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HOLMBERG: Easier to protest Redskins’ name than actually help Native Americans

RICHMOND, Va. — Man, they’ve got that NFL practice field in midtown Richmond looking sharp. Grass so smooth, pro golfers could putt on it.

And that Washington football team is going to be trotting out on it  in just a couple weeks.

Yup, they’ll still be called the Redskins, even though the name is being attacked on so many fronts, they should break out a new mascot: Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer.

Me, I’m kind of baffled why this controversy just keeps on repeating at full volume, like a Slayer record with a big skip in it.

Polls indicate a clear majority of Native Americans aren’t worked up about the name, and the good many see it as a badge of honor (although other publications say there are too few Native Americans in their sample to draw conclusions about their views as a group.)

And why not?

Way back then – 80 years ago for the ‘Skins – teams picked heroic nicknames that evoked strength, speed, spirit, fearsomeness, resolve and ultimately, admiration:  Patriots, Eagles, Bears, Lions, Cowboys, Redskins.

I watched one of the Redskins’ playoff games with Chief Webster “Little Eagle” Custalow of the Mattaponi tribe before he died 10 years ago. He made that same point about the heroic stature of the name.  He loved the ‘Skins.

Question now for all those white folks who feel so strongly about getting rid of the Redskins’ name:

Are you engaged in anything that would really help Native Americans, such as federal recognition, combating the nation’s highest suicide rate, intense poverty, among the  lowest life expectancy and shrunken reservation land so crappy is difficult to farm, for example?

Or do you just want to do that easy, tingly thing and protest a football team name that, if removed, would address exactly none of the issues above?

Hey, if you’re really concerned about Native American heritage, maybe you should move out of your home and give the land to its rightful owners.

Ok, I’m being ridiculous here. But maybe little substance over all the symbolism might actually help.

Go ahead, get mad. Then maybe spend a few minutes reading up on the issues that so many Native Americans face.

Here’s the column I wrote for the Times-Dispatch with my game-watching with Chief Little Eagle:


Richmond Times-Dispatch – Monday, January 13, 1992

Author: Mark Holmberg ; Staff writer

“Hot dog! Look at that!” cried Webster Custalow — Chief Little Eagle — as the Washington Redskins’ front line crushed Detroit Lions quarterback Erik Kramer during yesterday’s lopsided NFC championship game.

Custalow , the 79-year-old chief of the Mattaponi Indian Reservation here, roots for the Redskins because they, like his ancestors, are great and powerful.

“I glory in the Redskins for winning all those games,” said Custalow , who wore red suspenders and an intricate medallion made up of turquoise, silver and animal bones while he watched the game on television.

“That’s what Indians do — they never give up. They always come back and win some kind of way.”

Custalow won’t be among the thousands of American Indians expected to protest the use of Indian nicknames and symbols during the Jan. 26 Super Bowl. That protest is adding to the brouhaha that drew national attention when the Atlanta Braves were fighting to win baseball’s top honors last season.

Chief Little Eagle wishes he could attend the Super Bowl game, but not to protest.

“If I had the money, I’d dress up in my full regalia and go up there and urge them on. Yessiree . . . If they’re going to use our name, I want them to keep on shining.”

So he’ll watch from his living room in the heart of one of the nation’s oldest Indian reservations, focusing his mental energies on his favorite team. “My spirit is with them.”

Earlier in the season the Redskins had fallen behind in a game. “I thought they were going to lose. So I prayed to let them get up and move out — and they did. They won.”

Inside the Mattaponi Indian Museum, George and Norman Custalow watched Gerald Riggs bulldoze his way over the left side for a second quarter touchdown.

Neither of the brothers was in the least bit upset that the Washington team has an Indian nickname.

But George “Great Warrior” Custalow hoped the Redskins would get stomped. “I’m for Buffalo.” (The Buffalo Bills will face the Redskins in the Super Bowl.)

He also noted that teams with Indian names — the Kansas City Chiefs, the Atlanta Braves, the Washington Redskins — had excellent seasons.

“Seems like there’s got to be something to it, doesn’t it?”

The Detroit Lions had just scored their only touchdown when Lynn Curry opened the door to her cozy home nearby. She and her 13-year-old son, Scoots (“Little Bear”), were enjoying the game.

“I don’t think it’s demeaning in any way,” she said of Washington’s nickname.

In fact, she and her son like it.

“If they were losing, no one would be saying anything” about Indian nicknames.”

Besides, “Our heritage is going down to the point where we need some recognition,” said Mrs. Curry, who was named Falling Leaf at birth because “I was born in October. That was the first thing the chief saw when he opened his eyes.”

A few hours earlier and about 15 miles away at the Pamunkey reservation, Grover Miles and his friend, Donald Dunn, were heading to Miles’ house to watch the game. They were riding in Dunn’s red `89 pickup, which had “Renegade” painted on the hood.

“I’ve been a Redskins fan all my life,” Miles said. “Through thick and thin. Winning or losing.”

Neither Miles nor Dunn was concerned about the Washington’s team name. “It’s not done in a malicious way,” Miles said. “In one sense, it’s something of an honor. Brave warriors. Winners. Teamwork.”

William P. Miles, the chief of the Pamunkey tribe here, agrees. “It gives the Indians a certain amount of notoriety,” he said as he drove around the peaceful 1,200-acre reservation where about 65 Pamunkey Indians live. “I don’t see it as a bad thing.”

He, like Mrs. Curry, found the timing of the Indian protests and complaints to be somewhat suspect. “I think it’s a bit ironic . . . you didn’t hear about it when they weren’t winning.”

Walter Hill — “Running Bear” — had another word for it. Hill, a 35- year-old electrician, had driven his son’s Suzuki four-wheeler down to the Pamunkey River for a little pre-game fishing.

“It’s stupid,” he said bluntly. “I like the tomahawk chop!” (The tomahawk chop, used by Atlanta Braves fans, created quite a ruckus among some American Indian activists.)

But he’s aware some Indians didn’t like the chop.

“This Cherokee guy I know — I’d go up to him and go `Chop! Chop!’ ” Hill laughed as he chopped his hand through the air.

His favorite team?

“The Redskins. They’ve got an Indian on their helmets.”



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