the “Original Americans” and Self-Serving Philanthropy

Last August, I wrote a piece on “The Fascination and Frustration with Native American Mascots” for the Society Pages.  I wrote about how sporting clubs’ used Native American names, imagery, and metaphors as a vehicle for identification. I drew lines from the historical roots of mascotry, through its racialization in the early twentieth century, and explored how their continued use have very real consequences for contemporary Native peoples. I’m not the first to do so—you can check out the great work being done by Native and Non-Natives on this topic in the recommended reading section of that article.

Last night, my inbox lit up with notices about a new charity, promoted by the National Football League and Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington football franchise. Effective March 25th, the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation will spring into existence. In the full-text letter,  Snyder outlines the four month effort to visit 26 reservations in the US to talk to tribal leaders and community members about “the views, attitudes, and experiences of the Tribes. We were invited into their homes, their Tribal Councils, and their communities to learn more about the extraordinary daily challenges in their lives.”

From those visits and a “survey” conducted of 100 reservations, Snyder set up a foundation. Its mission is “provide meaningful and measurable resources that provide genuine opportunities for Tribal communities. With open arms and determined minds, we will work as partners to begin to tackle the troubling realities facing so many tribes across our country. Our efforts will address the urgent challenges plaguing Indian country based on what Tribal leaders tell us they need most. We may have created this new organization, but the direction of the Foundation is truly theirs.”

I’m sure, somewhere here in DC, a PR firm got its wings with the creation of this foundation: an extremely wealthy white businessman spends four months visiting some reservations, learns something that anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to Native peoples have known for decades, and suddenly thinks “I can make a difference here.” That difference-making though comes with some very clear perks—positive PR for the franchise and (most importantly) a seemingly impenetrable wall of philanthropy that just so happens to increase the organization’s tax deductions. While the deduction is probably a drop in the bucket, the PR value is priceless. And for those paying attention, so much of the language in Snyder’s letter could have been drawn from federal speeches and policies in the post-Dawes period about how the Government was going to help Native peoples…I’m pretty sure many tribes are still waiting for that help from the BIA, Department of Interior, Congress, and the White House. But Dan Snyder’s foundation is going to fix these problems, folks.

In an alliance with an organization (the NFL) that is facing very real challenges to its racial and gendered hazing of athletes, Snyder’s just pulled a classic move made popular by corporations in the 1980s who destroyed the environment, in the 1990s who used child-labor, and the 00s by those who outsourced their work to low-paid workers in foreign-countries (Coca-Cola, Nike, and the Big Three automobile makers for those following along). He created a charitable campaign, threw what will likely be less than .1% of his income into it, and strengthened a rhetorical defense that his franchise (and the NFL) have invested millions in–we are the people’s sport—close your eyes and ignore the billion dollar elephant in the room. Those companies knew they were in trouble and they used the profits they created to attempt to repair public faith in their businesses….because they saw the writing on the wall.  NFL and its teams have a problem with race and gender and this is yet another attempt to wave a wand to distract us from the systemic and very public ways in which race is used for corporate profit.

It also doesn’t surprise me that Snyder’s understanding of Native peoples could be summed up in a few bullet points wrapped in quotations from some folks he met on his trip. There are 550-federally recognized tribes in the US. And even more Natives who aren’t on the Dawes rolls: What about those Natives? How does Snyder’s new Foundation help them? Does Dan Snyder even know that many Natives don’t live on reservations?

It is great that Snyder wants to work with Native peoples—but why now? It doesn’t surprise me that Snyder is establishing this foundation in the weeks following decisions by Trademark attorneys limiting the use of Redskins on new products. It also doesn’t surprise me that rather than donating money directly to existing foundations, Snyder is wrapping his work up in his own brand. He’s got forty projects, folks. Forty. That’s forty more than he had four months ago—and what do we know about those forty?

Well, we’ll have to wait for the details. Just like we have to wait to know how the foundation will be governed, how much money it will donate, how projects will be created and staffed, and whether the foundation will use its own money or work to generate new revenues from other donors. But we know a foundation exists….and it is “their” [Native’s] foundation. I’m guessing Snyder isn’t sharing the PR or the tax-breaks with his Native partners.

Right now, we’ve got just enough information to come to the conclusion that Snyder’s might be doing some good work—but not enough information to actually know whether this is a sustained, genuine effort or just another in a long line of corporate manuevering that, while it might do some local good, doesn’t even begin to address the continuing harm Snyder’s organization (and NFL and MLB) continue to do in promoting racialized narratives, stereotypes, and imagery that harm Native childrens’ self-worth.

I’d respect this so much more if Snyder wasn’t attempting to brand this, promote this, or even speak publicly about it. Every single thing his foundation wants to accomplish could have been done without the publicity and fanfare. It could have been done through anonymous donations, private partnerships, etc. But then, that probably would have defeated the purpose of the Foundation, wouldn’t it?





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