters gather outside the Metrodome to protest the Washington Redskins' name, prior to an NFL football game between the team and the Minnesota Vikings, Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013, in Minneapolis.
AP Photo/Jim Mone

Protester Shelly Belgarde's family was one of the first Native American families to live in Thief River Falls, where she went to high school. She said she dealt with discrimination that almost made her ashamed to be Native American.

"I've had people tell me that we should go back to the reservation where we belong," Belgarde said. "I dealt with a lot of it growing up and it does hurt, and it's something that I want my children not to have to go through."

Vikings fan Paul Lykken of Owatonna said he respected protesters' right to voice their opinions, but doesn't agree that the name should be changed.

"I don't think it's offensive, it's not meant to be offensive," Lykken said. Our team is named "Minnesota Vikings, and I'm also Scandinavian, that doesn't offend me either."

Protester Janine Stiles, who is white and of Norwegian descent, said the difference is that the Vikings don't have a history of facing discrimination and persecution in Minnesota.

"If we had Norwegians here claiming they were offended by the Vikings name, I'd be listening to that as well," Stiles said. "But we have a lot of persecution that continues to this day of Native American people right here in Minneapolis, and right around our state."

Many protesters held signs arguing that the word "redskins" is akin to other racial slurs. Vikings fan Romalice Wagner, who is African-American and was there to attend the game, said he understood that comparison. He said the Redskins' name is a common topic of conversation at the sports bar where he bartends at the Mall of America.

"The Washington Wizards of the NBA changed their name from the Bullets to the Wizards," Wagner said, "If we can make changes like that, we can definitely look into a change."

Earlier today, Gov. Mark Dayton said he believes Washington's team name was racist and should be changed. U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison has strongly supported a name change, as have members of the Minneapolis City Council, including presumptive incoming mayor Betsy Hodges.

As the nationally-televised game was about to begin, protesters again took to the streets. Six mounted police watched as they marched around the Metrodome.

Lynette Vizenor, whose son started a discussion at his school earlier that day about the appropriateness of naming a team Redskins, talked about how she received a note from the teacher.

"Other classmates, including the one that was drawing about the Redskins, agreed with Roman that this name is bad and it should be changed," Vizenor said. "She was very impressed with my son."