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Inside the Washington Redhawks internet hoax, and the latest fight to eliminate a racial slur

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An internet hoax fooled the internet into believing the Washington football team had changed its racist name. Now that the movement has your attention, it has a lot to say.

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Teko Alejo

LANDOVER, Md. — In the middle of a traffic island adjacent to old RFK Stadium in Washington, five protesters are continuing a demonstration that began online and shocked the football news cycle last week.

Native American advocates created a series of fake websites — designed to look like the websites of the Washington football team, The Washington Post, ESPN, and others — to announce that Washington had changed its football team name to the Redhawks. The fakes were so good that dozens of reporters and hundred of fans were fooled into believing — if only briefly — that Washington had stunningly had a change of heart.

One of the fake websites announcing that the Washington football team had changed its name to the Redhawks.

Native American advocates have spent years watching litigation, protests, and petitions fail to sway Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington football team. They have distributed academic studies showing how the current team name hurts Native American self-esteem, and surveys showing that many Native Americans feel the word is offensive. Nothing has changed.

Could you blame them for trying something more outlandish?

“We got forth a message that non-native people needed to hear,” Rebecca Nagle, an organizer and Cherokee Nation native, said.

There were seven primary Native American advocates on the planning committee for the hoax: Nagle (Cherokee Nation), Sebastian Medina-Tayac (Piscataway), Valarie Marie Proctor (Cedarville Band of Piscataway), Jair Carrasco, (Aymara), Lindsay Rodriguez (Cheyenne Arapaho), Jordan Marie Daniel (Kul Wicasa Oyate), and Nick Courtney (Makah).

They started working on the project in September with Rising Hearts, a woman-led coalition that has organized on behalf of Native American issues in Washington and nationwide. The group began by doing a social network analysis. It targeted online users with massive followers to quickly spread a national message.

This wasn’t a slapped-together social movement that luckily went viral. Organizers began meeting on a weekly basis either by telephone conference or in-person in September. They started photoshopping “Redhawks” images in October. They bought patents for fake websites in November. Throughout the day — beginning on the morning of Wednesday, Dec. 13 — they stayed on the phone to check on organizers’ safety, making sure they didn’t receive any threats, and deciding on the perfect time to reveal themselves as the people behind the ploy.

Teko Alejo

The demonstration took place during a season in which the NFL failed to reckon with protests started by Colin Kaepernick and inflamed by the rhetoric of Donald Trump.

“We’re seeing a new rise of white supremacy and we’re seeing it being challenged in new ways,” Nagle said. “A lot of people are done with people like Dan Snyder, like Trump, who want to hold onto these relics of racism, and it’s time for those relics to fall.”

For the Native American protesters, their fight against white-owned businesses using racist Native American stereotypes has a long historical precedent.

“We stand on the shoulders of giants. We are not the first to advocate for a name change,” Nicholas Courtney, an organizer from Tacoma, Wash., and a descendant of the Makah tribe, said. “I wish I could say that I wholeheartedly believe this will be the last.”

“Far from an honor, the team’s name is the worst thing we are called in the English language,” Suzan Harjo, a Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee woman said. Harjo, along with six other Native Americans, filed a petition with the Patent and Trademark Office in 1992 asking to revoke the team’s six federal trademark registrations because Washington’s team name disparages Native Americans.

The exact etymology of “Redskin” as a slur is unknown, even to linguists and ethicists. The word’s existence, however, keeps the memory of skinning, scalping, and killing native children, women, and men alive in pro football. It is an extension of America’s ugly past to its present.

“The entireness of the word came from economic advantage,” Jay Nightwolf, an elder who spoke during the protest, said. “So are we still to be hunted and scalped today?”

According to Harjo, the white world’s depiction of natives in athletics, the idea that folks are honoring Native Americans, is “enough to make a giraffe laugh.”

“Regarding their claim that the name is not offensive: It’s up to the offended, not the offender, to say what is offensive and what offends,” Harjo said. “It is grossly arrogant for offending white men to tell us what hurts and what does not, but that was their case: We’re not offending, we’re honoring you.”

Teko Alejo

Walking along Arena Drive at FedEx Field hours before Washington plays one of its last home games, the Washington football team logo is inescapable. There are logos on cars, on jackets, on hats, and grills — any and everywhere.

At the same time, activists pressed on during their rally at the intersection of Jericho and Arena. People purchased merchandise while natives yelled “change the name, change the logo” within earshot. Before the day began, Nagle said that her group received online threats hinting that they could experience violence if they protested.

When protesters sang “Hail to the Redhawks” instead of “Hail to the Redskins,” a callback to their internet campaign, white onlookers tried to sing louder than them. Other white bystanders video taped them with smartphones and mocked their drum circles with jeers. More yelled “Redskins” in the direction of the protesters.

Peter Landeros, a member of the Yaqui Tribe of Arizona who now lives in Oakridge, Md., watched with disgust. He was assisting with security during the day, keeping peace between overlooking officers and his people.

“Everyone who talks about this always says it isn’t the right time or right place, but how do you confront racism?” he said to me. “You have to face it head on.”

Landeros has been doing much of the peace-making, but he was still been angered by the rebukes.

“It’s not OK for me as an indigenous person to walk up to an African-American person and say ‘What’s up, nigga.’ I expect to get punched in the face,” he said. “So, why is it OK for someone to walk up to me and say ‘What’s up Redskin?’ It’s not. I’ma punch you in the face. It’s the same thing.”

For Nagle and others, being there is also about reminding Washington fans that just because genocide occurred, it does not mean that Native Americans have ceased to exist.

“The mascot drives that point home,” Nagle said. “The only place this is OK is in a place where people don’t believe [we] are alive anymore.”

As the game began, the protesters made a circle and began a war chant of pride. Their drums banged in unison, their cries loud. Before the circle ended, Nightwolf walked to a Prince George’s County police car. He shook the hand of a white cop and thanked him for protecting them from the nastiness around them. Nightwolf then lit a cigarette and walked toward a fence, looking at the last of the white folks mocking the display.

I walked over to Nightwolf and asked why he felt the need to thank the officer.

“He’s our brother, too,” he said. “Skin color isn’t an issue with us. We have a problem with what’s in your heart. We have a problem with white intentions.”

Then he flicked his cig and walked back toward the native music behind him as passing fans started another “Hail to the Redskins” chant.

Nightwolf looked back and smiled.

“Let me get outta here,” he said. “Before I start some trouble.”