Guest Column: Redskins game offers American Indian writer peek into seventh circle

By George Benge

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series about American Indian mascots by syndicated columnist and member of the Cheorkee Nation George Benge. The Daily Illini published the second part of his series, titled “Illiniwek creates a climate of hostility on University campus,” which concerned his experiences with the University of Illinois and Chief Illiniwek on Oct. 11. His third column about a high school bearing an American Indian mascot will appear next week.

Throughout my life, some people have predicted that, sooner or later, I will go straight to hell.

On Monday night, Sept. 11, those predictions all came true. I indeed went to hell.

For me, the trip started at the Dunn Loring Metro station in Fairfax County, Va., just outside Washington, D.C.

It ended in Landover, Md., home of FedEx Field and the Washington Redskins football team.

As a proud Native American and a rabid football fan, I was going to FedEx Field for two reasons – to see some good football and to describe, from an Indian perspective, the experience of attending a game of the team whose name is an unspeakable affront to Native Americans everywhere.

The road to hell started inauspiciously. Boarding the Orange Line train that would take me all the way to Landover, I noticed several people wearing Washington Redskins jerseys and caps.

At successive Metro stops en route to Landover, a parade of Redskins-attired fans boarded the train.

By the time we got on shuttle buses for the final ride to the stadium and the game against the Minnesota Vikings, I was surrounded by people wearing burgundy-and-gold Redskins regalia.

I thought of writer Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, the 14th century epic poem that portrayed hell as a descending series of circles ending in the lowest circle of hell, a ghastly place reserved for the worst of sinners.

It was clear that I was descending rapidly into the inner circles of Native American hell.

Treading through the stadium underbelly in search of my section and seat, ominous sights abounded.

A woman with a painted face and a faux Indian headdress hurried past.

In Club Macanudo, a cigar-store Indian statue held a football aloft in his right hand and a clutch of cigars in his left. A rancid, half-smoked stogie was jammed into the statue’s open mouth.

A sign advertised Redskin tattoos on sale for $65.

People of all sizes, shapes, colors and ages streamed through the corridor wearing or carrying an unimaginable array of Redskins jerseys, caps and paraphernalia.

And the roars from an unseen crowd told me I was getting closer and closer to the inner circle of Indian hell.

A powerful aura of sights, sounds and smells assaulted all of my senses as I walked into the huge and brilliantly lit stadium, filled to capacity by an eager throng of more than 90,000.

What had started as a trickle of Redskins jerseys at the Dunn Loring station exploded into a thunderous tsunami of burgundy-and-gold Redskins shirts, jackets, seats, faces, billboards, scoreboards, logos, uniforms, flags and banners.

It was shocking to behold a gigantic caricature of a Native American face emblazoned on the middle of the field.

By my estimation, the face and feathers were 30 feet wide.

The same awful caricature vibrated garishly on huge digital billboards at both ends of the stadium.

There were sporadic chants of “Let’s go, Redskins, let’s go Redskins.”

Any doubt that I was standing at ground zero of Native American hell was dispelled when I saw what must be the largest and most blatant public display of a racial epithet anywhere in the world – the word “Redskins” painted in massive block letters across both end zones.

To grasp Native Americans’ outrage and humiliation, try to imagine the most hateful and disgusting racial or religious slur that could be used to describe you displayed in colorful, 25-foot letters throughout your community.

Conditions worsened after Washington scored its only touchdown of the game.

The Redskins’ band went nuts.

Fans sang “Hail to the Redskins.” Redskins’ cheerleaders kicked and pirouetted.

And runners carried billowing Redskins flags around the field.

With nine minutes to play, I left.

On the way out, I reflected on the one uplifting aspect of my trip to Native American hell: The halftime presentation was momentous.

On the fifth anniversary of the Pentagon and World Trade Center tragedies, the huge crowd paid a moving, heartfelt tribute to the heroes and victims of Sept. 11.

An immense American flag was unfurled at midfield.

The crowd waved tens of thousands of small flags handed out before the game. They joined in singing God Bless America and chanted “USA, USA, USA.”

That was something we could all agree on.