Billy Mills: Redskins Name Calls to Mind 'Our Own Holocaust'

Brian Daffron

At this point in the NFL season, saying Daniel Snyder’s Washington football team has faced criticism is a gross understatement. With a current record of 3-6, the team is near the bottom of the NFC East; what's more, the organization is taking a hammering in the media for its continued use of a name defined by dictionaries as a racial slur. From commentary by Bob Costas to Oneida Nation radio spots calling for a team name change, the tide is turning against Washington in the court of public opinion. One of those calling for a change in the world athletic community is Oglala Lakota Olympic Gold Medalist Billy Mills. For Mills, the sports mascot “Redskins” is “among the most vulgar for us.” Mills participated in the demonstration in Minneapolis on Thursday night before the Redskins-Vikings game, and took a few moments to speak with ICTMN about the issue the following day.

From your own personal perspective, what were your reasons for joining the Minneapolis protest?

I think my reason is because it’s time to change. It’s time for America to move on.

It’s time for those individuals and those teams who think they’re honoring us to recognize that we bring honor to ourselves and our tribal nations. In honoring our tribal nations, we bring honor to America. I think it’s time for the owner of the Washington Redskins, for example, to bring honor to himself -- by changing the name of the Washington Redskins.

That’s not just the Washington team, but extending to other pro or college teams that have Native mascots?

Washington Redskins is among the most vulgar for us. You just look in the history books. In Minnesota and some of the other states, the tribes whose lands were in those states now, there were bounties paid. X number of dollars if you brought in a female scalp of a Redskin. X number of dollars if it were a child. X number of dollars if it were an adult man. That is part of our history, and that was part of the demise of 12 million to 23 million Indian people within the boundaries of the United States now. We have our own holocaust. We have to move beyond that.

Do you have plans to participate in any future protests of Washington?

No, I don’t. I think what has to happen is tribal leaders need to step up and make a voice. As a leader of a particular tribe, do you want your tribe to be a sports team mascot? Step up and say you do—if that’s what you want. If you don’t want it, then you need to take a stand.

If you had a chance to sit down with team owner Daniel Snyder, what do you think you would say?  

If he’s made the comments—I’ve never heard him make them, but I’ve read that he has made them—that he does that to honor us. Without understanding the journey of our country and the Holocaust that Native Americans have gone into—I think he’s in the wrong country making that comment. I think he needs to go to Germany and try to have, likewise, a team with a Jewish symbol as a mascot in Germany to say that’s to honor the Jews. That’s the only parallel that can be made. I would try to compare apples with apples and oranges to oranges.

What do you say to Native people who wear Cleveland Indians or Washington baseball caps, who continue to perpetuate those kind of images?

There’s already been studies made by the appropriate people with the background in psychology. There have been studies made to show how the various types of ways to portray Native people such as these mascots definitely have a detrimental effect on our young children. I might try to address it with those individuals.

What can Native people in high profile sports do to help support a name change in Washington?

It would be interesting to know what their opinions may be. They may be very comfortable having sports teams named after us. I don’t know what their opinion is. It would be interesting knowing what their opinion is but, more important than a few of our elite Native American athletes, I think it comes back down to our elected tribal officials. They’ve had an opportunity to speak collectively as elected officials of 567 federally recognized tribal nations. That would have a tremendous impact.