In Arizona, a Navajo high school emerges as a defender of the Washington Redskins

Washington Post – by Ian Shapira

The fans poured into the bleachers on a Friday night, erupting in “Let’s go, Redskins!” chants that echoed across a new field of artificial turf, glowing green against a vast dun-colored landscape.

Inside the Red Mesa High School locker room, Ted Nugent’s “Stranglehold” blared on the stereo as players hurried to strap on their helmets and gather for a pregame prayer and pep talk.

“This is your time, right?” the team’s assistant coach demanded.  

“Yes, sir!” the players shouted. “Redskins on three! Redskins on three! One, two, three, Redskins!”

The scene at this tiny, remote high school was as boisterous as it was remarkable: Nearly everyone on the field and in the bleachers belongs to the Navajo Nation. Most of the people in Red Mesa not only reject claims that their team’s nickname is a slur, they have emerged as a potent symbol in the heated debate over the name of the more widely known Redskins — Washington’s NFL team. More than half the school’s 220 students eagerly accepted free tickets from the team for an Oct. 12 game near Phoenix, where they confronted Native American protesters who were there to condemn Washington’s moniker.

None of that mattered to the Red Mesa Redskins as they marched onto the field for their game against the Lobos of Many Farms High School. It was homecoming, and the players knew they needed to keep winning if they wanted to make their first appearance in the state playoffs in five years.

Red Mesa students, parents and alumni stamped the bleachers, clutching signs that read “Fear the Spear” and “Redskin Nation.”

Sitting in the front row, Superintendent Tommie Yazzie basked in the crowd’s festive mood and in the sight of the newly built football field, which cost nearly $400,000 in federal aid at a school that struggles to pay for computers and wheelchair-accessible bathrooms.

“This is one of the reasons why it’s so hard to change the name,” he said with a smile, trying to make his voice heard over the cheers. “I don’t find it derogatory. It’s a source of pride.”

‘Shame on them’

In the Four Corners area, where Red Mesa sits in northeastern Arizona, that pride is evident in the school’s lone sign advertising its existence off little-traveled Highway 160. The sign features a tall red post emblazoned with the word “Redskins” and the face of a Native American, an image that looks almost exactly like the Washington Redskins logo.

The digital display sign bearing the Red Mesa Redskins logo is near the high school. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The football players take a water break during practice Oct. 15 at Red Mesa High School. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Beyond Red Mesa’s campus is a national movement against that name and logo. Across the country and on Capitol Hill, Native American activists, lawmakers, civil rights leaders and sports commentators have denounced “Redskins” as deeply offensive — a position rejected by team owner Daniel Snyder, who contends that it honors Native Americans. He has vowed never to change the name.

One of the country’s most prominent anti-Redskins activists, Amanda Blackhorse, is the lead plaintiff in a legal case that threatens the Washington Redskins’ trademark protection. Blackhorse is a Navajo and lives about an hour’s drive from Red Mesa.

But most in the Red Mesa community dismiss Blackhorse’s cause, or barely know who she is.

“I don’t know what she means that it’s a racial slur,” said Mckenzie Lameman, 17, a junior who is Red Mesa’s student government president. “It’s not a racist slur if it originates from a Native American tribe. . . . It’s always used in the context of sports.”

There were 62 high schools in 22 states using the Redskins moniker last year, according to a project published by the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service. In addition to Red Mesa, two others are majority Native American: Wellpinit High School in Washington state and Kingston High School in Oklahoma.

At Red Mesa, there was excitement when students and faculty were offered tickets and transportation to the game between the Arizona Cardinals and the Washington Redskins. About 150 students and faculty signed up.

Blackhorse, who was organizing a protest of the name at the game, said she called a Red Mesa school official and urged him not to let his students be used as props by Washington’s team. “I told him they’d be mocked and treated as tokens and pawns,” Blackhorse said.

But the school participated anyway, because administrators thought the disadvantaged students would appreciate the opportunity to attend an NFL game.

“We just let [Blackhorse] talk,” said Al Begay, Red Mesa’s athletic director, sitting in his office. “This protest feels like it’s coming from one person.”

At the game, some Red Mesa students said they were taunted by protesters for wearing free Washington Redskins hats and T-shirts.

In one video posted on her Facebook page, Blackhorse stood outside the football stadium slamming Red Mesa’s administrators.

“We want to let our children know who are being used today,” she said, “that we are here for them. We are not going to disparage them . . . because they don’t know any better. The adults in that school should know better, and they are not informed of this issue — and shame on them for that,” Blackhorse told a large group of supporters, some holding signs with the Redskins logo and the words “Game Over.”

‘More important issues’

It is impossible to tell whether Blackhorse and other activists represent the views of most of the country’s 5.2 million Native Americans.

A 2004 Annenberg Public Policy Center poll that found nine out of 10 Native Americans were not offended by the Redskins name. But Blackhorse and others note that the survey is 10 years old and question its methodology. And they argue that if any Native Americans are offended by the name, it should be changed.

But outgoing Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly isn’t offended by the moniker and considers the controversy a “non-issue,” said Deswood Tome, Shelly’s special adviser.

“Changing a mascot’s name is not going to produce one job on the Navajo Nation,” Tome said, noting that the unemployment rate on the country’s largest Indian reservation is 60 percent.

Shelly, who lost his bid for another term in an August primary, generated a firestorm at the Washington-Arizona game by sitting next to Snyder and wearing a Redskins hat.

Red Mesa students paid little attention to the politics. They loved being at the NFL game, posing with former Redskins players in photos that turned up on pro-Redskins Facebook pages, and getting gift cards for popcorn and pizza.

“I just kept my head down,” said Kelvin Yazzie, a Red Mesa senior lineman who lives with his grandparents. “[The protesters] were calling me a sellout.”

His grandfather, Steven Benally, 55, a candidate for the Navajo Nation Tribal Council, pointed to the jug of water in their kitchen. Because his wife is a gifted-and-talented teacher at Red Mesa, they get to live on campus, but they can’t drink the tap water. It has been contaminated by high levels of arsenic and uranium, and everyone at the school and in nearby homes must drink bottled water.

“We have far more important issues to expend our energy on” than a team name, Benally said. “A lot of the buildings here are from the 1970s. Our grandson doesn’t even have a biology teacher. Tell Snyder we want a wellness center.”

Kelvin chimed in: “Or at least give us money for some clean water.”

‘Who are we?’

The day before their football game, Red Mesa’s students spent the first few hours of school building floats for a homecoming parade.

Their lives are isolated. The nearest major shopping mall is a 90-minute drive across flatlands filled with tumbleweeds and yucca. It takes some teens an hour to reach the school by bus. Most of the students qualify for free meals.

Inside the squat buildings, drinking fountains are wrapped in plastic with signs on the wall that say not to drink the water, which is contaminated. The school district spends tens of thousands of dollars annually on bottled water, said Yazzie, the superintendent.

Many of the students struggle academically. About two-thirds passed the state’s reading exams, but only 36 percent passed the math component. On the Arizona Report Card, which gives an overall letter grade to every high school in the state, Red Mesa received a D.

Amid so many problems, perhaps it’s not surprising that 88 percent of students and 71 percent of faculty members surveyed by the school this month favored keeping the Redskins name and mascot. On another question, 60 percent of students disagreed that Redskins is a slur, 7 percent said the word is offensive and one-third said they weren’t sure.

Or as Arlo Begay, a senior and wide receiver , put it as he and his teammate, Colin Friday, worked on their float: “There’s more important things to worry about than ‘Redskins.’ ”

Red Mesa High School freshman celebrate atop their homecoming float during a parade Oct. 16. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Students gather for lunch at Red Mesa High School on Oct. 15. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

As the pickup trucks with floats rolled across Red Mesa’s campus, the sophomore class president trailed behind on a horse marked “#Redskins.” A football player stood on a float and chanted over and over with the crowd, “Who are we? Redskins!” Parents on the parade route sold traditional fry bread piled with pinto beans and vegetables. Students on the floats threw candy onto the street, dancing to a Bobby Shmurda rap.

Wesley Cobb, the government teacher and one of the school’s few Redskins dissenters, walked alongside the floats and shook his head at what he regards as a celebration of a slur.

“The Washington Redskins is a profoundly racist name, and I think we as educators need to provide some history and context,” Cobb said, adding that it was “ridiculous” the school accepted the NFL tickets. “They think, if you take away Redskins, you take away our pride. Dan Snyder is a manipulator, big time.”

A Redskins triumph

It was 30-0 at halftime. The Red Mesa Redskins were defeating Many Farms, another Navajo Nation high school.

As free T-shirts and drinks were being tossed into the stands at halftime, the emcee introduced one of Red Mesa’s earliest graduates, Raymond Oldman, who had a story to tell. It was Oldman, a retired construction worker from Utah, who proposed that the school’s mascot be the Redskins when Red Mesa first opened, he told the crowd. His reason: He was a huge Washington Redskins fan.

Yazzie laughed at the other nicknames Oldman said were considered: Mavericks and Sand Devils.

“Mavericks, not bad,” the schools chief said. “Sand Devils? That’s a bit taboo.”

In the second half, the Redskins continued running up the score. When the clock signaled the game’s end, Red Mesa celebrated 14 quarters of keeping their opponents scoreless, sealing yet another blowout, 46-0, and bringing their record to 6-2. They hurried off the field, changed clothes and joined their families for a barbecue, where the same joke about their NFL namesake was repeated again and again:

At least these Redskins win.

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