The Anti-Redskin

In the fight over the team’s name, Ray Halbritter is an adversary unlike any the NFL has faced before.

John Cueno

Ray Halbritter, the leader of the Oneida Indian Nation, and Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins, couldn’t be further apart on the question of the NFL team’s name. But in other ways, the two have much in common. Both are bullheaded multimillionaire CEOs who hate losing, which has made their clash nearly as bruising as the boxing matches Halbritter hosts at his casino in upstate New York.

I caught up with Halbritter in early April at Harvard Law School, his alma mater, where he’d come to give a lunchtime talk. Halbritter, who is 65 but has a boyish face, had flown in on his tribe’s corporate jet. He wore a cashmere blazer and a gold Rolex. Martha Minow, the law school’s dean, who’d taught Halbritter civil procedure in the 1980s, wrapped him in a hug—“So good to see you!” Then Halbritter walked to the podium and likened Snyder and his backers to those on the wrong side of the 1960s civil-rights movement.

“Back then, these forces of the status quo were sitting in the halls of Congress,” he told the audience of law students and professors. “Today they are sitting in an NFL team’s front office.”

Native American activists have been saying since the late 1960s that the Redskins’ name is a slur. But their complaints drew little sustained notice until 2013, when Halbritter almost single-handedly vaulted the issue into the headlines. Drawing on his tribe’s wealth, he launched Change the Mascot, a campaign of radio ads, polls, opposition research, academic studies, YouTube videos, Twitter hashtags, and media interviews.

For once, powerful people seemed to be listening. Marquee sports journalists such as Bob Costas said they would stop using the name, as did more than a dozen news outlets and the editorial board of the Redskins’ hometown paper, The Washington Post; civil-rights groups and sports figures came out against it; 50 U.S. senators signed a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who admitted that the league needed to listen to “different perspectives”; and the Patent and Trademark Office revoked six of the team’s registered trademarks, calling them “disparaging.” In October 2013, a mere month after Change the Mascot began, President Obama (who overlapped with Halbritter at Harvard Law, though the two didn’t know each other) told reporters that if he were the team owner, he’d “think about changing” the name. The controversy even landed on episodes of South Park, The Daily Show, and Jeopardy.

In other words, Snyder—a man who’d made his fortune in marketing—was getting shellacked by a 1,000-member American Indian tribe in cow country 400 miles to the north.

Halbritter was the sort of adversary the Redskins had never seen before: a leader of an American Indian tribe, with media chops, A-list political ties (he sat beside Obama at a White House event in 2013 and hosted a golf fund-raiser for John Boehner this August), and a bankroll big enough to keep the NFL’s third-most-valuable franchise under a blistering spotlight. Snyder reportedly assembled a crisis-PR team that included Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary for President George W. Bush, and Frank Luntz, the influential pollster. Already on board was Lanny Davis, a lobbyist and former special counsel to President Bill Clinton.

When I asked Bruce E. Johansen, a professor in the Native American Studies Program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, what distinguished Halbritter’s anti-mascot juggernaut from the long line of earlier efforts, he said: “Money. When you have Halbritter’s wealth, it buys media access. It buys attention.”

The Turning Stone Resort Casino, a ribbon of white stone and dark glass located half an hour east of Syracuse, is one of the top-grossing American Indian casinos, raking in well over $200 million a year in revenue from its slot machines, golf courses, and hotel rooms. I met Halbritter there a few days before his Harvard talk, and we took a drive through tribal land known as “the 32 acres”—all that remained of the 6 million acres the Oneidas had called home before European conquest.

Our chauffeured black Yukon XL slowed, and Halbritter pointed to the spot where his aunt and uncle had burned to death in their trailer, in 1976, as calls to the City of Oneida Fire Department went unanswered. The fire is Halbritter’s road-to-Damascus story, the crisis that sapped the last of his faith in outsiders. The transcripts are chilling:

Caller: Please come up here. [Crying] There’s people in the trailer.
Fire Department: I’m sorry ma’am, I can’t do nothin’ for ya … We got orders not to go on there.

“One of the things that still haunts me is the smell,” Halbritter told me. “Of bodies, of people who have burned.”

Halbritter had been part of an armed patrol that demanded city police ask permission before entering the 32 acres, which the Oneidas consider sovereign. “When the fire took place, it was probably a dream come true for them: They could let us suffer,” he said. “The question is, what do we do about it?”

The Oneidas could beg for charity, he remembers thinking. Or they could wean themselves off the white man’s largesse. If they built their own businesses, Halbritter thought, the Oneidas could pay for a fire truck of their own. And safer homes. And college educations. And lawsuits to reclaim ancestral lands. (The decades-long land fight, which the tribe took to the Supreme Court three times, ended in a 2013 settlement with two neighboring counties and New York State.)

A few weeks after the fire, the Oneidas opened a bingo hall in a double-wide trailer. Halbritter was the first night’s caller, spinning a cage of wooden balls and earning $30 for the house. He’d been an ironworker but decided, in his early 30s, to go to college at Syracuse University, then to law school at Harvard. The latter initially rejected him, but he reapplied; he was determined to learn the ways of elite institutions whose graduates, he felt, had swindled so many of his ancestors out of their land and rights. “He wanted to get inside the mind of the enemy,” recalls a Harvard friend, Steven Paul McSloy.

Over the next few decades, the tribe diversified into businesses as wide-ranging as video production, marina management, journalism, and sausage making. Oneida Nation Enterprises, the commercial empire Halbritter founded and leads as CEO, is one of the largest employers in central New York.

How Halbritter became the Oneida chief is a less tidy tale. Historically, the Oneidas were a matriarchy, managed by clan mothers who appointed tribal leaders. In 1977, Halbritter’s aunt Maisie Shenandoah named him one of three “messengers” to the Grand Council of the Haudenosaunee, the ruling body of the six-tribe Iroquois Confederacy. But when the other two messengers died, Halbritter wrested control from the matriarchs by appointing a men’s council, which reported to him.

In late 1987, while Halbritter was studying for his first semester’s exams at Harvard, rival Oneidas burned down the bingo hall. A bitter power struggle ensued, and in 1993 the Grand Council removed Halbritter as the Oneidas’ leader. The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, in turn, revoked his status as the tribe’s federally recognized representative. Halbritter drew on his ties with New York politicians; the bureau reversed its decision within 24 hours.

Then he dropped the hammer on critics, including his aunt Maisie. He evicted them from their trailers and stripped them of health benefits, stipends from the tribe’s businesses, and their “voice” in tribal affairs. “He is a dictator and answers to no one,” Maisie’s daughter Diane told me, echoing others I spoke with.

Halbritter maintains that people were evicted because their homes were unsafe and lost benefits because their activities amounted to “treason.” He dismisses criticism of his leadership as little more than sour grapes. “Sometimes people are imprisoned in poverty so long,” he once said, “that they begin to believe that the bars are there for their own protection.”

Six months before the showdown, Halbritter had inked a sweetheart deal with then–Governor Mario Cuomo to open Turning Stone. It was the first legal casino in New York State, and it didn’t have to share a cent of gaming revenue with any government. The deal’s generous terms, along with the tribe’s lawsuits—which sought to reclaim land from 20,000 property owners, many of them local homeowners—poisoned relations between the cash-swamped casino and the struggling rural communities around it.

Halbritter grew fatalistic about the chances for rapprochement with the tribe’s neighbors. In early 2013, however, he found himself moved by a local news story. High-school students in nearby Cooperstown, New York, were pressing school officials to drop their team’s long-standing name, the Redskins. Halbritter had accepted racism as an immutable fact of life in the rural precincts of upstate New York, but here were white kids in an overwhelmingly white town taking a stand. He offered Cooperstown $10,000 for new athletic uniforms. The school accepted, and switched its name to the Hawkeyes.

Interview requests from the likes of CNN, the BBC, and NPR convinced Halbritter that the culture was ripe for a new kind of engagement with the white man, one in which the mascot fight could be framed as a modern civil-rights issue. To take on the most flagrant offender—the Washington Redskins—Halbritter settled on a strategy that his vice president of communications, Joel Barkin, summed up for me as “boot on neck.”

Over the next two years, Change the Mascot aired anti-Redskins radio ads in every city where the team played. Halbritter organized a symposium on the name in the same Washington hotel where NFL executives were then holding their annual fall meeting. And he cast Snyder’s intransigence as emblematic of a league-wide moral bankruptcy—one that encompassed the NFL’s handling of players’ health woes, the Ray Rice domestic-violence scandal, and the Adrian Peterson child-abuse saga.

Halbritter hired a Yale-trained psychologist to publicize peer-reviewed studies showing that American Indian caricatures lower young Indians’ sense of self-worth and possibility. This “dehumanization,” Halbritter argued, abets the cycles of poverty, alcoholism, and suicide that ensnare too many of his people.

“The essence of this whole Washington thing is that they’re defining who we are,” Halbritter told me. He was referring to Snyder’s insistence that the team name honors American Indians. To underscore the point, Halbritter rose partway out of his office chair and began jabbing his finger at an imaginary plate of food. “That’s your favorite food,” he said mockingly, “and you’re going to eat it—and like it.

“We reject that,” he continued. “We decide what we’re offended by.”

As the controversy grew, Snyder started a foundation to aid American Indians. But on the mascot question, he’s been as damn-the-torpedoes, in his way, as Halbritter is. “We’ll never change the name,” Snyder told USA Today. “It’s that simple. NEVER—you can use caps.”

Change the Mascot is now talking with government officials about banning the sale of Redskins merchandise on military bases and other public land. It’s making a similar pitch to Walmart, Target, and Amazon, which stopped selling another divisive symbol—the Confederate flag—after the mass shooting in Charleston in June.

But the movement has gained the most ground at the local level. Since 2013, at least a dozen schools around the U.S. have dropped the Redskins name, and the California legislature is on the brink of banning it for public-school teams. The long-term goal, Barkin says, is to paint the NFL into a corner as a lonely defender of the name. (Halbritter considers the names Indians and Braves a lower priority, because, unlike what he calls “the R‑word,” neither is “a dictionary-defined racial slur.”)

The work has brought Halbritter a level of scrutiny—and Internet ire—he didn’t foresee. The Daily Caller beaned him with birther-esque accusations, questioning his Oneida ancestry. And profiles (this one included) have delved into tribal scandals he’d just as soon keep in the past.

Halbritter once described himself as “the Indian the white man doesn’t want to see.” When I asked what he’d meant, he said that his education, power, and wealth were a rebuke to the comforting stereotypes—found on the side of football helmets—of American Indians as noble savages or relics from some mythical American past.

Earlier anti-Redskins activists saw a top-down intervention like a court ruling as their best hope. But Halbritter, for perhaps the first time in his life, is putting his money on public opinion, which he feels is at a tipping point.

Change will come, he told the students at Harvard, “not because of the benevolence of a team owner, but because a critical mass of Americans will no longer tolerate, patronize, and cheer on bigotry.”