Lately, the Washington Redskins are having a harder time defending the team's name than the rest of the NFC East had defending the read-option last season. One of the more entertaining parts of Redskins owner Dan Snyder's effort has been his ongoing Indians-love-"Redskins" campaign, whereby the team calls attention to any high schools in tribal areas that don't hate the name, and to any Indian officials who are OK with it, too.
And perhaps the high point of this came with the May 3 broadcast of the Snyder-produced TV show Redskins Nation. The program featured a guest introduced as Chief Dodson, who was described in a press release written up by the Redskins PR department after the taping as "a full-blooded American Inuit chief originally from the Aleutian Tribes of Alaska" who "represents more than 700 remaining tribe members."
Dodson was an enthusiastic and earnest pitchman for the team's name, and he went further than management could have hoped—maybe too far, as we'll see. Dodson told the show's host, Redskins broadcasting boss Larry Michael, that his deceased father, Nigel Lindsay, was also a chief. Dodson said he felt compelled to step forward because he and his family were upset that "people are speaking for Native Americans that aren't Native American."
"Being a full-blooded Indian with my whole family behind me, we had a big problem with some of the things that were coming out [in the debate over the name]," he said. "I think they were basically saying that we were offended, our people were offended, and they were misrepresenting the Native American nation. We don't have a problem with [the name] at all—in fact we're honored. We're quite honored."
Dodson added that all the Indians he knows are fine with "redskins" even in a non-football context.
"It's actually a term of endearment that we would refer to each other as," Dodson said. "When we were on the reservation, we'd call each other, 'Hey, what's up, redskin?' We'd nickname it and call each other 'Skins.' We respected each other with that term. … It's not degrading in one bit."
Dodson got in a big pitch for his employer, Charley's Crane Service, a tow company headquartered in Landover, Md., very close to FedEx Field. (The tow company could use a plug: The Better Business Bureau has given Charley’s Crane Service a grade of F because of consumer complaints and how they were handled.) And then Dodson went on to gush about the team's fight song, "Hail to the Redskins."
"That's a respectful thing," he told the show host. "A lot of people think that's a gimmick or a joke, a good song, but that's a respectful thing, and it's another thing that helps me appreciate everything you're doing." (The original version of "Hail to the Redskins" actually included a verse that contains what to the lay ear sure sounds like a shoo-in for the most racially offensive lyrics in the history of NFL fight songs: "Scalp 'em, swamp 'em! We will take 'em! Big score! / Read 'em, weep 'em! Touchdown! We want heap more!" Though stories differ on when the offensive lyric was removed, one account has team president Edward Bennett Williams ordering the song's scrubbing in the 1970s, during an earlier anti-name wave.)
Just days after Dodson's stint on his infomercial, Snyder, perhaps emboldened, gave USA Today a swaggering interview that included his most dogmatic comments on the name issue yet: "We'll never change the name," Snyder said. "It's that simple: NEVER—you can use caps."
The NFL's commissioner, trying to score points with Congress, leaned on the Redskins' too-good-to-be-true spokesmodel, too. On June 5, Roger Goodell wrote to the co-chairs of the Congressional Native American Caucus, whose members had been urging the team to change its name. On NFL letterhead, the league boss alleged that "Redskins" was "a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect."
"Importantly, this positive meaning is shared by the overwhelming majority of football fans and Americans generally, including Native Americans," Goodell wrote. And as Exhibit A, Goodell cited the support of "Chief Steven (sic) Dodson," whom Goodell identified as "an American Inuit chief and resident of Prince Georges (sic) County, Maryland."
Alas, there's a lot of evidence that Chief Dodson—whose real name is Stephen D. Dodson—ain't the perfect pitchman that Snyder and Goodell want him to be. It turns out that the "full-blooded American Inuit chief" is neither a full-blooded American Inuit nor a chief in any formal sense of the term.
Let's start with that last part. Apparently nobody but Dodson says Dodson's really a chief. The work shirt from Charley's Crane Services that Dodson wore on Redskins Nation had "Chief Dodson" stitched into it alongside the company's name. But the only references I could find to Dodson and "Chief" that predate his appearance as "Redskin"-lovin' aboriginal royalty appeared in court records in Maryland. Case files from some of Stephen D. Dodson's scrapes with the law—involving theft, paternity, and domestic violence matters—have "Chief" listed as one of the defendant's AKAs.
When Indian Country Today ran a story about the Redskins Nation appearance, a commenter purporting to be Dodson's relative said that Dodson's native bona fides had been exaggerated. The commenter said Dodson is not a full-blooded member of any tribe and is in fact one-quarter Aleut, not Inuit. And "Chief"? "[T]hat was his nickname," the commenter wrote.
Carla Brueshaber, who identified herself as Dodson's sister, said she had nothing to do with the Indian Country Today comment, but she confirmed that Dodson wasn't as advertised on the Redskins program. "No, he's not a chief, not technically. It's a nickname," said Brueshaber, now living in Bellefontaine, Ohio, where Dodson went to high school, according to his 2000 wedding announcement in the Morning Call of Allentown, Pa.
Asked why she thought Dodson was being portrayed by the Redskins and the NFL as an authentic Indian chief, Brueshaber said, "Somebody made a mistake and called him [Chief]. The Redskins went full steam ahead with it. They didn't check it because it was helping them."
The description of him used by the Redskins—"a full-blooded American Inuit chief originally from the Aleutian Tribes of Alaska"—rings false to folks who've studied the native peoples of that state.
"That is an archaic and incorrect expression: Aleut people and Inuit people are quite distinct and haven't had a common ancestor for at least 6,000 years," says Stephen Loring, an anthropologist with the Smithsonian Institute specializing in Arctic and subarctic archaeology and ethnohistory. "Somebody would say they are Aleut, or they would say they are Inuit."
The phrase "full-blooded American Inuit chief originally from the Aleutian Tribes of Alaska," Loring added, is "incorrect terminology. It doesn't make sense."
What's more, both Kelly Eningowuk, executive director of the Inuit Circumpolar Council-Alaska, an Inuit group, and Larry Merculieff, a prominent advocate for Aleut issues in Alaska, said "Chief" isn't a designation any of their constituents would use now. It certainly wouldn't be used by someone who's not living among Inuits or Aleuts. Both said such a title, if granted at all, would be conferred only upon individuals who were elected by people in their village. That would be tough in Bellefontaine (which, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, had a Native American population of 0.2 percent) or Prince George's County (0.5 percent).
"I don't know anybody out of state who describes themselves [as a chief]," Merculieff said.
Nor does Dodson’s self-description on the Redskins show as "a full-blooded Indian" pass the smell test.
"Aleuts do not call themselves 'Indian,'" Merculieff said. "We are native Alaskans, but not Indian."
"Inuits don't call themselves 'Indian,'" said Eningowuk.
Eningowuk said she watched Dodson's performance online and laughed at some of his references to native culture. "I heard him say that [he and his family] go to pow wows? That’s not Aleut or inuit," she said. "And he talks about living on a reservation of some sort. There are no Inuit or Aleut reservations in Alaska."
What of Dodson's contention that Aleuts and/or Inuits regularly use "redskin" as a term of endearment? "I have never called anybody 'redskin,'" Eningowuk said. "Nobody I know has ever called me 'redskin.' I have never heard any Inuit call somebody 'redskin.'"
But Dodson isn't ready to surrender any titles just yet. When I called to ask who made him chief, he said the title was handed down by family.
"You have different type of chiefs, voted chiefs and blood chiefs," said Dodson, who identified himself as "Chief Dodson" when he returned a message left at Charley's Crane Service. "I'm the son of a chief. I'm at the shaman level, a different type of chief. You're born into it, and the shaman chooses you. The shaman chose my father. I was born into it. The Dodson family, I'm the head of that family. The chief of that family. It's not easy to explain."
An obituary for Nigel Lindsay, who died in Bellefontaine in 2000, lists "Chief" as a nickname for the deceased.
When I told him that various groups representing Inuits and Aleuts in Alaska question the description of him as a "full-blooded Inuit Chief originally of Aleutian tribes," Dodson said, "I don't get into organizational things like that. We are a people and that's what we need to focus on, instead of dealing with non-profits run by Mexicans."
Dodson said his family had authorized him to talk with only employees of the Washington Redskins about the name issue, and not with any reporters. Then Stephen D. Dodson, imperfect Redskins spokesmodel, hung up.
Oh, and about that middle initial? According to the aforementioned court filings, it stands for Dallas.
Dave McKenna is a writer in Washington D.C.