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Home / Columns and Features / Should Bills consider a name change, too?

Should Bills consider a name change, too?

scottteaser-215x160Peter Jemison is a die-hard Buffalo Bills fan. Has been for decades. He’s also a proud Native American — a respected voice who has long managed the Ganondagan State Historic Site in Victor and fought injustices faced by the Senecas and other Indigenous people. He says being a Bills fan and a Native American leaves him conflicted because his favorite football team is named for Buffalo Bill Cody, a famous 19th century frontiersman who was honored for killing Indians.

“It’s a mixed bag, really, when you discuss Buffalo Bill,’’ Jemison was saying the other day. “On the one hand, he did some good things for Native Americans, employing them in his traveling show, and making an attempt to be what we call authentic in the way we were represented. That’s certainly a positive, and should be noted. But his early life was devoted to working as a scout and killing Natives in an effort to support America’s manifest destiny. He worked with others to take land from people who had a right to live on that land and had inhabited that land for centuries. So you must weigh the good and the bad.”

And after doing so, Jemison reaches a provocative conclusion.

“I don’t think the team I root for should keep his name,’’ he says. “After George Floyd’s death, we’ve been forced to come to grips with some uncomfortable things, including the names of sports teams that are racial slurs or celebrate people who maybe shouldn’t be celebrated.”

Jemison realizes his stance will make Bills fans want to shout — and not in a good way. There will be cries of political correctness run amok. There will be proclamations of “over my dead body.” There will be critics who say this is sacrilegious, a left-wing conspiracy, un-American, another attempt to re-write history. But, at a time when Washington’s National Football League team and Cleveland’s Major League Baseball team are considering changing derogatory nicknames, Jemison’s idea deserves consideration. Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula should at least have a discussion.

These clearly are turbulent, polarizing times as we attempt to sort out our complex, occasionally messy history and determine who we are as a nation in the wake of Floyd’s senseless murder and other high-profile cases of brutality against minorities. Statues of people long revered as heroes have been toppled or defaced. Confederate flags have been banned from NASCAR races, and teams with racist names are considering alternatives.

“The hardest thing to change is American mythology,’’ Jemison says. “People cling to it with their nails dug in because they don’t want to deal with the truth. If we want to move forward, if we really want to become united, we must acknowledge difficult truths, including the way in which this country came about, and the people whose land was taken from them, and who continue to be the most marginalized group in America.”

For decades, Native Americans have attempted in vain to change the name of the Washington Redskins. Owner Daniel Snyder vowed it would never happen. But money talks, and it is speaking so loudly now that even a buffoon like Snyder can’t help but hear. FedEx, which holds the naming rights to Washington’s football stadium, announced it has asked Snyder to change the repugnant name the team has gone by for more than 90 years. There have been reports that the District of Columbia won’t approve a sprawling new stadium if a change isn’t made. Commissioner Roger Goodell released a statement saying the team’s decision to review the issue is a good and just idea.

“All along, the owner has tried to maintain that this name and the behavior associated with it is a way of honoring us,’’ Jemison says. “Nothing could be further from the truth, but this is the way people sometimes rationalize hate.”

Jemison believes the nickname is as offensive to Native Americans as the N-word is to African Americans. He tells a horrific story from the late 18th century of a soldier bragging about how he had removed the skin from the corpse of a Seneca and used it to make a pair of boots. “Even in the Declaration of Independence, you will find references to us as savages, as inferior human beings,’’ Jemison says. “And these misrepresentations, these horrible stereotypes are perpetuated by sports teams and by fans who wear war paint and feathers and do tomahawk chop chants. This doesn’t honor us. This denigrates us.”

Education and empathy are crucial in battling bigotry. Jemison and the staff at Ganondagan do a wonderful job of enlightening us about the richness and beauty of Native American culture. Sports can play a role, too. Particularly during this time of reckoning and tumult.

“It’s a very difficult subject; it’s also delicate,’’ Cleveland Indians Manager Terry Francona said when asked about his franchise’s decision to consider a name change a year after phasing out the Chief Wahoo caricature of a drunken Indian. “Even at my age (61), you don’t want to be too old to learn or realize that maybe you’ve been ignorant of some things and to be ashamed of it, and to try to be better. We’ve talked about this for years. I’m glad we’re going to be open to listening. I think that’s probably the most important thing right now — being willing to listen.”

These subjects are indeed difficult and delicate. In many cases, it’s, as Jemison says, a mixed bag. Traditions can be good and bad. But if they perpetuate negative, hateful stereotypes or honor people who maybe shouldn’t be honored, then they aren’t worth holding onto. They may need to be changed.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist. His latest book, “Remembrances of Swings Past: A Lifetime of Baseball Stories,” was just published and is available in paperback and digitally at amazon.com.

11 comments

  1. Salient points. But where exactly do we draw the line in modern sensitivities about history? It sounds to me that Buffalo Bill was indeed a “bad guy,” adversely judged using today’s standards. We can go wild renaming things after dead people we consider racist, homophobic, xenophobic, misogynistic… For us Catholics, Thomas Aquinas is a saint, but this drunkard debaucherer of women was everything but in the early go. Should he Church re-think its position on his Sainthood? Thomas Aquainas had a turnaround in his life as did Buffalo Bill, as you pointed out, by him giving jobs to “Indians” in his sideshow though this, maybe just and rational at the time, is seen as racist and a mockery of native Americans though modern eyes. With our dearly beloved Bills, I hope to never have to see the name Bills dearly departed. The name is a tradition and why muck with it? Yet, I admit, blind adherence to tradition is part of the problem. It makes better sense, as you alluded to, for children to be taught more factual accounts and critical thinking of history and less propaganda in schools of the 100% poppycock virtue of our forefathers and of history. We, the guys in “the White Hats” (racist term?) fight wars for the sake of freedom and democracy, right? Let’s get emotional and wave flags and our problems will vanish. My dream would have high schools revamp curriculum to include “Lies My Teacher Told me,” by James Loewen.
    While the subject of name-change has been broached, what about the Buffalo Senecas? Or even more, the Buffalo Red Jackets, after Chief Red Jacket, leader of the Iroquois Confederacy (Five Nations), whom Ben Franklin brought to the Constitutional Convention? (The Senecas of WNY, we may all know, were part of this group). You mention of “Blizzard” is very apt, but I, personally, have a thing about non-count nouns. They remind me of all the failed football leagues. Whimsically—but not necessarily so far-fetched—in this era of cultural sensitivity and pronounced capitalism, what about team naming rights for a fee? They do this for stadiums, so why not here? The Buffalo Artic Cats, after the snowmobile manufacturer, comes to mind.

  2. Buffalo Bill Cody’s history shows that he killed one Native American when he was about fourteen. Not the prolific killer some make him out to be. In his writings he showed great respect for Native Americans. He was quoted “they have every right to defend themselves against what is happening to them.” He also was a staunch anti-slavery and women’s right supporter.

  3. Tim Wahl, thank you for your extremely, thoughtful and nuanced response. I am a flawed human being, as we all are, and I believe in people redeeming themselves. Your mention of Thomas Aquinas is a salient example. These subjects are complicated, as we weigh what Jemison referred to as a “mixed bag.” Bill Cody was honored for the work he did in helping the U.S. cavalry kill Native Americans and take their land. But, in later life, he became a strong advocate and put his money where his mouth was. Again, many thanks for your well-reasoned replay. Thank you for reading my stuff.

  4. Thank you, Chris, for your response. From my research, it’s difficult to determine just how many Native American deaths Bill Cody was responsible for. He received medals for his work as a scout during “Indian wars,” providing information that led to many deaths. But you are correct in writing about his respect and advocacy for Native Americans after his work as a self-described “Indian fighter” was through. It seems that he grew and became enlightened, and as Jemison said, that’s a point that should be noted. Again, many thanks for reading and responding.

  5. The Buffalo Bills should absolutely not consider changing its name. Buffalo Bill is a great example for us, especially in today’s environment. He recognized his past and went about trying to amend for his prior indiscretions. A soldier in the Indian Wars, he came to see the human side of Native Americans and supported their civil rights. Buffalo Bill, who would befriend Sitting Bull, advocated for fair treatment of Native Americans along with other ethnic and racial groups. His shows employed Native American, South American, Turkish, Arabic and Mongolian riders. Buffalo Bill was also an advocate of women’s right, insisting on equal pay for the men and women who performed in his shows. It is fitting that the late Linda Bogdan, daughter of Bills original owner Ralph Wilson, was the NFL’s first female scout. Currently, Kim Pegula is one of the principal owners of the Bills. On race, his father was staunchly opposed to the practice of slavery and died in part of stab wounds received when speaking out against the practice. Buffalo Bill was also a Union soldier during the Civil War. Given his nickname for hunting buffalo to feed the rail workers, he later became a conservationist who supported the concept of a hunting season. And his connection to the area should also play a part. He was a Canadian-American whose father was born and raised in what is now the city of Mississauga in Ontario. He also lived in Rochester, New York, for a time. In summary, was he a flawed man? Absolutely. But before we start tearing down Buffalo Bill, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to cast a stone.” We are all flawed humans. It is what we learn from our mistakes to make for a better tomorrow. Buffalo Bill did just that.

  6. Sorry to be so verbose and to strum the same chords. The tearing down of monuments, changing names and all, have changed the game for sure. From now on, just as there is vetting for us, the living, like when a company searches for the “right” candidate—“are there any skeletons in this person’s closet, the interview committee wants to know—the same criteria will be the new normal for the dead to be reviewd for the namesake of schools, libraries, museums….statues. How far should this all go? My golly, Washington & Lee University. Change the name? The University of Mississippi (“the Rebels”?) What about the University of South Carolina? The Gamecocks? (Also the state symbol of SC.? Going back to Biblical time, cockfighting was a “normal” practice though imaginably a great many people felt outrage with this. Even our beloved presidents Washington, Jefferson and Honest Abe were, to use the industry term, “cockers.” Abe was said to host **** fights on the White House Lawn. My long-winded point is simply that no name change is going to change history or cancel the ills that people may have gone through. “You can’t saw sawdust,” Dale Carnegie used to say. Per “Red Jacket” (last post). he and the Iroquois Confederacy are to be lauded for their contribution to America’s Constitution. Yet let’s read Rochester’s own Arch Merrill. In spite of all the good things—their economic systems, justice, and a matriarchical system–there is the other foot that drops. I’d hate to have been their captured enemy. So, if anyone be perfectly pure, let him or her cast the first stone.

  7. Thank you Scott for your objective and well researched article. As a graduate of Aquinas Institute, and a life long Bills fan, I never researched either name. Aa a believer that all living things have a purpose, I have never been a fan of memorials, whether they are made of stone, or in a name. All people have good things in their lives, and have done things that would have offended the collective thought. Times change, collective values change, consciousness change.
    If teams and statues need a name, give them a name for group that deserves to be honored. The first responders, the patriots( I Know), the explorers, the presidents. Buffalo football lovers sounds good to me.

  8. Richard Kieffer

    Scott,
    This is a real conundrum. Both sides make valid points and I can sympathize with each. The Jemison family, all the way back to Mary, has played a key role in the growth of the Genesee Valley.
    I have heard Peter speak and he is quite impressive. He is very articulate.
    Yet where does the termination of names and logos end?
    I think of George Eastman and his racism.
    Names like Maiorana and Pitoniak did not exist on the executive level at Kodak because Eastman was not comfortable with those ethnic groups. And the only jobs for Blacks and Latins were in maintenance.
    So should we eliminate Eastman entirely in our community and ignore the millions of dollars he provided to make us a world class community.
    We have all done things in our youth that are stupid and unacceptable, I know I have.
    But have we matured and rectified our mistakes and done what’s right? I like to think I have.
    Mr. Jemison, I value your opinion and respect your rich tradition. But I implore you to recognize the good Buffalo Bill has done and support the Bills logo.
    Thank you very much.

  9. Just stop ALL of this PC bulls**t. They’ve done polls of Indians that said liked or were indifferent about the “Redskins”; all this renaming is ridiculous. How many people watch a Bills game and think of Buffalo Bill Cody. Common sense just isn’t that common anymore.

    When you try to make everyone happy, it only creates misery.

  10. Get a life people

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