Peter 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.