- The Washington Times - Monday, October 21, 2013

As he describes it, Ray Halbritter is simply on a crusade of conscience by spearheading the effort to expunge the “Redskins” name from the National Football League.

But that controversy, which continues to grow as President Obama and others weigh in on whether Washington’s football club should abandon what some see as a racially offensive name, has taken a detour in recent weeks. Questions have arisen about Mr. Halbritter’s past, his ties to Mr. Obama and political fundraising, clashes with others within the Oneida Indian Nation, and lawsuits that have challenged his legitimacy as the nation’s leader.

Mr. Halbritter, recognized by the federal government as the Oneidas’ official representative and a wildly successful businessman, is described by his critics as a “fraud,” and faces accusations that he is using the Redskins fight as a vehicle to boost his own political profile.

“I hope it’s the arrogance before the fall,” said New York state Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney, a Republican who says she will file motions in federal court challenging Mr. Halbritter’s status as the Oneida leader.

“I think he’s trying to get himself on the national scene. He co-opted this” movement against the Redskins’ name, said Ms. Tenney, who represents Oneida County and other parts of upstate New York in the state’s legislature.

In recent weeks, she also has publicly disputed Mr. Halbritter’s lineage as a true member of the Oneida nation — an accusation that the tribe vehemently dismisses and characterizes as a vicious racial attack.

PHOTOS: Redskins name fight unearths questions about Oneida Indian Nation leader

“Obviously, he’s a member,” said Joel Barkin, the nation’s vice president of communications, adding that questions about Mr. Halbritter’s status as Oneida leader are “absurd” and “insulting.”

Mr. Barkin also referred to comments to the website ProFootballTalk, in which he described critics as “the most committed bigots.”

The fierce backlash from Mr. Halbritter — the man behind the Change the Mascot campaign — and his allies doesn’t surprise Ms. Tenney and others who have dealt with him and challenged him in court for years.

In 1996, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Oneida Nation of New York alleging that the federal government — specifically, the Interior Department and its Bureau of Indian Affairs — violated the Oneidas’ national sovereignty by recognizing Mr. Halbritter as the nation’s leader.

The center said the woman who led that lawsuit, lawyer Barbara Olshansky, is no longer with the organization. Efforts to contact her were unsuccessful.

The lawsuit centered on the complaints of some Oneidas who claimed that Mr. Halbritter violated the Great Law of Peace of the Haudenosaunee by entering the casino business, according to center documents and case records.

The Turning Stone Casino in upstate New York is a venture of the Oneida Nation, which also owns a variety of other stores and businesses.

Amid controversy over the casino, the Grand Council of Chiefs decided in 1993 to remove Mr. Halbritter from his post as official Oneida representative — a decision that the federal government doesn’t recognize, records show.

Another lawsuit was a 2004 challenge on behalf of some Oneidas. The lawyer who filed the lawsuit, Donald Daines, wrote that Mr. Halbritter “and his casino faction were improperly and illegally given power by the [Bureau of Indian Affairs] over the internal and external affairs of the Oneida Indian Nation of New York.”

Mr. Daines could not be reached for comment and is no longer with the New Jersey firm at which he worked during the time of the lawsuit.

Those and other challenges have been unsuccessful, and Mr. Halbritter has continued to hold his influential and powerful role.

But Mr. Halbritter may be coming under an increasingly bright spotlight.

On Sunday, the New York Post published a lengthy article that described how a “crisis communication expert” took part in its interview with Mr. Halbritter and “tried to control the conversation.”

The “crisis” has risen as high-profile figures take an increasing number of shots at Mr. Halbritter.

On his radio talk show last week, Rush Limbaugh dubbed Mr. Halbritter “a fraud” and an “Obama crony,” and said the president is the one who is truly behind the drive to change the Redskins’ name.

“Was there ever any doubt that Obama’s behind this? Not in my mind,” he said.

More attention also has come to the Oneidas’ political donations to both major political parties and Mr. Halbritter’s personal interactions with Mr. Obama.

In February 2012, Mr. Halbritter and about 70 other Indian officials attended a Washington fundraiser for the president. The Indian County Today Media Network reported that tickets for the event started at $15,000. A top donation, which included pictures with Mr. Obama, was reported to be $35,800.

In August 2011, Mr. Halbritter attended a White House meeting on economic development.

In 2009, he and other tribal leaders attended a conference at the Interior Department. The president was present at the event for about an hour, the Oneida Nation said in a press release.

The Oneida Nation dismisses the scrutiny of those meetings and Oneida campaign donations as nothing more than an effort to turn attention away from the burgeoning anti-Redskins movement.

“I think it’s a distraction from the main issue, which is we’ve simply asked for an offensive mascot to be changed. It’s not a partisan issue, it’s not a political issue. The simple fact is there are both Republicans and Democrats who support this,” Mr. Barkin said. “The notion that there has to be some right-left divide is unfair because I think people of good faith on all perspectives are coming to the understanding that we shouldn’t have racially offensive mascots.”

Through Mr. Barkin, Mr. Halbritten declined to speak directly to The Washington Times.

Nevertheless, public opposition and criticism of the Redskins’ name has grown in recent weeks.

Mr. Obama recently told The Associated Press that the team should consider changing its moniker if anyone is offended. NBC Sports announcer Bob Costas denounced the Redskins name at halftime of their recent Sunday Night game with the Dallas Cowboys.

Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma is among the congressional Republicans who agree with that view and say the name carries negative connotations.

Even Ms. Tenney, while skeptical of Mr. Halbritter’s motives, said the Redskins’ name sends the wrong message.

“I think it is sort of offensive,” she said.

Last week, the Oneida Nation released a poll conducted by SurveyUSA, based on 500 interviews, showing that 59 percent of Washington-area residents have “a right to feel offended by the term ‘redskin,’” and 73 percent said changing the name would either strengthen their support of the team or would have no effect on it.

The Redskins’ leadership is fighting back. They point to an AP poll in April showing that four out of five Americans do not think the name should be changed. In an article for ESPN, sportswriter Rick Reilly cited several high schools with majority or overwhelmingly Indian student bodies that use “Redskins” as their team name.

Earlier polls have had similar results, though the movement to change the name has picked up considerable steam. Several news organizations refuse to use the Redskins’ name in their sports coverage.

In an Oct. 9 letter to fans, Redskins owner Daniel Snyder said he is sensitive to concerns but believes the name is meant to honor, not disparage, American Indians.

“I respect the feelings of those who are offended by the team name. But I hope such individuals also try to respect what the name means, not only for all of us in the extended Washington Redskins family, but among Native Americans, too,” he wrote. “I respect the opinions of those who disagree. I want them to know that I do hear them, and I will continue to listen and learn. But we cannot ignore our 81-year history, or the strong feelings of most of our fans as well as Native Americans throughout the country. After 81 years, the team name ‘Redskins’ continues to hold the memories and meaning of where we came from, who we are, and who we want to be in the years to come.”

The Redskins organization had no further comment Monday and referred to Mr. Snyder’s letter.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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