A leader of the Navajo Code Talkers who appeared at a Washington Redskins home football game said Wednesday the team name is a symbol of loyalty and courage — not a derogatory slur as asserted by critics who want it changed.
Roy Hawthorne, 87, of Lupton, Ariz., was one of four Code Talkers honored for their service in World War II during the Monday night game against the San Francisco 49ers.
Hawthorne, vice president of the Navajo Code Talkers Association, said the group’s trip was paid for by the Redskins. The four men met briefly with team owner Dan Snyder but did not discuss the name, Hawthorne said.
Still, he said he would have endorsed the name if asked, and the televised appearance in which three of the Indians wore Redskins jackets spoke for itself.
“We didn’t have that in mind but that is undoubtedly what we did do,” Hawthorne said when asked if he was intending to send a statement with the appearance. “My opinion is that’s a name that not only the team should keep, but that’s a name that’s American.”
Monday night’s brief, on-field ceremony came as separate “Change the Mascot” campaign is waged by some Indians and civil rights leaders who regard the word redskins as a racial epithet.
The Navajos’ appearance drew heated comments from both sides on social media, including assertions that the Code Talkers were being used as props in a public relations stunt meant to deflect criticism over the name.
Snyder has called the team name and mascot a “badge of honor.” The name dates to the team’s first years in Boston in the 1930s, and has survived numerous outside efforts to change it. The team has been in the Washington, D.C., area since 1937.
Tony Wyllie, Redskins senior vice president said there was no truth to suggestions that the Code Talkers were used to aid the Redskins resistance to a new name.
“They’re American heroes, and they deserved recognition,” he said.
Also attending Monday’s game were Code Talker president Peter MacDonald Sr., George Willie Sr. and George James Sr.
The Navajo Code Talkers used codes derived from their native language to shield military communications from interception by Japanese troops. Hawthorn said there are now about 30 surviving Code Talkers.
The trip to Washington was the second this month for Hawthorn, who last week joined other Code Talkers to receive Congressional Gold Medals for the role they played in World War I and World War II.
The Navajo are perhaps the best known of the Code Talkers, but the Defense Department says the program began in 1918 and at its peak included more than 400 Indians who used 33 dialects to make their codes indecipherable.