Editor's note: After this story was published, it was learned that Barrett Dahl apparently impersonated his father Mike Dahl in numerous phone interviews and email exchanges with The Durango Herald. Comments in this article attributed to Mike Dahl were apparently said by Barrett Dahl. Mike Dahl brought this to the Herald's attention Aug. 24, saying he had never previously spoken with anyone at the Herald. The father declined to comment further about his son or the fight that occurred Oct. 30 in Washington, D.C.
A policy adviser to President Barack Obama and a Fort Lewis College student with autism were involved in a fist fight last year in Washington, D.C., over the student's decision to wear a Redskins jersey to a powwow.
The bloody brawl between two Native American men adds fuel to a national debate over the use of Native American mascots in collegiate and professional sports.
William Mendoza, executive director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education, has been outspoken against the use of Native American mascots in sports, including the Washington Redskins. It struck him as odd and somewhat offensive to see Barrett Dahl wearing a Redskins jersey with the words “INJUN PIMP” written across the back at a powwow sponsored by the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science.
“I said, 'Are you aware that, that name and image is offensive and harmful?'” Mendoza said during a phone interview.
Dahl and his family, however, believe those images were created to honor Indians, not make fun of them. People like Mendoza attack the images because they are ashamed of their heritage, said Dahl's father, Mike Dahl.
The emotion surrounding the controversy was evident Oct. 30 at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center eight miles south of the nation's capital where Mendoza and Dahl came to blows without a discussion of their opposing views.
The encounterMendoza, 40, an Oglala-Sicangu Lakota, is a political appointee within the U.S. Department of Education. He did not have an official role at the powwow and was attending in a personal capacity with his wife and three children, ages 9, 6 and 2.
Dahl, 28, is a Redskins fan who has been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism, and is considered a disabled dependent by the state of Oklahoma, where he lives with his parents, according to documents provided to The Durango Herald by his family. He traveled to Washington as part of a field-trip with Fort Lewis College to attend a four-day conference. He is a member of the Sac and Fox tribe of Oklahoma.
The Prince George's County Police responded to the fight about 11 p.m. but did not issue citations against either man, though both complained of injuries.
In interviews with the Herald, the men each blamed the other for starting the physical altercation.
Mendoza said he approached Dahl to ask why he wore the shirt, and sought to share his concerns
Dahl became defensive, saying, “I don't have to (expletive) explain (expletive) to you. If you want to step outside and take this outside, I'd be happy to explain it to you,” Mendoza said, reading from notes he took after the altercation.
In an email to The Durango Herald, Dahl said Mendoza instigated the brawl.
“He comes to me, calls me a 'weetard' and tells me I am a 'stupid weetard' for not understanding that my Redskins shirt is offending him,” Dahl wrote. “He continues to call me an 'uneducated weetard' and I tell him to leave me alone. He then spits in my face. I immediately leave the ballroom to GET THE POLICE.”
Mendoza said he had no idea Dahl had autism or is Native American, and he denied spitting at him.
“There was nothing that I had in my mind that said this could be a special-needs adult learner of any kind or anybody with a disability,” he said. “He looked like a man who was being very overt in his attire, and the choice of what he decided to print on the back of his shirt also added a layer.”
The fightAccording to Mendoza, Dahl stood up and shoved him with his shoulder, knocking him off balance. Mendoza said he went down two escalators before finding an officer with the Prince George's County Police. He tried to explain the situation, but the officer said he couldn't do anything about a “guy wearing a shirt that you find offensive,” Mendoza said.
Mendoza said he went up a flight of escalators where he saw Dahl waiting at the top. In an effort to defuse the situation, Mendoza said he extended his arm to shake Dahl's hand.
“I said, 'My apologizes for offending you,'” he said.
Mendoza said Dahl threw a cup of coffee in Mendoza's face, punched him, and in the ensuing melee, both men slipped on the wet floor and fell to the ground.
Mendoza estimated the fight lasted about two minutes. It was broken up by bystanders, he said.
According to Dahl's version of events, Mendoza followed Dahl out of the ballroom and attacked him at the escalators.
“He is much larger than me, and I try to block his punches and ward him off with my own,” Dahl wrote in his email.
Police interviewed the men separately. Mendoza was given ice for swollen eyes, and Dahl was given ice for a swollen right wrist, according to a police report. Both men declined to be taken to the hospital. But both said they later sought medical attention.
Barrett Dahl said he had fractures to his right forearm, broken teeth and a black eye. He has undergone three surgeries and has seven screws and two plates in his wrist, his father said. He needed a scribe to help him finish the fall and spring semesters.
Barrett Dahl said he has limited use of his right arm: He can no longer hold a pencil, drive a car, lift weights or bounce a basketball.
“The doctors say it will never be possible,” Barret wrote in his email to the Herald.
Mike Dahl said his family has racked up thousands of dollars in medial bills as a result of his son's injuries. He has sought legal representation and plans to pursue a civil case against Mendoza.
Mendoza said he injured his wrist, hurt his knee and suffered a scratch to his face. According to medical records he provided to the Herald from a hospital visit he made the night of the incident, Mendoza complained of pain to his head, left hand and right ribs, but he had no fractures.
The police report says Mendoza is 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighs 219 pounds. It says Dahl is 5 feet 11 inches, weighs 215 pounds and has brown eyes. But Dahl said he is a distance runner and weighs 140 pounds. He sent the Herald a copy of his driver's license that says he is 6 feet tall, weighs 130 pounds and has green eyes.
The Prince George's County Police did not respond to multiple requests seeking additional information about the incident. Police asked both men to go their separate ways and leave the hotel, according to the police report.
Native American mascots: Two viewsMendoza said a series of unfortunate circumstances led to the initial confrontation: Dahl is older than most college students, he looks Caucasian and he wore a Redskins jersey to a powwow, which was open to the public.
Mendoza, an FLC alumnus, has been quoted in numerous publications speaking out against the use of Native American mascots at schools and in professional sports. FLC officials declined to comment on the altercation.
He choked up with emotion while discussing the incident and his efforts to end negative Native American stereotypes.
“This was traumatic for me and my family,” he said. “In terms of this as a teachable moment for me, I learned a ton. Trying to identify how best to have these conversations is something that I advocate to do across the country. I am not a violent person by any means. This was extremely out of the norm for me.”
He added: “As a leader of my community, as a projector of my community, I felt compelled to approach this individual and try to engage in dialogue with him. Only when I experienced his anger and volatility did I say, 'OK, that did not go how I expected it to go or how it has gone time and time again when I've had other conversations with other individuals in similar environments around the country.'”
A Washington Post survey conducted earlier this year found 9 out of 10 Native Americans are not offended by the Washington Redskins name. The survey included 504 Native Americans from every state across the country.
Mike Dahl said mascots and historical representations of Native Americans are under attack daily by people like Mendoza.
“One day there will be no more American Indians,” Mike Dahl said. “There will be no more headdress because people like Mendoza are attacking the image. Mr. Mendoza, and the very small percentage of people that follow Mr. Mendoza, deep down, they are ashamed of who they are. They have no pride.”
Mike Dahl said he is from Oklahoma, which means red people. His alma mater, Oklahoma City University, used to be called the Chiefs and had an Indian mascot.
“Now we have no powwow, we have no American Indian culture, we don't have anything that we used to have. And it's all because they took away our mascot – every bit of it,” Mike Dahl said. “We see this as a stepping stone. We see it as the next step – people like Mendoza going into museums, ripping off paintings of Indians on the wall because it offends him. He's attacking the image, because he hates himself.
“To preserve a culture, you preserve the language and you preserve the image,” he said. “You embrace the stereotype. Redskins is just what it means. It's people with red skin that are warriors.”
Mike Dahl said his son's shirt read “Redskin Playa,” not “Injun Pimp.” The father declined to send a picture of the torn jersey, saying it will be brought out in a civil case against Mendoza. He said he shared the story with the Herald, because residents of Durango, which is home to Fort Lewis College, should be aware of what happened.
“He attacked someone with a disability who has a different belief than him, all because of what he had on,” Mike Dahl said. “It's not my family's job to make sure this stranger is not offended.
“For Mendoza and my family, to both be Native American families and be at war with each other is just absolutely ridiculous.”