I am posting this with the permission of Quinn Jordan, Who did the research and writing of this incredible piece. Sure I have written things in the past and added blogs within my own blog. I believe this to be important to be seen by all.
My personal feelings are not as strong as Quinn’s, I will say that the name needs to stay, in spite of 2 facts, 1. I hate the Redskins as a franchise ever since Darrel Green forced a fumble on the 2 yard line and 2. Dan Snyder being a deplorable human being, this is one fight he has right.
The Washington Redskins and a Manufactured Fight Over Honor and Racism
It was a cold, wintery Sunday afternoon in December of 1983. I was 8 years old and stuck inside with not much to do. I was hanging out in my room alone, which I often did when I couldn’t go outside to play, watching my old black and white tv set that only had our local channels. On channel 3 there was a football game on. I wasn’t the biggest football fan at the time because I was more into my Star Wars toys. As I watched this football game I became intrigued. One of the teams had a boring helmet that just read ‘Giants’ on the side. The other team however, had a really cool looking helmet with an Indian head logo, were playing on a “painted dirt field” something called “The Hogs,” a guy named “The Diesel,” and an awesome fight song. Their nickname sounded really cool too, the “Redskins.” I thought the Redskins were the coolest thing ever! I had no clue what kind of controversy that the Redskins nickname bore. To me it was just the name of a football team and ‘redskin’ meant Indian. Fast forward 30 years and the innocence of “Redskins” has all but faded.
As I sat down to write this essay, news broke about the Redskins having their trademark canceled. Darren Rovell, a writer for ESPN, reported that “The United States Patent and Trademark Office has canceled the team’s trademark on the basis that it is “disparaging to Native Americans.” Native American activist groups have been in a legal battle with the Redskins for more than two decades, trying to get the ‘Skins trademark revoked. In by doing so, the Native American activists are trying to force the Redskins to change their name because they believe it to be a racial epithet. The Washington Redskins are under heavy pressure from, not just Indian activist, but also members of the United States Congress. In May 50 US Senators signed a letter addressed to Redskins owner Dan Snyder urging him to change the name. Erick Brady, a sports writer for USA Today, who cites a quote from the letter, stating, “The NFL can no longer ignore this and perpetuate the use of this name as anything but what it is: a racial slur.”
Pressure is mounting from the media, government officials, and a few Indian activists to force the Washington Redskins to change their name. However, the Redskins should not change their name because the fact ‘redskin’ is a racial slur is debatable and the Redskins have been honoring the Native American since their beginning.
Is ‘redskin’ a racial slur? That is a topic of debate that even highly accomplished scholars can’t even answer. J. Gordon Hylton, a Professor of Law at Marquette University, writes that if you were to look up the word ‘redskin’ in “widely used English language dictionaries”prior to 1983 you would find that ‘redskin’ was simply a noun for an American or North American Indian (“Why”). Hylton claims the 1983 edition of “Webster’s Third International Dictionary and Collegiate Dictionary, 9th Edition” were the first dictionaries to add the phrase “usually taken to be offensive” in addition to the definition of ‘redskin’ (“Why”). So ‘redskin’ was not defined in our dictionaries as a racial slur prior to 1983.
‘Redskin’ as a racial slur gained a lot of momentum in 1992. The “bloody scalp” theory gained national recognition thanks to Indian activist Susan Shown Harjo. Adrian Jawort, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and a writer for Indian Country Today, writes that Susan Shown Harjo, in her trademark case versus Pro Football, which she and her fellow plaintiffs would go on to lose because of a lack of evidence supporting her claim, claimed that ‘redskin’ meant ‘scalp’ and it “derived from referring to bloody Indian scalps during the onset of the French and Indian War.” However, Ives Goddard, a Senior Linguist at the Smithsonian Institute of Natural History, writes that Harjo’s claim is “unfounded” and that the word ‘redskin’ has a very “benign” beginning (1). In the beginning of ‘redskin’ Goddard states that ‘redskin’ was first used by “three chiefs of the Piankashaws, a Miami speaking people, sent to Lt. Col. John Wilkins four talks, written out for them in French, in 1769” (4). He then goes on to explain the early known published “occurrence of redskin” happened in July of 1815 with two speeches made by Indian chiefs (6). Goddard concludes in his seven month researched article, that “It is clear from the earliest citations that ‘redskin’ was regarded as an Indian expression” and that “the early users of expression that were translated as ‘redskin’ no term for ‘Indian’ with the same literal meaning is known” (11 and 12). With having a better understanding of the word ‘redskin’ and where it came from, evidence shows that this word was developed by Native Americans and used by the Indian people.
The ‘redskin’ is a racial slur because it means “bloody scalp” definition given by Harjo, is sensationalism and revisionist history. Creating a meaning of grotesque negativity where one didn’t exist, was a way for an activist to fit her political agenda and try to win sympathy from the American public that just didn’t know any better. How many Americans are bothered by the Redskins name because they were told, by a Native American, that ‘redskin’ means “bloody scalp” and that is what the Washington football team is named after? In a personal interview with Goddard, he stated that ‘redskin’ “was an authentic word for Indian” and that “this is a political debate and in the rules of [a] political debate you don’t need evidence. It [‘redskin’ meaning bloody scalp] is based on an allegation of fact which has never been supported by the usual ways [historians] support the allegation of fact.” The ‘bloody scalp’ theory is the main theory behind ‘redskin’ being offensive, however no evidence has been found to back such claims. A large portion of people have had their opinions formed based on information that is misleading.
Although ‘redskin’ has a pretty innocent beginning, it is not clear when the word developed a negative connotation. Hylton writes in his article, “Why Is the Word Redskin so Offensive?” that there are examples like “Earl Emmons’ 1915 Redskin Rimes” and Hollywood Westerns that used ‘redskin’ negatively. He also states that many examples can be found of ‘Indian’ being used “while making derogatory comments” namely “Gen. Phillip Sheridan’s much repeated observation that The only good Indian is a dead Indian” (“Why”). By 1969 ‘redskin’ was defined with a “qualification” as being “informal,” which, according to Hylton, “may be a recognition that ‘redskin’ was passing out of everyday usage” (“Why”). As noted earlier it wasn’t until 1983 that dictionaries qualified ‘redskin’ with any kind of acknowledgement of it being offensive (“Why”). There just aren’t many facts to support
the claim that ‘redskin’ is a racial slur. Furthermore, the fact that there is not much evidence to pinpoint exactly when the word became a negative connotation, is proof enough that the “redskin is a slur” argument is debatable.
Another reason the Redskins should not change their name is because the name Redskins is meant to honor the Native American. In 1932 the National Football League awarded George Preston Marshall and the city of Boston an expansion franchise. In the early days of the NFL, according to Hylton, it was common for new expansion teams to adopt the identities of their hometown baseball team and since Marshall’s new football team was to play their home games at Braves Field, home of the National League’s Boston Braves, it made sense for Marshall to name his football team the Braves (“Before” 888). However, the very next season Marshall was faced with a dilemma. Hylton writes that in “1933 Marshall and the owners of Braves Field failed to reach an agreement to renew the team’s lease for the upcoming [NFL] season” (“Before” 889). Which meant that Marshall had to find a new home venue for his football team to play. The other home stadium option for Marshall was Fenway Park, home of the American League’s Boston Red Sox (Hylton 889). So with his team moving from Braves Field to Fenway Park, Marshall felt he needed to come up with a new identity for his football team. Marshall had an affinity for the Native American culture, “due to his family’s connection with the town of Romney, West Virginia” and the fact that Romney is a site “of one of the best known Indian burial mounds in the eastern United States” (Hylton “Before” 888). In keeping true to form Marshall decided to go with Redskins, in part to keep the Native American theme and also because Redskins sounds similar to Red Sox.
There is also the belief that Marshall named his team the Redskins to honor his new head coach, William “Lonestar” Dietz, who was a “well-known college coach widely believed to be Native American” (Hylton “Before” 888). While there may be some debate as to the validity of “Lonestar” Dietz’s Native American ancestry, there is no debate to the fact that Marshall wanted to have an authentic “Indian” football team (Hylton “Why”). In 1933 six different Native American players wore the Redskin Indian Head jersey (Hylton “Before” 889). The Washington Redskins are named after Native Americans and are meant to honor the great American Indian.
Furthermore, another important way that the Redskins honor the Native American, is by their famous Indian head logo. A logo that according to Kerry Byrne, a Native Historian, was designed after Tammanend. “Also known as Tammany, [he] was a 17th century Lenni Lenape (Delaware Indian) sachem and confidante of William Penn” (Byrne). Byrne states that “Tamanend’s influence on the colonies and the young America nation was so profound that he was dubbed the Patron Saint of America and holidays were celebrated in his honor.” Going back to the earlier discussion on Marshall choosing Braves as his original name to coincide with the NL’s Braves, it should be noted that baseball’s Braves owner, James Gaffney, was a “political operative and influential member of New York’s Tammany Hall” (Byrne). It is important to note that because Gaffney adopted Tammany’s likeness for his baseball uniforms (Byrne). While playing at Braves Field the new NFL team adopted the same “Indian head logo of Saint Tammany” (Byrne). Understanding the origin of the Redskins nickname and logo it can be proven that George Preston Marshall did not choose Redskins to intentionally disparage or discriminate the Native American people. Marshall was trying to honor the American Indian with a name that was strong, a name that was symbolic, and by hiring a Native American coach and six Indian players.
Many people object to, and are offended by the Redskins name, including Native Americans themselves, and these people want to see a name change. However, it is unclear just how offended the Native American people are as a whole. Kathleen Hall Jamieson wrote an article covering the Annenberg poll done in 2004. In the poll 768 self-identified Native Americans were asked whether Redskins was offensive or not (Jamieson). An overwhelming 90% said that they were not offended by the Redskins name (Jamieson). Although that is a small sample of the Indian population, ninety percent is an astounding number. The media is leading a charge to convince the public that ‘redskin’ is offensive to all Native Americans and that the term has always been offensive. In a personal interview with ReGina J. Zuni, a member of the Isleta Pueblo Tribe in New Mexico and a fourth generation Redskins fan, she said “If a Native American is offended [by ‘redskin’], then it is their personal choice to be offended. Not all Native Americans are offended.” It is also noteworthy to point out the name of Red Mesa High School. Red Mesa High School is located in Red Mesa Arizona. And why is that noteworthy? Because Red Mesa High School is located on the Navajo Reservation, and their nickname is…the Redskins! So if ‘redskin’ is so offensive to the Native American people then how can one of their own high schools use Redskins as their nickname? Furthermore, located in a town called Anadarko, “Indian Capital of the Nation,” Oklahoma, is the Redskin Theatre (see fig. 1). Redskin is still used by Native Americans today as a use of honor and remembrance.
Another argument against the Redskins name is Indian activists and members of our government claim that ‘redskin’ is a slur just as offensive as “nigger” and that is why the Redskins should change their name. To back such a claim, ‘redskin’ would have to have a similar historical context as “nigger.” Calvin Fogle writes that “The racial slur “nigger”, which is considered by many to be one of the worst racial epithets in the United States, if not the worst from a historical and socio-political standpoint” (83 and 84). The term “nigger” has always been identified with slaves and the mistreatment of blacks in our country, and to this day is still recognized as the most heinous word in the English language. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary states in their on-line description of “nigger,” “a member of a socially disadvantaged class of people” and “it now ranks as perhaps the most offensive and inflammatory racial slur in English.” The same cannot be said for ‘redskin.’ While the “offensiveness” of a racial slur is purely subjective and each slur carries their own weight, the argument that ‘redskin’ is just as offensive as “nigger” is one that doesn’t work. ‘Redskin’ doesn’t have the same historical context that “nigger” does and there are not any facts to back such a claim. The fact that there is even a debate as to whether ‘redskin’ is even a slur in the first place is proof enough that the two slurs are not equal.
While I am certainly sympathetic and have tremendous empathy for those that have been discriminated and disparaged against, the Washington Redskins should not be bullied into changing their name by a few activist and our government. The fact of the matter is the Redskins are not discriminating or disparaging. The American public should not be brainwashed to fit a political agenda over something that is simply debatable at best. Yes there are Native Americans that are offended by the Redskins name. However, there are plenty that are not. Do the voices of those not offended, not matter? There are Native Americans that believe Redskins is honor, tradition, and pride, see Red Mesa High School. If we remove all Native American logos and sports nicknames, then we will also be removing the American Indian from our every day conscious. A great quote from an article on HTTR4LIFE states that, Melvin Phillips, a full-blooded Oneida Indian, said “Hey we used to be on the nickel, but then someone thought it was racist and now no one remembers us anymore.” Perhaps that is the government’s goal by pursuing this fight instead of focusing on the many pressing issues that plague Native American Reservations. Sports are a release for the American sports fan, Native Americans included. Sports fans love and honor their teams and players. Sports, if done respectfully, can honor the great Native American long thought to be forgotten. Despite the insane amount of controversy surrounding my beloved Washington Redskins, I still watch every game with the innocence of that 8 year old boy.
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—. Personal interview. 8 June 2014.
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