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Protests May Await Redskins When They Land In Minn. For Vikings Game

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Washington, D.C.'s NFL team is about to face what may be the largest demonstration ever against its name. Many Native Americans say the term Redskins is offensive, a racial slur. The team plays the Vikings on Sunday in Minnesota, a state with more than 100,000 people of Native American ancestry. Matt Sepic of Minnesota Public Radio reports that protest leaders say they'll make sure their message is heard.

MATT SEPIC: With their new billion dollar stadium still under construction across the river in downtown Minneapolis, the Minnesota Vikings are playing all their home games this season and next at the University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium. Here at Tribal Nations Plaza just outside the gates of the stadium, you'll find 18-foot-high monuments that honor each of Minnesota's 11 Indian tribes. Two days from now, organizers hope to use these monuments as a backdrop to their protest against the Washington team.

VANESSA GOODTHUNDER: To come here they're seeing just the power of our voices here in this place.

SEPIC: That's Vanessa Goodthunder with the University's American Indian Student Cultural Center. She opposes Native American team names and mascots in general, but she says D.C.'s moniker is particularly nasty. Dictionaries define it as a slur and Goodthunder says 150 years ago the government used the word Redskin in advertisements offering bounties for killing her Dakota Sioux ancestors.

GOODTHUNDER: As a Dakota person, that's diffidently not what I would like to be called because we have never called ourselves that.

SEPIC: Native American groups have demonstrated at Washington games for years, but Goodthunder says this protest will be much larger. Not only will there be students, but organizers say they're expecting as many as 5,000 American Indians from across the country. Protesters had hoped the team's presence at a university would give them leverage. Larry Leventhal is an attorney with the National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media. At a recent news conference, he said the school's stadium use contract clearly prohibits racist nicknames and mascots on campus.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LARRY LEVENTHAL: It says the Vikings shall not take any action or use any language in its use of the facilities that might reasonably be expected to offend contemporary community standards or might degrade any class or group of people.

SEPIC: University officials agree the D.C. team's name is offensive. They've sponsored discussions, a film screening and an art exhibit all aimed at driving home that point. But University of Minnesota General Counsel Bill Donohue says there's nothing they can do legally. He says the part of the contract that bans denigrating language in the stadium only applies to advertising and sponsorships.

BILL DONOHUE: We had Condoleezza Rice on campus. We had Bill Clinton on campus. We've had things that I'm sure offend tons of people. We don't attempt to control their speech while we're on our campus.

SEPIC: Under growing pressure, the Washington team this summer launched a PR blitz. Its Original Americans Foundation has donated money to tribes and sent former players to visit reservations. The team has also produced YouTube videos, including this one where Tony Woods of the Chippewa Cree Tribe in Montana speaks in support of the name.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORIGINAL AMERICANS FOUNDATION AD)

TONY WOODS: I think it's a worthless cause, these people taking this up. It's a sports team. It's supposed to be fun. When I would hear Redskins, I would associate it with the team, never with myself, never associate it with a whole people.

SEPIC: A team spokesman wouldn't comment on this Sunday's planned protest. He said the players are coming to Minnesota to try to win a football game and, (quote) "whatever the politics going on outside the stadium will happen outside the stadium." For NPR News, I'm Matt Sepic in Minneapolis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.