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October 10, 2013

In Debate Over Redskins’ Name

Whose Opinion Matters Most?


AP National Writer

The name of a certain pro football team in Washington, D.C., has inspired protests, hearings, editorials, lawsuits, letters from Congress, even a presidential nudge. Yet behind the headlines, it’s unclear how many Native Americans think ``Redskins’’ is a racial slur.

Perhaps this uncertainty shouldn’t matter, because the word has an undeniably racist history, or because the team says it uses the word with respect, or because in a truly decent society, some would argue, what hurts a few should be avoided by all.

But the thoughts and beliefs of native people are the basis of the debate over changing the team name. And looking across the breadth of Native America, with 2 million Indians enrolled in 566 federally recognized tribes, plus another 3.2 million who tell the Census they are Indian, it’s difficult to tell how many are opposed to the name.

The controversy has peaked in the last few days. President Barack Obama said Saturday he would consider getting rid of the name if he owned the team, and the NFL took the unprecedented step Monday of promising to meet with the Oneida Indian Nation, which is waging a national ad campaign against the league.

What gets far less attention, though, is this:

There are Native American schools that call their teams Redskins. The term is used affectionately by some natives, similar to the way the N-word is used by some African-Americans. In the only recent poll to ask native people about the subject, 90 percent of respondents did not consider the term offensive, although many question the cultural credentials of the respondents.

All of which underscores the oft-overlooked diversity within Native America. ``Marginalized communities are too often treated monolithically,’’ said Carter Meland, a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota.

``Stories on the mascot issue always end up exploring whether it is right or it is wrong, respectful or disrespectful,’’ said Meland, an Ojibwe Indian.

He believes Indian mascots are disrespectful, but said: ``It would be interesting to get a sense of the diversity of opinion within a native community.’’

Those communities vary widely. Tommy Yazzie, superintendent of the Red Mesa school district on the Navajo Nation reservation, grew up when Navajo children were forced into boarding schools to disconnect them from their culture. Some were punished for speaking their native language. Today, he sees environmental issues as the biggest threat to his people.

The high school football team in his district is the Red Mesa Redskins.

``We just don’t think that (name) is an issue,’’ Yazzie said. ``There are more important things like busing our kids to school, the water settlement, the land quality, the air that surrounds us. Those are issues we can take sides on.’’

``Society, they think it’s more derogatory because of the recent discussions,’’ Yazzie said. ``In its pure form, a lot of Native American men, you go into the sweat lodge with what you’ve got—your skin. I don’t see it as derogatory.’’

Neither does Eunice Davidson, a Dakota Sioux who lives on the Spirit Lake reservation in North Dakota. ``It more or less shows that they approve of our history,’’ she said. North Dakota was the scene of a similar controversy over the state university’s Fighting Sioux nickname. It was decisively scrapped in a 2012 statewide vote, after the Spirit Lake reservation voted in 2010 to keep it.

Davidson said that if she could speak to Dan Snyder, the Washington team owner who has vowed never to change the name, ``I would say I stand with him . we don’t want our history to be forgotten.’’

In 2004, the National Annenberg Election Survey asked 768 people who identified themselves as Indian whether they found the name ``Washington Redskins’’ offensive. Almost 90 percent said it did not bother them.

But the Indian activist Suzan Shown Harjo, who has filed a lawsuit seeking to strip the ``Redskins’’ trademark from the football team, said the poll neglected to ask some crucial questions. ``Are you a tribal person? What is your nation? What is your tribe? Would you say you are culturally or socially or politically native?’’ Harjo asked. Those without such connections cannot represent native opinions, she said.

Indian support for the name ``is really a classic case of internalized oppression,’’ Harjo said. ``People taking on what has been said about them, how they have been described, to such an extent that they don’t even notice.’’ Harjo declines to estimate what percentage of native people oppose the name. But she notes that the many organizations supporting her lawsuit include the Cherokee, Comanche, Oneida and Seminole tribes, as well as the National Congress of American Indians, the largest intertribal organization, which represents more than 250 groups with a combined enrollment of 1.2 million.

``The `Redskins’ trademark is disparaging to Native Americans and perpetuates a centuries-old stereotype of Native Americans as `blood-thirsty savages,’ `noble warriors’ and an ethnic group `frozen in history,’’’ the National Congress said in a brief filed in the lawsuit.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary says the term is ``very offensive and should be avoided.’’ But like another infamous racial epithet, the N-word, it has been redefined by some native people as a term of familiarity or endearment, often in abbreviated form, according to Meland, the Indian professor. ``Of course, it is one thing for one `skin to call another `skin a `skin, but it has entirely different meaning when a non-Indian uses it,’’ Meland said in an email interview.

It was a white man who applied it to this particular football team: Owner George Preston Marshall chose the name in 1932 partly to honor the head coach, William ``Lone Star’’ Dietz, who was known as an Indian. ``The Washington Redskins name has thus from its origin represented a positive meaning distinct from any disparagement that could be viewed in some other context,’’ NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in June to 10 members of Congress who challenged the name.

Marshall, however, had a reputation as a racist. He was the last NFL owner who refused to sign black players, the federal government forced him to integrate in 1962 by threatening to cancel the lease on his stadium. When he died in 1969, his will created a Redskins Foundation but stipulated that it never support ``the principle of racial integration in any form.’’

And Dietz, the namesake Redskin, may not have even been a real Indian. Dietz served jail time for charges that he falsely registered for the draft as an Indian in order to avoid service. According to an investigation by the Indian Country Today newspaper, he stole the identity of a missing Oglala Sioux man. Now, 81 years into this jumbled identity tale, the saga seems to finally be coming to a head. The NFL’s tone has shifted over the last few months, from defiance to conciliation.

``If we are offending one person,’’ Goodell, the NFL commissioner, said last month, ``we need to be listening.’’

‘Appearance Isn’t Everything’ & Model Finds Attention ‘Creepy’


The (Champaign) News-Gazette

Tolono, IL (AP) Rachael Luesse says her job as a high-fashion model in Milan, Paris, New York and Cape Town is far less glamorous than most people assume.

``People think it’s so cool, and it is. I love the travel,’’ the Champaign County native said earlier this month, shortly before leaving for Milan Fashion Week.

``But it’s really hard work and long days and lots of learning from big mistakes. Nobody teaches you. There’s no handbook. It’s kind of `mess up and learn as you go.’’’

In an unregulated industry, the work is often rigorous, too: Luesse once passed out while modeling a long fur coat at a tennis court in South Africa.

So far, though, she’s never had to go to hospital in a foreign country; one model she knows had to after drinking poisoned water during a shoot in the Sahara.

While working in a foreign city, Luesse shares a two- or three-bedroom apartment with four or five other models. Most of them don’t speak English, or if they do, not very well.

And Luesse feels basically alone when in another country because she’s not fluent in any foreign language. She tries to be careful about where she goes, especially at night, and to avoid compromising situations.

Numbers add up

Despite what most people think, she’s not making loads of money. She might make $20,000 in six months and nothing the next six months.

And, of course, the pressure to remain thin is constant; Luesse has to send her body measurements monthly to her four agencies, one for each city in which she works.

Rachael and her brother Aaron

How does she remain model thin? That’s usually the first question people ask her.

``Genetics. All genetics. Totally. I’ve gotten so lucky. Even the girls in other countries I work in ask me, `How do you eat what you eat?’ When I have to stay very thin, at the top of my game, I cut out bread and starches.’’

Despite all the rigors of her job, Luesse acknowledges she has gone places and had experiences she would likely never have had otherwise.

In Africa, she’s climbed the epic Table Mountain and swum with great white sharks off the coast. In Rome, she was blessed by the newly anointed Pope Francis and visited the ancient Coliseum.

For now, Luesse is rolling with what comes her way. The daughter of two educators, she seems to have a good head on her shoulders, in more ways than one.

She’s operating with a backup plan. Because her mother, Shelle Hartzell of Sadorus, teaches math at Lake Land College, Luesse takes Lake Land classes online for free.

She’s working toward a bachelor’s degree in business, with a focus on marketing. After modeling is no longer fun or jobs aren’t coming her way, she will work on a master’s degree.

But for now, she has the look that’s in.

``My look is working right now. That androgynous look is huge right now,’’ the model said. ``It’s definitely a strange type of beauty.’’

In fact, super-slim male models with androgynous appearances are modeling women’s couture. Likewise, some female models showcase men’s fashions.


That recent trend makes modeling even more competitive. Now Luesse sees thousands of aspiring female and male models pouring into cities like Milan during Fashion Week, seeking work.

Most models, except for supermodels, don’t leave home for Fashion Week with jobs already in hand. They have to compete for them.

While in Milan this past week, Luesse went to 15 or 16 castings a day. She waits for 90 minutes or more in a line of 120 models. They’re at the mercy of designers who like or don’t like their look.

``You’re judged completely on your appearance. That’s the only thing that matters,’’ Luesse said. ``It really messes with the 15- or 16-year-old models. It messes with me occasionally.’’

Luesse accepts those aspects of her job but acknowledges she finds them and the fact her appearance attracts so much attention ``creepy.’’

For example, in South Africa, because of her height—6 feet 2 inches—and blonde hair, she’s considered a goddess. In big cities, especially Cape Town, a vacation hot spot for wealthy Europeans, she’s invited to billionaires’ parties because she’s a model.

She enjoys the events for a while but eventually escapes them when she feels uncomfortable with the wealthy older men, old enough to be her father, who want to be surrounded by young models.

``Your appearance isn’t something that reflects who you are,’’ she said. ``It’s just part of who you are. I’d much rather be told, `You’re funny and smart.’’’ (She is.)

On the job

So far Luesse’s image hasn’t ended up on magazine covers. Those likely will come her way because she’s smart, funny and charming, in addition to good looking.

She’s been featured in a number of overseas magazine spreads, and famed designer Giorgio Armani in Milan handpicked her to walk his Prive line in Paris and Rome.

That’s been her favorite job so far; Armani treats his models well, she said. (Luesse mentioned the Canadian model Coca Rocha’s having started The Model Alliance to unionize the work force.)

In Cape Town, South African couturier Hendrik Vermeulen also fell in love with Luesse. She’s modeled for that firm including at the Veuve Clicquot Masters Polo tournament earlier this year at the Val de Vie estate in the Paarl Valley.

``Being a traditionally English sport, there are a few polo rules which I have to say are lost on the South African market,’’ one blogger wrote. ``Hendrik Vermeulen international model and muse Rachael Luesse ticked all the boxes. She was elegant and poised all day as if in character on a movie set. Beautiful!’’

Also in Cape Town, Luesse for the past year was the ``face’’ of Foschini, a department store. She freaked out the first time she walked into a Foschini and saw a billboard-size image of herself.

``It was strange, to be honest. The whole thing is kind of surreal,’’ she said.

As for Cape Town itself, it’s her favorite place to work. She was 18 when she first landed in the city. Being from rural Champaign County, she was astonished by the ``genuine, tragic homelessness’’ and the slums she saw.

She loves Cape Town and South Africa, even though Internet use is limited and texting is expensive.

But, ``When you’re there you’re able to make these genuine connections with people. It’s not beautiful per se, but it’s definitely real.’’

Her travels, especially to South Africa, also have given her a perspective most people her age don’t share.

``It’s insanity how easy it is to live in the United States,’’ she said. ``Everything is so convenient, 24/7.’’


Luesse grew up in Champaign and Sadorus, a tiny town south of Champaign, never dreaming of being a model. At Unity High School, from which she graduated in 2011, she was not considered ``super pretty.’’

``In high school I wasn’t the hot girl,’’ she said. ``I was kind of the nerd. I did a lot of school things,’’ among them the dance team and National Honor Society.

During her senior year, even though she had gone through nearly two dozen surgeries when younger and had almost died, due to having had Kawasaki disease and later a ruptured appendix, the surgery-phobic Luesse had elective surgery, to remove a birthmark on her cheek.

The teasing she had taken for the birthmark had been constant.

``Even when I was a kid people would drive by and yell things out the window about it,’’ she said. ``It got to the point where I didn’t want to go places in public.

``It was awful when I was younger. I just wanted to be done with it.’’

Six months after having the birthmark removed, a scout from Factor Women, a modeling agency in Chicago, walked into Le Peep, the Champaign restaurant where Luesse was working at the time.

The agent asked Luesse whether she modeled and then gave her her email and told her to contact her and send her photographs.

``It’s strange when you send in your photographs for the first time,’’ Luesse said. ``You measure yourself while wearing a bikini. I asked my mom to do it, and she said, `This is creepy.’ She finally managed to do it.’’

After seeing the photographs, Factor Women asked to meet Luesse. The agency immediately offered her a contract, when she was a high school senior.

She signed a couple of weeks later, in early 2011. That summer she went to New York and signed with Wilhemina, long a top agency for models.

She began building her portfolio, meeting first with photographers to have her pictures take and then taking jobs. But she was still undecided about modeling.

So she entered Southern Illinois University that fall as a freshman political science major. Two weeks later, her father, Joel, was seriously injured in an automobile accident. She came home to help him recuperate.

The call

Her father, a Spanish teacher at Unity High School, recovered. Six months later, an agency called to tell Luesse she’d been offered a job in South Africa. She decided to go for it.

She soon discovered in Cape Town and the other cities where she works that as a model, she was able to get into top clubs and parties. Drugs are free for models, even pushed at them, she said.

Luesse admitted she found partying cool.

At first.

``But you get over it fast.’’

She’s seen younger models get caught up in the frenzy.

When she first got into the industry Luesse was a little older and more grounded, with a supportive family back home. It includes her only sibling, younger brother Aaron, whom she considers her best friend.

Aaron is as tall as his sister and shares her good looks; her modeling agencies have offered him contracts, too.

``As for now, he’s opting out,’’ she said.

When she comes home, Luesse shares an apartment in Tolono with Aaron, their father and their dog, Ellie.She tries to return home three or four times a year to spend time with family and friends, among them those she’s made at the places she worked: Bacaro, the Sadorus Pub, Jarling’s Custard Cup and Curtis Orchard.

Maybe because she’s worked at so many places here and due to word of mouth, the international model so far is recognized on the streets of Champaign-Urbana more than anywhere else in the world.

``I have people come up to me and say, `Are you that model?’ It’s sweet. It’s weird, too, because I have people send me through Facebook pictures of their children, asking whether they could model.’’

That’s not up to her to decide, she said.


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