Hope arrived in a private jet. By the time the aircraft with the Washington Redskins' Indian-head logo on its tail landed in New Mexico, the tribal council of the Pueblo of Zuni was ready to greet its prominent visitor.
Daniel Snyder, the owner of one of the NFL's most profitable football franchises, had asked to see firsthand the struggles of the tribe living amid red-hued mesas. To do that, he needed to see this: A cracked indoor swimming pool that had teemed with children and the elderly before it was condemned about three years ago. A swath of reservation land that had been set aside for hotels and restaurants that were never built because the funding didn't match the dream. A wellness center where a Zumba class was about to start — one way the community is fighting an alarming diabetes rate.
The remote location of the Zuni Pueblo has both preserved the rich culture of a place where the majority of the 11,000 residents are artists and fueled its financial distress. The reservation, which lies about 35 miles south of Gallup, has no casino and, like many American Indian communities, has seen federal and state funding dwindle as needs have increased.
“It was okay for a while, but the deficit has taken away a lot of the benefits we used to have,” Zuni Lt. Gov. Steve Boone said in a recent interview. “I think private entities or corporations could help.”
Or a billionaire football team owner. Boone said Zuni leaders welcomed the chance to give Snyder a tour several weeks ago. Until the sun faded, they spoke to him about where they had been as a community and where they hope to go.
What they didn't do was discuss what had brought Snyder there: the pressure to change the team's name, which is being led by Native American leaders who consider it a racial slur.
As the push for a name change picks up support from new groups and bold-faced names by the week, the team's management has been vocal about not dropping the 81-year-old moniker, citing tradition and evidence that most Native Americans aren't offended by the word.
The team's strategy to address the issue, however, goes far beyond its few public statements, according to interviews with team executives, people who know Snyder and Native Americans across the nation. Behind the scenes, Snyder and team officials have taken more than a dozen unpublicized trips to Indian Country, Redskins spokesman Tony Wyllie acknowledged. They wanted to see for themselves what some people view as an issue far more pressing than the name of a football team: a population struggling with poverty, disease and substance abuse at rates higher than any other group in the nation.
The team could soon make a financial gesture to address some of these problems, including selling popcorn from a South Dakota tribe at the games. The move, like the name debate itself, promises to draw praise and criticism from the community that has the most at stake: Native Americans.
The Zunis haven't joined the chorus of tribal leaders condemning the team name, and Boone wasn't sure what prompted Snyder to pick their tribe to visit.
“We just appreciate him for coming and visiting us and seeing our point of view,” he said. No promises were made that day, only an indication that Snyder and the team might be back in touch. “Hopefully,” Boone said.
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One day last month, a group of African-American and Latino leaders stood with their backs to FedEx Field and vowed to fight with Native Americans for a name change. But fans were offered a different perspective at the game that night.
During a break, four Navajo Code Talkers walked onto the field, three sporting Redskins jackets. The team had invited the revered veterans — who during World War II transmitted critical battlefield messages in a code based on their complex and little-known language — and as the men waved to a cheering crowd, a tribute video played overhead. It ended with Peter MacDonald, president of the Navajo Code Talkers Association, saying, “Hail to the Redskins! Go, Redskins! Let's do it!”
Afterward, critics on Twitter and elsewhere described the code talkers as props. Navajo Nation Councilman Joshua Lavar Butler condemned what he called team officials' “antics to use our beloved and cherished Navajo Heroes as pawns in their Public Relations battle to perpetuate this indignity and ignorance.”
Regardless of how it was received, the event offered visible proof of what franchise officials have been saying all along: Plenty of Native Americans stand with the team.
After Snyder wrote a letter to fans in October describing the name as a “badge of honor,” thousands of supportive emails poured in, including hundreds from Native Americans, Wyllie said. Those emails have been collected in a binder that Snyder and Redskins General Manager Bruce Allen have taken to meetings. In one, Allen Zuekle, whose grandmother was Cherokee, writes: “I love having the Redskins name on a team with such pride. We have been forgotten in so many other ways.”
Team executives often point to a nine-year-old poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center showing that 90 percent of Native Americans were not offended by the franchise's name. Proof that support still exists can be found in the rolling quotes that appear on the “Fan Zone” page of the team's website. Two belong to Eunice Davidson, a Dakota Sioux who pushed — unsuccessfully — to keep the Fighting Sioux mascot at the University of North Dakota.
She sees the battle over the word Redskins as not much different. “I think it's going to come to a point where political correctness is going to kill our history,” she said.
MacDonald, the code talker who spoke in the video at the game, said he is a longtime fan of the Redskins. In the 1970s, his sister wove a rug with the Indian-head logo that was presented to the team's front office, he said.
“We never thought of it as a slur,” MacDonald, 84, said in a recent interview.
MacDonald said people should focus on the more important issues that plague Native Americans, ones he sees every day in Navajo territory. “Many of our people still don't have running water in their homes. Many are using wood and coal to heat their homes,” he said. “This is the greatest country in the world, and while we go to help Third World countries, there's a Third World situation right at our doorstep.”
MacDonald said he's not sure how the team spends its charitable money but that if officials want to put it toward combating problems in Native American areas, “We welcome them to do that.”
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Team officials would not say what might result from recent trips to Native American areas, but sources with knowledge of the situation say at least two things are in the works: a charity aimed at the problems of Native Americans and an arrangement for Lakota Foods in South Dakota to provide popcorn at the games.
Calls made to Lakota Foods and to leaders of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, which oversees it, were not returned.
Jennifer Farley, the lobbyist who arranged introductions between tribes and the team, also did not return a call for comment. Last month, USA Today reported that she arranged a meeting between Snyder and the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Atmore, Ala. — an encounter the tribe's treasurer, Robert McGhee, described as “odd.” He told the newspaper that the team's name never came up.
Wyllie said that Snyder would not be available for interviews until the season ends but that his trips have been designed “to hear firsthand what issues are on their minds.”
“He has heard their concerns, which have nothing to do with the team name but instead involve real-life issues, such as economic conditions and educational opportunities,” Wyllie said. “He plans to continue to listen and learn and looks forward to saying more in the coming months.”
A friend of the Snyder family explained it this way: “Why is he making these trips, and why so secretly? Certainly it's been triggered by all the attacks on him as a racist for loving the name 'Washington Redskins.' So there is no question there is a link. But his feelings about the pain and depression — depression is the word he has used with me — of Native Americans who have no jobs, who have obesity issues, whose children are suffering, is profound and real.”
The Snyders have made large charitable donations in the past, contributing millions to Children's National Medical Center in Washington and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va.
The friend, who asked not to be identified because the team did not authorize him to speak on the matter, said he told Snyder that he should let people know about these trips.
“And his answer to me was: 'Don't you dare. They will falsely accuse me of doing this for material reasons, and I don't want to give them that satisfaction when, in fact, I know that's not true.' ”
Debate over the team's name isn't new, but it has reached a crescendo in recent months, with President Barack Obama, NBC Sports anchor Bob Costas, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and others expressing disapproval of the moniker.
“While I was there, we were dealing with people who wanted to be associated with the team,” said David Donovan, chief operating officer and legal council for the Redskins from 2005 to 2009. “The name wasn't an issue — it didn't come up.”
John Maroon, who once served as the team's vice president of public and community relations, said that Snyder is in a difficult position. Unlike in the past, when controversy about the name would flare and then fade, social media has made the issue unlikely to go away — even with a charitable gesture. He didn't think that would help much, given Snyder's wealth and the possibility that it could be “misinterpreted as a payoff.”
“I'd think more in terms of how we properly honor Native Americans regularly, whether at our games or with help of our athletes, working with Native American children,” Maroon said. “Something more long-term and substantial than writing a check.”
Robert Holden, deputy director of the National Congress of American Indians, said the organization applauds anyone who visits Indian Country, where some tribes have unemployment rates that are 10 times the national average. He added, though, that he hopes that it's not only the tribes who benefit from these visits but that Snyder does, too.
“If he is really of a good heart and a good mind to do good things, then we will see some help for these places and Indian Country,” Holden said. “But more so, he will come to an understanding as to how denigrating this term is, so he will change that, too. He's in a position to do many good things.”