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The awful irony of Washington’s NFL team hosting its first Thanksgiving game

A Native American protest at FedEx Field acknowledges the existence of a marginalized people

Sometimes you have to spell it out to understand the awful irony:

On a day most of us associate with family, food and football, this year Washington is hosting a Thanksgiving NFL game for the first time. Native Americans are integral to the holiday’s origins. The team’s name disparages Native Americans.

Simon Moya-Smith plans to witness it firsthand. He has organized a group of Native American protesters for a rally at FedEx Field scheduled to start when the tailgate lots open at noon Thursday.

“A lot of us really don’t celebrate it in the American way,” Moya-Smith, a 34-year-old journalist/advocate of Oglala Lakota tribal lineage, says of the holiday. “It becomes a celebration of our spirituality, our people’s survival.

“Thanksgiving for many of us is like an ice cliff. After all these years, we get to the top of it and we’re freezing, tired and completely out of it. But there’s this moment when we look at each other and realize, ‘Holy s—, we made it. We are still in existence.’ ”

This is an illustration of what happens when people “stick to sports.” We become tone-deaf and unmoved by the suffering of others. It also shows why groups must bond together to effect change — or change isn’t coming.

It was heartening Tuesday to see the NAACP and the National Urban League join the National Congress of American Indians, the nation’s largest tribal governing body, calling on broadcasters to refrain from using the team’s name on Thanksgiving.

It’s not just that black-led civil rights organizations support the NCAI’s request, or that they oppose the name on its merits; they do. It’s bigger than that. They understand there is a mentality in the NFL and among many in the larger public that allows a people to be marginalized for this long. It’s the same mentality that accommodates other racial injustices.

“Thanksgiving for many of us is like an ice cliff. After all these years, we get to the top of it and we’re freezing, tired and completely out of it. But … we are still in existence.”

Many people in and out of the NFL have appointed themselves the arbiters of what is permissible protest, be it deciding that players kneeling during the anthem are ingrates or that Native Americans and their allies who object to the team’s name are emotionally soft folk who need to get over it.

Moya-Smith understands that the only way to fight back is to see the commonality in each other’s struggles. Yes, he’s protesting the team’s name Thursday. But he’s also protesting police brutality against people of color, including Native Americans. He has recent receipts, courtesy of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s newest study on Native Americans and police brutality.

“We need to understand the systemic racism in both the African-African community and the Native American community,” he said when we spoke Wednesday. “Unfortunately, the American narrative has excluded Native peoples in this discussion on police brutality. I’m trying to let people know.”

When society misappropriates someone’s culture and religious practices, it’s incumbent that people of good conscience, especially those who defend the players’ right to protest, to understand how their issues are intertwined. If you are of the mind that this doesn’t matter but your own cause does, that Washington co-opting a living people’s image in 2017 isn’t a big deal, you’re just fighting for your own community, not against racism at large.

From Cesar Chavez to Martin Luther King Jr., every great social justice movement leader has understood the need to build coalitions and, once those coalitions grow in influence, to go after systemic racism. They understood it’s not enough to have your group’s issues addressed. If we don’t get to the motivation behind these injustices, victories will be short-lived.

“We live in a nation where everyone from childhood on is conditioned not to see the racism and discrimination of Native peoples,” Moya-Smith said. “It’s why we still have people dressing up as us for Halloween, why teams are still allowed to have us as mascots. And it’s not that all of them are bad people. Like, I don’t think a football player kneeling that supports Washington’s name is a bad person. I just think he doesn’t know. And I’m trying to teach him it is wrong.”

Washington playing this day isn’t merely a historical coincidence or an NFL scheduling snafu. It’s tin-eared and as cold as an ice cliff.

Mike Wise is a former senior writer and columnist at The Undefeated. Barack Obama once got to meet him.