Thousands protest Washington NFL team nickname before Vikings game

Thousands of demonstrators gathered
Thousands of demonstrators gathered to march to TCF Bank Stadium.
Judy Griesedieck / For MPR News

Thousands of people marched across the University of Minnesota campus Sunday to protest an NFL team name they say is a racist insult.

Native American groups said it was the biggest demonstration ever against the "Redskins" name.

Tribal members at the protest.
Judy Griesedieck / For MPR News

When the Vikings played Washington last year, about 700 people turned out for a protest at the old Metrodome. This year, the demonstration was much larger.

More than three hours before kickoff several hundred people gathered outside Northrop Auditorium to the sound of drumming and chanting and the smell of sage smoke in the air. Soon the crowd grew into the thousands.

Ahead of the march, Clyde Bellecourt, an organizer, repeated something he's been saying for decades: Washington's team name is a slur. Bellecourt, a founder of the American Indian Movement, says the word has its roots in the genocide of his ancestors.

Blowing on a jar filled with burning sage.
Judy Griesedieck / For MPR News

"There have been millions of people erased from the face of the earth," he said. "Scalped, taken their scalps to sell them for bounty. When the blood ran down those children's faces, those grandmas and mothers, the families...whole tribes were decimated. That's where the word "redskin" comes from."

Snyder has vowed never to change the name, saying it's meant to honor American Indians. The team's Original Americans Foundation has donated money to tribes and has sent former players to visit reservations. A team website includes video interviews with a number of Native Americans who back Snyder.

The protest march to TCF Bank stadium drew many non-Native Americans as well, plus a number of Minnesota political figures, including DFL U.S. Reps. Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, and former governor Jesse Ventura.

Clyde Bellecourt
Clyde Bellecourt, a White Earth Ojibwe civil rights organizer, spoke to the crowd.
Judy Griesedieck / For MPR News

"This is the equivalent of naming a team the N-word," Ventura said. "Would we allow that?"

For a time, the line of marchers stretched a half mile down University Avenue. They went by Tribal Nations Plaza outside the stadium, which features monuments honoring each of Minnesota's 11 Indian tribes.

On the plaza a few people wearing jackets and jerseys with the Washington team's name watched quietly as the demonstrators passed.

Rep. Keith Ellison
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison speaks to protesters at TCF Bank Stadium.
Judy Griesedieck / For MPR News

Van Dill, 37, of Fargo grew up in the D.C. area and describes himself as multi-racial but not Native American. Dill says he doesn't think the team's name is racist.

"Being sensitive to the fact there's racism and certain things like that, the name never bothered me," he said. "And honestly there are bigger things to be offended by as far as bigotry goes."

As the march wound around the stadium, protest leaders again took to the stage. Melanie Benjamin, the chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, pressed Snyder to change the name of his football team.

Joey Browner
Former Minnesota Vikings player Joey Browner talks about his Native American heritage.
Judy Griesedieck / For MPR News

"I have a message for Dan Snyder," she said. "We will not stop until that name is changed and we will never give up, and Dan Snyder, you can put that all in caps."

Opponents of the D.C. team's name called on the University of Minnesota to ban its use at the stadium.

While the U of M generally prohibits Native American mascots and nicknames on campus, university officials said the stadium use agreement with the Vikings does not allow them to enforce the policy on professional teams.

Nevertheless Joe Horse Capture, who traveled from Washington for the protest, says he's happy with the way the university welcomed protesters and addressed the controversy.

"I understand they have certain legal restrictions on things that they can do, but to create programming around this, awareness, to create programming about Native American culture, and their importance, I wish everybody could do this," he said.

Horse Capture, a former curator of American Indian art at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, says he's hopeful the tide is turning against the D.C. football team.

He pointed to a recent U.S. Patent Office decision to cancel six team trademarks. As the franchise appeals the cancellation, the FCC is considering a petition to ban the name from radio and television.