Redskins, in absentia, on trial at Temple Shalom

Tribal rights attorney Tara Houska talks while ESPN senior writer Mike Wise looks on at an Oct. 27 forum on the Washington Redskins’ team name at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase.Photo by Josh Marks
Tribal rights attorney Tara Houska talks while ESPN senior writer Mike Wise looks on at an Oct. 27 forum on the Washington Redskins’ team name at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase.
Photo by Josh Marks

By Joshua Marks

The movement to change the name of the Washington Redskins and other stereotypical Native American sports team mascots is all about the children in the eyes of Tara Zhaabowekwe Houska, a citizen of Couchiching First Nation and a tribal rights attorney.

“Imagine being a little kid seeing [the Washington name and logo] everywhere. That’s really the issue,” Houska said at an Oct. 27 forum on the team name controversy at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase. “It’s not about my hurt feelings. It’s about the children. You’re hurting children, and this matters for them.”

She was joined in the discussion by former Washington Post sports columnist and ESPN senior writer Mike Wise, who has advocated a name change since a 2005 column he wrote in the Post.

The team was invited to send a representative, but declined, according to Temple Shalom member Josh Silver, co-founder of the name change advocacy group Rebrand Washington Football and an organizer of the event.

Wise cited the American Psychological Association’s 2005 resolution calling for the immediate retirement of Native American mascots because social science studies show that stereotypical mascots have a negative impact on the self-esteem of Native American children.

“If there is something to do with self-esteem of Native children involved here, I think it’s important enough, because poverty, alcoholism, tribal rights and all these other issues affect Native America and there is a connect the dots to a child’s self-esteem,” said Wise.

Added Houska: “If we know that it hurts their self-esteem then how can you allow this to be perpetuated?”

So far, no argument has convinced team owner Daniel Snyder to consider changing the Redskins’ name and mascot. In 2013, Snyder told USA Today that “we’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”

Snyder, who is Jewish, did not respond to a letter in 2013 co-written by Temple Shalom Rabbi Michael Feshbach and Silver urging a name change.

“I think we must have misspelled our return address, because clearly his reply went somewhere else,” joked Feshbach during his opening remarks.

Before he introduced Houska and Wise, Silver said that there is a history of Jewish involvement on this issue. In 2000, Rabbi David Saperstein, then the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, sent a letter to Snyder urging a name change; in 1992 the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinic arm of the Reform movement, adopted a resolution condemning professional sports teams whose names, the rabbis said, encourage stereotypical thinking.

According to Change the Mascot, a movement to change the name and mascot of the Redskins, other Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, have supported a name change.

One concern Houska said she has heard from fans of keeping the Redskins name is that if the name and mascot change, people won’t remember Native Americans anymore.

“They really are genuinely sad because to them Native American culture is putting on that headdress and pretending to be Native American,” Houska said. “We’re not going to disappear. We’re still here. If you want to come to learn about Native American culture, reach out to the National Museum of the American Indian here. Go talk to people. There are lots of Native American people around, you just have to find us. We are here. We are in every city in America, and our cultures are very much alive and very healthy.”

Feshbach told Houska: “My fantasy is that we have you back to talk about Native American history long after this name is changed, and we’re just talking about culture.”

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