VERONA, N.Y. — Ray Halbritter of the Oneida Indian Nation didn’t start the movement to change the name of the Washington Redskins, but the upstate New York tribal leader has turned up the heat.
Halbritter, who emerged as a leader in the effort with the tribe’s “Change the Mascot” campaign, heads a tribal delegation that is meeting in New York City with senior NFL executives Wednesday. While the Oneidas’ land and lucrative casino are about 300 miles north of the Redskins’ home field in Maryland, Halbritter is emphatic that the name is a racial slur to Indians everywhere.
“This was the word that was used against our people to push us on reservations — forced us on to reservations,” Halbritter told The Associated Press in an interview. “They took our children from our homes forcibly at gunpoint, calling us the r-word.”
The NFL team was already facing a fresh round of criticism when the Oneidas entered the fray this season with radio ads and a symposium at the same Washington hotel that hosted the league’s fall meeting.
Redskins owner Dan Snyder has called the name “a badge of honor” and said it won’t be changed.
But Halbritter believes keeping the discussion public will get more people thinking about the name’s hurtful implications. During a recent tour of Oneida territory and the blinking slot machines of their Turning Stone casino, Halbritter argued the 1,000-member tribe cannot rest on its own success when Indians are being told they’re “nothing more than a stereotype and a mascot.”
“There was a time when calling black people negroes was acceptable and respectable. It’s changed. This has changed,” Halbritter said.
If the Redskins ever issued a scouting report on the 63-year-old Indian leader, it might describe a veteran out of Harvard Law School who could pose a deep-pocketed threat, thanks to tribal assets built largely on gambling and selling gasoline and cigarettes.
Halbritter said he was fan of the team in the early 1970s when he was an iron worker in Washington. By 1975, he returned to Oneida territory, which was then little more than 32 acres with ramshackle trailers. To illustrate how mistreated the Oneidas were, Halbritter often mentions that a local fire company refused to answer the call for a fire that killed his aunt and uncle.
Halbritter soon became a tribal representative, and in 1993 he helped negotiate New York’s first legal Indian casino, which boosted the tribe’s fortunes significantly.
Over two decades, Turning Stone has grown into a sprawling resort complex with five golf courses, a spa, restaurants and a 21-story hotel tower jutting up from the rural flats. The tribe employs 4,500 people at the resort and other businesses, which includes 12 convenience stores and an animation studio.
The Oneidas do not reveal revenue figures, but information released by the state this May indicates net revenue on slot machines alone is expected to be $200 million next year.
Halbritter’s tenure has included periods of bitter divisions within the tribe, with opponents calling him dictatorial. One longtime critic, Danielle Schenandoah, claims Halbritter is “just buying publicity,” with the name-change campaign. Halbritter said the tribe backs his efforts.
Halbritter said he was inspired by students at nearby Cooperstown Central School, who convinced district officials this year to change the high school’s nickname from Redskins to Hawkeyes. Halbritter presented a $10,000 check to the district to help buy replacement sports jerseys.
Of course, change is a lot more complicated for an NFL team with a national following. Even as President Barack Obama recently said he would “think about changing” the name if he owned the team, many fans have rallied around a name they see as a tradition or a tribute. One keep-the-name petition started by lifelong fan Sean Boone on MoveOn.org had more than 2,400 signatures by Tuesday.
“It’s not something that to me is disrespectful. If anything, it means strength — the symbol of the Native American,” said Boone, a firefighter in Durham, N.C.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has said that it is ultimately Snyder’s call whether the team changes its name. And Snyder has said that will not happen.
Still, Halbitter said he sees a positive sign in merely taking the discussion straight to NFL officials.
“They’re now listening to us,” Halbritter said. “Were doing something now that they said couldn’t be done: Make an American Indian issue a national issue.”