By Joseph Kolb
ALBUQUERQUE N.M. (Reuters) - The president of the largest Native American tribe in the United States raised eyebrows on the weekend when he sat with the owner of the Washington Redskins and wore a cap bearing the NFL team's logo during a game in Arizona.
Team owner Daniel Snyder has come under pressure from Native American activists to change the name, seen by some as a slur, even as others defend it as a harmless part of sports tradition. Snyder has vowed not to change it.
The debate over the Redskins name has heated up in recent months, with some TV football analysts saying they will no longer use the term, and President Barack Obama saying he would consider changing the name if he owned the team.
Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly sat with Snyder on Sunday at the team's game against the Cardinals in Glendale, Arizona. Shelly's spokesman, Rick Abasta, said Shelly had no official position on the moniker, and was at the game to discuss with Snyder an NFL franchising agreement involving Navajo artists.
"The president has said if the Navajo people are so concerned about this what we should do is have a referendum vote so they can truly say what the position of the Navajo people is," Abasta said.
Native American artist Wings said Shelly's attendance gave "the imprimatur of tribal governments and their apparent seal of approval to a continuing act of cultural genocide."
In an online statement on Monday, he urged all Native Americans to "reject racism, appropriation of our identities, our histories, our images, (and) our names."
In April, a Navajo Nation Council committee voted 9-2 in support of a bill called "Opposing the Use of Disparaging References to Native People in Professional Sports Franchises."
Navajo Nation member Amanda Blackhorse petitioned the U.S. Patent and Trade Office to revoke the team's trademark on the name, saying it violated rules that bar "disparaging" language.
Others in the more than 300,000-strong Navajo Nation say the debate is a distraction, and sports teams at St. Johns High School, in the heart of the reservation, have long been dubbed "the Redskins" by locals.
"We have issues with poverty, alcoholism, unemployment, poverty and abuse," said Clayton Willie, a college student who lives on the reservation. "Worrying about a sports logo is not important to us."
(Reporting by Joseph Kolb; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Peter Cooney)