This past Friday, I was sitting in the backyard of a cheap dive bar, enjoying a round of drinks with new acquaintances. After about 30 minutes and a few rounds of drinks, while my partner was at the bar, one of the people asked me what I do. Informing her that I cover Indigenous issues as a reporter and am an enrolled member of the Sappony Tribe, I exhaled deeply as I listened to what’s become a familiar response: I, too, am Native American, she said.
Her great-grandmother, she said, was part of the Seminole Tribe, or had some Seminole in her. Regardless, she informed me that she claimed representation, “because why not.” She had no affiliation or relationship with the tribe, and yet all the same, in her eyes, she was Native, too.
I would be an obscenely wealthy individual if I was compensated every time this exact interaction has played out in my short life’s worth of conversations. I shouldn’t have been surprised when, the following morning, I read the opening words of Washington Post writer Theresa Vargas’s Friday column:
The majority of Native Americans still aren’t offended by the name of the Washington Redskins.
In the following paragraphs, Vargas unpacked the responses to the team name—one she called “a dictionary-defined slur, whether or not 10 percent of Native Americans or 50 percent of your co-workers or your favorite aunt acknowledge it.” What she didn’t do was question the poll itself.
In May 2016, the Post released its own poll, following years of debate over the team’s name. It found nine out of ten Native Americans were not offended—a result which effectively killed the renaming discussion among non-Natives, and earned the Post vituperative criticism on the left and from Indigenous communities. Vargas, as she wrote in her Friday column, was surprised at the poll’s findings then, and surprised again now to find 68 percent of the new poll’s respondents, offered a list of emotions that might describe their reaction to the name, did not choose negative ones.
The latest poll was conducted by the polling firm Wolvereye, whose CEO, Ryan Baum, reportedly reached out to Vargas to share their findings. Wolvereye appears to be a relatively new company—its Facebook page was created in 2017, and, as of Monday evening, the sole post on its website was a brief summation of the R-word poll, with a link to the Post article that so quickly deemed its work passable. The company hangs its hat on its ability to “Identify the emotional DNA structure of...” things like “brands” and “categories” and “experiences.”
Given the criticism the Post faced following its 2016 poll, non-Native readers may have been unsurprised to peruse this update apparently ratifying the paper’s initial findings. For those familiar with Indigenous issues, however, there’s a glaring problem with the latest study—the same problem the Post’s own poll had. The respondents in both polls were drawn from the vast pool of Americans who “self-identify” as Native Americans, like my new drinking buddy. Additionally, and just as problematically, Wolvereye did not make its full methodology available to the Post or its readers—unlike the original Post poll, which acknowledged, albeit not very prominently, that only 36 percent of interviewees said they were actually enrolled in a tribe.
The presence of either of these facts should serve as an immediate red flag. Instead, neither of those massive inadequacies were deemed vital information—the revelation that poll participants were allowed to self-identify as Native in the latest poll and the 2016 one did not appear until the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth paragraphs, respectively.
The issue of non–tribe members claiming identity has troubled the Native community for decades. Dealing with everyday conversations like the one I encountered on Friday and reading columns like the one the Post published is insulting and tiring, yes. But more so, as Americans at large are (extremely slowly) figuring out, this national pastime—of non-Natives claiming what is most certainly not theirs—is also supremely harmful in a financial sense to the nearly 600 sovereign nations and hundred-plus state-recognized tribes that have survived and thrived post-colonization.
These imposters stretch back as far as history has been able to catch them. Just over a month ago, the Los Angeles Times published a groundbreaking report that methodically displayed how corporations operated by people falsely claiming to be Cherokee Nation citizens have drained $300 million in government contracts set aside for Native-run businesses. Author David Grann’s hit 2017 book, Killers of the Flower Moon, recently optioned by director Martin Scorsese, documented non-Native individuals’ calculated and financially motivated marriage to and then murder of citizens of the Osage Nation over a century ago, for the purposes of stealing the oil on their land.
The conceit that the routine practice of claiming Native-ness is largely harmless and that most people bar themselves from spreading such falsities is an indefensible lie. And yet, in the pages of one of America’s largest and most widely read newspapers, the practice is implicitly endorsed when a poll based on such self-identification—with the details of the methodology maddeningly omitted—is left largely unquestioned.
Dr. Adrienne Keene, an assistant professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies at Brown University and longtime operator of the blog Native Appropriations, compiled a list starting in 2014 that has since grown to boast the signatures of over 7,000 tribally affiliated Native people with internet access who oppose the use of the slur “Redskins” as a team name.
Out of the five million Natives that live in the United States, that’s a small fraction. But the team’s name and the flawed Post and Wolverye polls have also been opposed by the Native American Journalists Association (of which I am a member) and the National Congress of American Indians. And even in the Wolvereye poll, the breakdown of responses undermines the alleged takeaway that “68 percent of the respondents were not offended by the team’s name.” While 37 percent of respondents said the Washington team name makes them feel “proud,” for example, 34 percent said it left them “annoyed.”
Personally, I think all halfway decent publications and news programs should have ceased publishing and uttering the slur in all of their coverage—no matter what the NFL allows—years ago. In the absence of that, though, is basic poll vetting too much for Native people to ask for?