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Milbank: Indians not likely to be pacified with skyboxes

Published November 12, 2013 9:03 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

WASHINGTON — Let's use caps: DAN SNYDER HAS A KNACK FOR BAD PR.

The Washington Redskins owner antagonized those seeking a change of the football team's racially offensive name when he responded to them earlier this year by saying, "NEVER — you can use caps." He then hired former Bill Clinton scandal manager Lanny Davis to help him put down the name rebellion.

Now he's trying to make nice with Native Americans — by working with a lobbyist who had ties to Jack Abramoff, who was imprisoned for bilking Indian tribes. The lobbyist arranged a meeting for Snyder last week with an Alabama tribe that is causing its own uproar by opening a mega-casino on top of an Indian burial ground.

The latest can't-make-this-stuff-up development was reported last week, in part, by USA Today, which noted that Snyder visited the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Atmore, Ala., last Tuesday. According to the tribe's treasurer, Robert McGhee, the meeting was arranged by lobbyist Jennifer Farley and the topic of the team name never came up. "I thought the whole meeting was odd," McGhee told USA Today.

And getting odder.

Lobbyist Farley was, a decade ago, working in the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, where she served as a liaison to Indian tribes and accepted gifts from Abramoff's team before the superlobbyist's fall in a corruption scandal.

A congressional report found that Farley accepted tickets to two Baltimore Orioles games and a Yanni concert from Abramoff's operation and requested more, using the code word "fruit" for tickets when emailing with Abramoff associate Kevin Ring, who was later convicted in the scandal. "Do you have any kind of fruit tonight?" she asked Ring on Dec. 12, 2002.

Farley, who was not prosecuted, didn't respond to my requests for comment. She refused to testify to House investigators about the Abramoff matter without a grant of immunity. After the White House, she started a lobbying firm and has registered to represent the Miccosukee and the Pascua Yaqui tribes.

Why Snyder would seek out the Poarch Band is another curiosity. (Davis declined to comment.) The tribal chairman had sent a letter to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in September saying the Redskins name is "racist and harmful." But Snyder wasn't talking with them about epithets; he was reportedly talking about economic development.

The Poarch Band, a big player in Alabama politics, has a booming gambling empire. It is opening a $250 million hotel and casino, the state's largest, with 2,520 electronic games and a 16,000-gallon shark tank.

The project has been the target of a lawsuit and protests led by the Muscogee Creek Indians of Oklahoma and joined by other tribes, because the ground the Poarch Band built the new complex on is a sacred ceremonial and burial ground. It was the last known capital of the Creek Nation before the tribe was forced west. According to the Native American Times, 57 sets of human remains were unearthed during construction on the site.

The Poarch Band was tangentially involved in the Abramoff affair, when Abramoff's operation, representing (or, it turned out, defrauding) the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and its gambling ambitions, campaigned against the Poarch Band's casino expansion in neighboring Alabama.

In Abramoff's 2011 book, he says that when he was representing the Choctaw, he wrote to Snyder urging him to change the team name "to undo this insult" to Native Americans. "I asked him how we would feel if the New York team were called the Jew Boys, or worse," Abramoff wrote. "I further argued that, were he to make this change now, he would immediately establish himself as a moral leader in our nation's capital, and garner the respect of those who were likely to look askance on him."

Snyder disagreed, of course, but he was "not the imperious brat the media had portrayed him to be," Abramoff wrote, and, "a few seasons later, I was given first choice of the new suites in the former press section and our expenditures at FedEx Field grew exponentially."

Abramoff may have been a crook, but his advice to Snyder was spot-on. Gone, now, is any hope of Snyder establishing himself as a moral leader. And the name-change movement, now much stronger, is not likely to be pacified with skyboxes.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.