For years, Daniel Snyder has claimed to serve Native Americans even as his team's name demeaned them. The “Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation,” founded by the owner in 2014, is proof, in the team’s telling, of its commitment to—and support from—Native American communities. The mission, Snyder wrote in an open letter that spring, was “to provide meaningful and measurable resources that provide genuine opportunities for tribal communities.”
Now, with Snyder pushed to the precipice of changing the name, tribal officials and public records tell a less flattering version of the story: that Snyder formed WROAF in response to criticism over his team’s racist name; that at least some of the funding was directed toward high schools that used “Redskins” as their mascot name; and that he cut back his support when public scrutiny waned following the resolution of a lawsuit over the team’s trademark. After distributing nearly $3.7 million in contributions to Native American communities in its first year, the foundation’s annual giving dropped to about $1.6 million from March 2015–February 2016; to around $650,000 from March 2016–February 2017; and just more than $300,000 from March 2017–February 2018, according to publicly available tax forms. In the fiscal year ending in February 2018—the most recently available form on the IRS’s website—the foundation also spent more than $800,000 on operating and administration expenses, more than 2 1/2 times what it donated. Those expenses included about $500,000 on employee salary and benefits and nearly $100,000 on travel, conferences and meetings. A USA Today report cited an additional tax record for March 2018–February 2019 reporting $0 in contributions made by the foundation.
At least two tribal leaders whose communities received funding from the foundation in early years attest that the money has dried up. Pueblo of Zuni Governor Val Panteah Sr., whose community in western New Mexico received $867,452 in the foundation’s first two years but just $63,157 after that, says the relationship began under his predecessor, when the team donated iPads and temporary buildings for a flooded senior center, supported a tribal fair and sent representatives on “buying trips” for Zuni art and jewelry, sometimes commissioned with the team logo. But Panteah says the foundation informed him in 2017 that it “was not too good in their finances, and so they couldn't continue purchasing any jewelry or making any more contributions to Zuni people.” And Edward Peter-Paul, tribal chief of the Aroostook Band of Micmacs in Maine, says after receiving funding for two playgrounds and iPads for seniors in 2015–16, his tribe applied circa 2017 for another grant to use on a van for kids. It never heard back. A Washington team spokesperson says the foundation has never told any tribes that it could not provide resources, but is shifting its strategy from individual projects to broader initiatives.
The foundation’s website, which Peter-Paul had once used to apply for funding, has gone dead, now turning up only a “coming soon” page. (The spokesperson said the site was taken down while the team undergoes its review of the name.) And Virginia’s State Corporation Commission, where the foundation was registered, lists its status as “not in good standing” because it is past due on both its $25 annual registration fee and annual report—and thus in danger of being automatically terminated on July 31. This happened in 2019, too, and records show that last August, the team’s then general counsel, Eric Schaffer, submitted an application for the foundation’s reinstatement.
“There was a big push for a while, and they were even giving us ideas. They had money they wanted to give, and they were very generous,” Peter-Paul says. “And then for whatever reason, I don’t know if they had to reorganize their structure—something happened somewhere. And then we just lost all communication. Are they still in operation now?”
The story of the Original Americans Foundation is a multiyear saga, marked by the steep decline in the charity’s giving and bitter feelings from Native American leaders and activists frustrated by the team’s apparent efforts to ally with and promote tribe members supportive of the name. The team continues to assert that Snyder has donated more money to Native American communities than any other team owner; last week, when it announced “a thorough review” of the team’s name, Ron Rivera promised to work with Snyder to “continue the mission of honoring and supporting Native Americans.” But WROAF’s recent operations raise questions about the follow-through of that stated mission. (A team spokesperson says Snyder was not available for an interview.)
The foundation, which includes the offensive name as part of its title, forced Native American communities to make tough decisions: Should they accept desperately needed money from an organization that calls itself a dictionary-defined slur for Indigenous people? The charity helped fill needs in some communities—like for the Micmac tribe, which has no source of income, and found WROAF via an online search for funding sources. But some tribal leaders who accepted funding received blowback in their own communities. Others say that later, they were ghosted by an organization that once vowed to make a “real, lasting, positive impact on Native American quality of life.” And two tribal leaders who had previously worked with WROAF say they reached out to foundation officials within the last couple months, asking if they could aid their reservations' response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the officials told them they were not able to help.
“They’re not an entity,” Crystal Echo Hawk, founder of the IllumiNative initiative and former head of the Notah Begay III Foundation, says of WROAF. “They suddenly realized they didn’t need to be investing much in fighting the name change. None of us have heard anything about it—and I work in philanthropy. No one has heard of them in years.”
The team spokesperson said the foundation is active and still run by Gary Edwards, a retired Secret Service official and the longtime CEO of the nonprofit National Native American Law Enforcement Association. The spokesperson acknowledged that the foundation’s giving dipped after its first year but cited a shift in strategy to “listening more” about “bigger issues” in Native American communities. The team declined to provide figures for WROAF’s contributions after February 2018, but said four food deliveries were made to tribes in South Dakota in the fiscal year running from March 2018–February 2019, and a delivery of more than 160 pairs of glasses to two of those tribes, Lower Brule Sioux and Crow Creek Sioux, was made in October 2019. “We have been looking to expand this wonderful program to more tribal communities and have been actively engaged to bring the program to the Navajo Reservation,” a team spokesperson wrote. “Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the program, but we intend for it to be a pillar program moving forward.”
Edwards had been a primary point of contact for some tribes, including the Zuni’s Panteah. In 2016, Edwards invited Panteah, a former police chief, to give the opening prayer at a NNALEA conference. Micmac leader Peter-Paul says Edwards also visited his tribe during the first playground build, rattling off the gifts given to other communities and inviting members down to watch a Washington game in a box. (Peter-Paul declined to go to the game.) Both Panteah and Peter-Paul say they have not heard from Edwards in a few years.
While Snyder hired Edwards to run a foundation meant to serve Native Americans, Edwards immediately started helping the owner neutralize opponents of his team’s nickname. In the summer of 2014, a group from the Fritz Pollard Alliance, including former Washington offensive lineman John Wooten, went down to Richmond to meet with Snyder and other Washington officials. The FPA, which advocates for diversity in the NFL, had recently met with Native Americans who were actively pushing for a name change, including the then head of the National Congress of American Indians, Jacqueline Pata, and Ray Halbritter from the Oneida Indian Nation. Earlier that year, Wooten and the FPA had pushed the NFL to make the use of slurs, notably the n-word, grounds for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, and he recognized the pain they described from the use of the slur that has been Washington’s mascot. “I could not stand idly by,” Wooten says.
Wooten and his group hoped to broker a sitdown between the team and Native American activists. They say that never happened, though: The team was dug in, pointing to feedback officials said it received during visits to Native American communities. And sitting with Snyder in the meeting, supporting his points, was Edwards.
“He would not be the kind of person that I would pick to run a foundation that is supposed to be structured to help the Indigenous people,” Wooten says. “The people you want running the foundation, you want them to be the kind of people that you know understand and, more than anything else, are committed to lifting the people up. … Gary Edwards would not be my guy.”
Edwards brought two assets to WROAF that might have appealed to Snyder. One was that, on the surface, he appeared to have credibility. The other: He has said in private conversations, according to three people who have been part of them, that he is comfortable being called “redskin.”
The National Native American Law Enforcement Association began in 1993 as a volunteer entity, run almost exclusively by Native American officials, to improve law enforcement for the community. Its main annual event, a training conference, was essentially self-sustaining. But Dorothy Summerfield, a former FBI agent and unit chief, says Edwards told her as they cofounded NNALEA, “If we do it right, we can get paid to run it. We can retire from this.” Summerfield says: “I’m like, ‘Gary, we don’t have any money. We don’t even have a name.’ ”
Through a team spokesperson, Edwards declined to address his leadership of WROAF and his time at NNALEA. Over time, Edwards deftly tightened his grip on the law enforcement organization. Summerfield says he focused most of his time recruiting new members, so that when he wanted to make changes, he had the votes. Summerfield says Edwards was “adamant” about having non-Natives on NNALEA’s board. Former NNALEA legal adviser Joe Rosen says Edwards “began to orient the whole organization away from a charitable organization to a nonprofit” with looser restrictions: “He wanted paid leadership and to do sponsorships. It seemed like the [CEO] position was being created to take full control of NNALEA.”
“He just hijacked our organization, is what he did,” Summerfield says. “The Natives got voted out of our own organization.”
In a precursor to his work with Washington, NNALEA colleagues say Edwards arranged for the Indian Motorcycle brand to sponsor a NNALEA reception at a National Congress of American Indians conference. Indian Motorcycles has a controversial Native American in a headdress as its logo; some attendees were appalled to see one of the motorcycles poolside at the reception.
“I told him he was doing things that were detrimental to Native Americans, and I told him to stop,” says Summerfield, who is no longer with the organization.
Another NNALEA member, Walter Lamar, left because he didn’t trust Edwards to manage the organization’s money. Lamar says now, “If there wasn’t an opportunity for financial gain, I believe he’d be gone from NNALEA a long time ago.”
Lamar’s concerns appear to have been warranted. In 2009, the Bureau of Indian Affairs awarded NNALEA a $1 million contract to recruit law enforcement officers in Indian Country. Before signing, Edwards changed the contract’s language from finding “500 qualified Native American law enforcement applicants” to “500 pre-screened potential applicants.” An Inspector General investigation found that 47% of the applicants NNALEA submitted were not qualified; that only 4% preferred to work in Indian Country; and that of 748 applications, “none … were of use.” In conclusion: “BIA wasted almost $1 million of appropriated funds.”
Summerfield says: “I think they were just looking for numbers so they could turn something in so they could look like they were doing their jobs. That’s par for the course when it comes to him.”
Records show that from 2007 to 2014, NNALEA brought in more than $5 million in contributions and grants; the amount fluctuated by year, but over that eight-year span, all of its money went to unspecified “subcontract labor.” In 2015, NNALEA brought in $108,761, and $108,538 of that went to a consulting group based out of Edwards’s home. The group’s registered agent was Edwards’s mother, Kathleen; its president was his wife, Mary.
WROAF’s operations, like NNALEA’s, appear to be the opposite of lean. WROAF’s most recent tax filing lists six paid employees, including Edwards, who earned nearly $200,000. Most WROAF employees have NNALEA ties: Longtime NNALEA executive James “Dewey” Webb, a close friend of Edwards, became WROAF’s director of operations. NNALEA’s Oklahoma chapter president, Nick Lay, became an WROAF regional director. Two others are not listed in the charity’s IRS filings but say they have worked for WROAF on their LinkedIn pages: Tom Woolworth, a former NNALEA president, says he was an independent contractor for WROAF from February 2014–2017, and NNALEA senior director Mark Murtha lists himself as WROAF’s deputy executive director as of May 2018.
If you view WROAF purely as it was billed, as a charity trying to help Native American communities, its decline is hard to understand. Its primary donor, Snyder, is worth more than $2 billion; he could easily afford to keep giving. The NFL contributed two grants of $60,000 and $104,000 in the fiscal years ending in 2017 and 2018, through the league’s program to match grants for youth and high school football clubs, but there are no indications that Edwards and WROAF raised money from other sources or even tried. If you view WROAF as part of a larger effort to keep the team’s name, however, the story starts to make more sense.
WROAF was launched in 2014, during the peak of the court battle to cancel the team’s trademark on grounds that the name disparages Native Americans. Some of the group’s actions appear to be direct responses to that suit and its potential to shape perceptions. Among the recipients of funding in the foundation’s first year were the home communities of three of the plaintiffs in the suit: Amanda Blackhorse (Navajo), Phil Gover (Paiute) and Jillian Pappan (Omaha). Gover wondered how else the team would have heard of his tribe of around 900 members in southwest Utah.
“Prior to that,” Blackhorse says, “I had no knowledge of them having any sort of charitable (outreach) or giving any money to any Native organizations at all.”
Blackhorse was living in her hometown of Kayenta, Ariz., at the time, working as a social worker, when she started hearing news of team representatives visiting different parts of Navajo Nation. Red Mesa High School, which is located about an hour from where she grew up and has “Redskins” as a mascot, “was their gold mine,” she says.
Red Mesa received more than $250,000 in funds over the foundation’s first three years. The school, which serves the Navajo Nation, has a student body that is 99% Native American, according to the GreatSchools database. The team also bused Red Mesa students to Phoenix to watch Washington’s 2014 game between Washington and the Cardinals, where Blackhorse and her sister were protesting the name.
From the beginning, the giving overlapped with the goal of keeping the team’s name. Snyder visited the Torres-Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians, a federally recognized tribe in California’s Coachella Valley, in November 2013. A few months later, in Snyder’s letter introducing WROAF, he quoted the tribe’s then chairwoman, Mary Resvaloso, as saying there are Native Americans “everywhere” that fully back the name and that it was more important for the team to focus on education in tribal communities. “I listened closely, and pledged to her that I would find ways to improve the daily lives of people in her tribe,” he wrote then. WROAF ultimately paid $246,813 to refurbish the community’s pool, purchase a van for the seniors and add a jungle gym to a park. The tribe viewed it as a one-off funding source and has had no contact since the projects were completed.
In its third and fourth years, the foundation’s giving shifted to smaller grants, most often to schools. Among the recipients: St. Johns High School in Arizona, which is only 7% Native American, but its nickname is the “Redskins”; the school received $3,746 from WROAF, according to the 2017–18 filing. McLoud High School in Oklahoma is only 13% Native, but its mascot is also the “Redskins”; WROAF gave it $10,135 that same year.
WROAF has also made football central to its outreach, though some tribes say that is not a need for which they are seeking funding support. When the foundation suggested a football camp for the Zuni in 2017, the tribe said it did not have an athletic facility to host it. The camp was instead held in nearby Gallup, N.M., and attended by some Zuni children. “That was the last time we actually had anything as far as accepting or allowing them to help our Zuni people,” Panteah says. The team spokesperson says WROAF hosted two football clinics at the Lower Brule Sioux Tribal Reservation in the 2019 fiscal year and has been approved for grant funding from the NFL for six football camps, which it intends to hold in Native American communities after the COVID-19 pandemic. The team also says that the league has approved a $10,000 equipment grant through WROAF for a high school serving the Navajo Nation—the Window Rock Fighting Scouts—that will be delivered after COVID-19 restrictions lift.
The team has consistently cited a 2004 National Annenberg Election Survey and 2016 Washington Post poll, both of which say roughly 90% of Natives support the name. Multiple tribal leaders say the feedback they receive is much different, and that the polling questions and methodology were flawed. Earlier this year, a new UC-Berkeley study found that at least half of Native Americans surveyed are offended by the Washington team name, with an even higher percentage among those who say they are heavily engaged in their Native or tribal cultures.
The team has perpetually tried to generate support from Native Americans willing to give it, while other leaders have pushed back. In 2013, the team honored the Navajo Code Talkers at FedEx Field; at that time, one of the honorees, former Navajo Nation chief Peter MacDonald, publicly supported the nickname. It gave the impression MacDonald spoke for his tribe, but he didn’t. The Navajo Nation Council soon responded by passing a resolution opposing references to Native people in professional sports franchises. When a federal judge ruled in favor of Blackhorse, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye called the trademark ruling “a victory for all of Indian Country.”
A Supreme Court ruling functionally ended Blackhorse’s challenge of the team’s trademark in 2017—the same year some tribes reported that WROAF’s funding dried up. While it ran through the courts, Navajo Nation filed a brief supporting her. It cited MacDonald’s support of the name and said, “In fact, the nation’s view is quite the opposite. … [MacDonald] speaks on his own behalf, and his view is not reflective of the nation or of its citizens in general.”
Even more telling, perhaps, is another amicus curiae brief, filed in support of the team in November 2015. Briefs such as these are not supposed to be generated or paid for by plaintiffs or defendants, but their attorneys can discuss the contents with those who file them.
The brief in support of the team was filed by MacDonald; Don Bettelyoun, president of the Team Redskins South Dakota rodeo team; the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe, which would receive $49,021 from WROAF that year; Boyd Gourneau, who has held leadership positions with the Lower Brule Sioux tribe, which received $314,490 from WROAF and was “approved for future payment of $68,360” in the foundation’s first four years, according to tax forms; and a group most activists had not heard of until recent years, called the Native American Guardians Association.
Gourneau says he signed onto the amicus brief because NAGA reached out to him. He thinks they contacted him because his tribe had been working with WROAF at the time. (He also recalls Snyder bringing Robert Rothman, a minority owner of the team, on a visit to Lower Brule.) Today, Gourneau says he is in support of the team changing its name: “I truthfully believe it is time.”
In recent years, at school board events around the country, residents trying to change their school district’s names have been confronted by NAGA representatives. They generally are invited by or join forces with non-Natives in the community who want to preserve Native American team names, as a way to present “both sides” of the issue.
NAGA reps have shown up everywhere from Skowhegan, Maine to Oxford, Ohio to Driggs, Idaho, which held a townwide debate last summer over whether to change the Teton High School Redskins’ nickname. NAGA held a panel in early June, and later that month, local parents hosted a “Native Perspectives” panel to educate the predominantly white student body. In July 2019, the school board heard public comments and then made the decision to retire the mascot. (They are now the Timberwolves, picked by the students.)
Direct ties between NAGA and Snyder’s team are hard to find, but indirect ties are rampant. NAGA’s Mark OneWolf Yancey, whose Native roots have been questioned, has been invited to team practice and appeared on a team video. Andre Billeaudeaux, who received NAGA mail at its Virginia P.O. box, wrote a children’s book called How the Redskins Got Their Name.
Virginia state Senator Chap Petersen, who has tried to bring the team to Virginia and has publicly supported the “Redskins name,” helped give the organization legitimacy when he wrote: “As the founder of the Redskins Pride Caucus, I’m proud to stand with the Native American Guardians.”
Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Dana says, “It is kind of common knowledge in the activist community that there is a strong relationship.”
A team spokesperson declined to comment on whether WROAF or the Washington team had supported NAGA in any way. NAGA founder Eunice Davidson did not immediately respond to request for comment. Earlier this year, the organization's official Facebook account replied to a comment suggesting that the group was indirectly funded by the Washington NFL team by writing, "(W)e hear that all the time! Ask them to prove that statement about the Redskins funding us? And as usual they can't attack our message so they attack us personally!!"
The “origins of NAGA” page on the organization’s website says, “Since the 1960’s Native Americans have fought to end negative stereotypes in the mainstream media while preserving heritage, history and positive imagery,” implying NAGA has represented Natives for half a century. In fact, it is barely a decade old, it did not receive federal 501(c)(3) status until May 2017, and fewer than a dozen people have run the organization since its inception. Roughly half have ties to one tribe, Spirit Lake in North Dakota, where Davidson is a member. The addresses of NAGA’s “offices” on official forms are Davidson’s home and two P.O. boxes: one in North Dakota, and another in Virginia, a half hour from the NFL team’s facility.
NAGA activists, like many fringe organizations, have taken common arguments and turned them on their head. They say anybody who tries to change a name or mascot is anti-Native. NAGA claimed activists fighting to change the Anderson (Ohio) High School Redskins’ name would “cause genocide of the American Indians identity & history.” At least twice, its members have accused activists of finding “pretend victims” of bullying.
Nonprofits that raise more than $50,000 are required to file Form 990s with the federal government, and NAGA did not file them in 2017 or 2018, the most recent years when records are available.
There is this, however, on NAGA’s website:
Your friends at NAGA had quite an eventful 2019. With the financial backing of a generous donor, we were able to travel the nation …
The donor is not identified.
Whether there is a direct financial connection to Snyder or not, there is no doubt that NAGA’s agenda has been aligned with his. Just as WROAF—which supposedly exists to support Native Americans—gave money to schools like McLoud and St. John’s that happen to share the “Redskins” nickname, NAGA has actively worked the grassroots level to keep Native American names and mascots alive.
Multiple people who have interacted with NAGA told Sports Illustrated they found the encounters disturbing, partly because some NAGA members had no ties to the communities they tried to lobby, but also because some are aggressive. Three people told SI they found their encounters with NAGA representatives uncomfortably confrontational.
But NAGA’s efforts, like Snyder’s, appear to be a last stand. Activists promise to keep pressuring Snyder. The Cleveland Indians announced they are exploring a change, too; their own manager, Terry Francona, has endorsed it. Snyder’s review of the team name has come under pressure from corporations like Nike, Target, WalMart and FedEx, which sponsors the team’s stadium. A new name now appears inevitable.
Ultimately, activists and tribal officials tell a story of a team trying to buy a community’s silence and failing.
Chippewa Cree of Rocky Boy’s Reservation in Montana captures both the tribes’ dilemma and the organization’s decline. The tribe received $685,389 in WROAF’s first year, for its annual Powwow and Rodeo. But the next year, Michelle Billy, a member of the tribe’s business committee, said the tribe members tasked with organizing the Powwow decided not to take the team’s money anymore, even while the members organizing the Rodeo did. Billy says last year she called the foundation and nobody called back.
Remi Bald Eagle, the intergovernmental affairs coordinator for Cheyenne River Sioux, says his tribe decided to ask for money initially because “we have a lot of programs that are in desperate need of funding, especially for children on the reservation. Would I rather not accept money from an organization that demeans us? Yeah, I absolutely would.”
Cheyenne River Sioux leaders secured $25,000 for youth athletic programs. But when word got out to the tribe’s 20,000-plus members, the backlash was so severe that Bald Eagle wrote VOID on the check and sent it back. Bald Eagle says: “Ultimately our tribe, we would rather stick to our principles than to allow principal to dictate our principles.” He never heard from WROAF again.
Former Te-Moak Battle Mountain Band chair Joseph Holley became suspicious of WROAF’s intentions when the organization began conversations with a last-minute invitation to travel to the D.C. area, one week after Democratic Senator Harry Reid, then representing Holley’s home state of Nevada, endorsed a letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell urging a name change. Holley turned down the team’s invitation. Two of the tribe’s other bands did receive funds: About $100,000 the first year of the foundation’s existence to the Elko Band, and nearly $150,000 the first two years to the South Fork Band. But the foundation’s tax filings do not indicate any additional funding, and Holley, who is now the chairman of the tribal council that oversees all of the bands, is not aware of any continued partnership. Holley says the organization’s disappearing act is confirmation of its intent.
“If you were really true to the things you said you were going to do, it would still be happening today,” he says. “Now, if they were going to supply funds to continue running our programs year after year after year, then that would be a partnership. But the way they went about it, it was a buy-off.”
In 2014, team announcer and chief content officer Larry Michael interviewed Gary Edwards for an in-house video. Michael asked the foundation head where he saw it heading in two, three or four years.
"It is so exciting that you almost don’t want to think about it,” Edwards said. “It’s almost like a dream. … You can almost touch it, and you’re afraid it won’t be there tomorrow when you wake up."