NFL Franchise Channels Puritan Colonists

Peter d'Errico

The Washington Redskins new charity, "Original Americans Foundation" (OAF), tills ground tilled long ago by Puritan leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Team owner Dan Snyder, wittingly or not, is reinventing an old plow. He appointed (anointed?) a Cherokee sidekick, Gary Edwards, to help out as Chief Executive Officer.

I don't know if OAF has an official seal, but they can just borrow from the 1629 Massachusetts Puritans, whose seal—by permission of King Charles I—was a cartoon. As described by the Massachusetts Secretary of State, the seal "featured an Indian holding an arrow pointed down in a gesture of peace, with the words 'Come over and help us,'" in a text bubble coming out of his mouth.

Compare this cartoon seal with the way CEO Edwards explained his mission at OAF, as quoted by Jarrett Bell, in a column for USA Today: "I think we're supposed to help people, like the Bible says. I feel like Jesus has a tool in me, and he can make it happen. I'm thankful for that opportunity, and I'm going to do my best to help as many people as I can."

The "redskins" controversy thus reveals deep roots in the colonial invasion of the continent, and reaffirms the missionary commercial zeal that propelled that invasion.

The Massachusetts Secretary of State says the Puritan seal "emphasiz[ed] the missionary and commercial intentions of the original colonists." This fits right in with OAF's mission to provide cover for the National Football League (NFL) cash cow franchise that funds it. Snyder ranks right up there next to the Massachusetts Bay Company investors and their officials, like John Winthrop, author of the famous "City Upon a Hill" sermon.

We may yet be in for the spectacle of Snyder dressing up in Puritan costume and delivering Winthrop's sermon. After all, politicians from John Kennedy to Ronald Reagan have found ways to cloak themselves in its missionary rhetoric. It shouldn't be too hard for OAF to follow the practice.

As it turns out, the Puritan seal is available, with no copyright or permission fees—a real boon to OAF. The seal was used from 1629 to 1686, and again from 1689-1692, and has since been in disuse. There were three years when the Colony had legal problems with the English Crown, during which a different seal was used. It had two sides: one showing King James II with an Englishman and Indian kneeling in front of him, the other showing the lion and unicorn of the royal coat of arms.

Actually, if OAF wants to maximize its historical link to colonial ancestors, it can use both seals. In the second seal, Snyder could play the part of James II. A loyal NFL fan could play the Englishman. Edwards could take the part of the Indian. Imagine the possibilities for a whole new line of team memorabilia—sweatshirts, tee shirts, caps, the whole nine yards.

Snyder and his franchise are channeling the Puritans. A key element of the colonial mission process is absolute belief in one's own rightness, supported by an absolute belief that one's god is the only god, and that non-believers are on earth to be exploited and dominated. As the Bible says, "subdue [the earth]: and have dominion."

Some may take offense at this. But, as Dr. Albert M. Wolters, emeritus professor of religion at Redeemer University College in Ontario, states: "Everything in [the] opening section of the Bible… converges to highlight the importance of that one fundamental command given to mankind: 'Subdue the earth!'" He says, "The connection in the [Biblical] text between image and dominion is quite explicit…."

The Washington NFL franchise aims to subdue its critics and to have dominion over the cultural world. It aims to resist changes in that world, especially changes that reflect a different sensibility about people and names and discrimination. Snyder aims to be god-like (which is why he could so easily take the part played by King James II).

If we dig deeper into the role played by OAF CEO Edwards, the picture gets somewhat more unsettling, and yet also more revealing. Edwards is channeling the role of the converted Indian, the "heathen" who "sees the light." Converted Indians were a key part of the colonial movement. They served as examples on one side and as assistants on the other. In the process, they sometimes gained a measure of protection from the worst aspects of colonial violence.

Like the Indians who acted as scouts for the U.S. Army, like the Jews who helped the Nazis manage occupied territories, the converted Indians also pose an enigma: how can it be that the dominated assist the domination?

One answer is offered by the very nature of living as a dominated person in an occupied territory. Peter Brooks explored this in a recent essay about "The Strange Case of Paul de Man," a famous Yale professor of the humanities who was discovered to have cooperated with the Nazis in Belgium when he was a young man, writing articles for Nazi publications.

As Brooks puts it, de Man "made the grave mistake of looking to the German occupier as a force to revive the [Belgian] national spirit." In the controversy following the discovery of de Man's collaboration, his defenders resorted to explaining "the nuances of collaboration in the occupied country, the different degrees of complicity with an enemy." These "nuances" provide a way to understand "life under occupation…and the daily compromises of survival."

Brooks says the study of "the multiple faces of survival under…occupation" leads "not…to excuse, but rather to hold ourselves, as judges, to an ethical standard."

So, as "judges" of OAF, we must distinguish between its founder, Snyder, and its CEO Edwards. Snyder's stance is straightforward commercial gain. He owns a profitable business and wants to keep it that way. Only the threat of a loss of profit will deter him. Edwards' stance is that of someone living under occupation.

The colonial record demonstrates that Indians didn't become Christians in a vacuum. The personal beliefs of Indians under colonial occupation were affected, if not wholly determined, by the facts of that occupation. In the case of Massachusetts Bay Colony, the most infamous facts were the four-year-long Pequot War (1634-1638) and the three-year King Philip's War (1675-1678), in which even the "Praying Indians" were not spared. One measure of colonial violence is that Indian allies of the colonial forces were so horrified by the mass burning of the Pequots that they fled.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, when large numbers of Indians are Christians, and when the doctrine of "Christian Discovery" is still the basis of U.S. property law. It becomes pretty clear that for an Indian like Edwards, the "lesson learned" is that collaboration is the best route to success, and to survival. Edwards knows how to work with the occupiers. He was deputy assistant director of the U.S. Secret Service, and headed a nonprofit public service organization that advocates for Native American law enforcement officials. The fact that his nonprofit was cited for wrongdoing in a BIA contract only adds to the picture of someone who knows his way around the system.

Perhaps an awareness of OAF as an NFL version of Christian colonialism will help us see how much more needs to be done before we reach a "post-colonial" world.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.

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