Protest against DC football team planned before Vikings game

Robert Leonard protests in Texas
Robert Leonard of the Lakota Nation protests outside AT&T stadium against the name and logo of the Washington NFL team before a game against the Dallas Cowboys, Oct. 27, 2014, in Arlington, Texas.
Brandon Wade / AP

When football fans arrive Sunday at University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium for the Minnesota Vikings game against the franchise from Washington, D.C., they'll likely see just as much passion outside its gates.

Anyone going to the stadium will pass Tribal Nations Plaza, where 18-foot high monuments honor each of Minnesota's 11 Indian tribes. Before the game, Native Americans and others hope to use the monuments as a backdrop to their protest against the Washington team's nickname.

With a $1 billion stadium still under construction across the river in downtown Minneapolis, the Vikings are playing all their home games this season and next at TCF Bank Stadium. That set up the inevitable friction over the visiting team's name.

In Minnesota, a state with more than 100,000 people of Native American ancestry, many say the term "Redskins" is a racial slur that insults and trivializes their culture. Outraged that the D.C. team has refused to drop the name, Indian protest leaders plan the largest demonstration ever against it.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

"To come here, they're seeing the power of our voices here in this place," said Vanessa Goodthunder, a member of the university's American Indian Student Cultural Center.

Goodthunder, 20, opposes Native American team names and mascots in general, but she said the Washington team's moniker, which dictionaries define as a slur, is particularly nasty.

For Goodthunder, a member of the Lower Sioux Indian Community in southwest Minnesota — one of four Dakota tribes in the state — the name is a painful reminder. A century and a half ago, she said, the federal government used the word "Redskin" in advertisements offering bounties for killing her ancestors.

"As a Dakota person, that's definitely not what I'd like to be called, because we have never called ourselves that," she said.

Tribal Nations Plaza
The University of Minnesota's Tribal Nations Plaza.
Matt Sepic / MPR News

Native American groups have demonstrated at Washington games for years. But Goodthunder said Sunday's protest will be much larger. Not only will there be students, but organizers say they're expecting as many as 5,000 American Indians from across the country.

Protestors had hoped the team's presence at a university would give them leverage.

At a recent news conference, Larry Leventhal, an attorney with the National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media, said the school's stadium use contract with the Vikings clearly prohibits racist nicknames and mascots on campus.

"It says the Vikings shall not take any action or use any language in its use of the facilities that might reasonably be expected to offend contemporary community standards or might degrade any class or group of people," he said.

University officials agree the D.C. team's name is offensive. They've sponsored discussions, a film screening and an art exhibit all aimed at driving home that point.

But University of Minnesota General Counsel Bill Donohue has said there's nothing the university can legally do. The part of the contract that bans denigrating language in the stadium only applies to advertising and sponsorships, Donohue said in a recent interview.

"We don't control their speech. We've had Condoleezza Rice on campus. We've had Bill Clinton on campus. We've had things that I'm sure offend tons of people," Donohue said. "We don't attempt to control their speech while they're on our campus."

Dan Snyder, the owner of Washington D.C.'s NFL franchise continues to face heavy criticism.

With calls growing for a name change, the Washington team this summer launched a public relations campaign. The team's Original Americans Foundation has donated money to tribes and sent former players to visit reservations. It also has produced YouTube videos including one in which Tony Woods of the Chippewa Cree tribe in Montana speaks in support of the name and criticizes the push to change it.

"I think it's a worthless cause, these people taking this up," Woods said. "It's a sports team, it's supposed to be fun. When I would hear 'Redskins,' I would associate it with the team, never with myself, never associate it with a whole people."

When asked to comment on this Sunday's protest, a Washington team spokesman said players are coming to Minnesota to try to win a football game, and "whatever the politics going on outside the stadium will happen outside the stadium."