November 6, 2013
October 30, 2013
Native American activists trying to force a name-change on the Washington Redskins have long maintained that the moniker was born of racial hatred. This “vile” nickname, says Suzan Shown Harjo, an Oklahoma-born Indian activist who had led the fight, “is rooted in the commodification of native skin and body parts as bounties and trophies.”
“It is the worst thing in the English language you can be called if you are a native person,” she adds. “It is basically characterizing a person by their skin. How wrong is that?”
Not so, Redskins team officials say — not at all. They have insisted that the name was never meant to disparage indigenous peoples, but rather to honor them. For years the team even maintained that the moniker didn’t refer to skin color at all. As recently as 2009, the team’s media guide claimed that “Redskin” actually referred to red paint used on the eve of battle by Indian braves.
Neither claim, as it happens, is historically accurate. The less said about the whopper concerning red paint instead of red skin the better — and the team’s image-handlers have quietly dropped it.
As for the central assertion made by Harjo and others (including iconic NBC sportscaster Bob Costas), that “redskin” was always an insult, well, this is also untrue. Not only was “redskin” not originally a slur, its first documented use comes from a Midwestern chief named Black Thunder.
Eight years ago — yes, the Washington “Redskin” controversy goes back a while — Smithsonian Institution senior linguist Ives Goddard set out to find out what he could about the word’s origins. Goddard traced its usage back to July 22, 1815, to an article in the Missouri Gazette. The paper was reporting on the progress of negotiations between Indian tribes in the Midwest and envoys sent personally by James Madison after the War of 1812.
At this meeting, President Madison’s men faulted the tribes for claiming the rights to territory also claimed by the United States. But a man named Black Thunder, chief of a small tribe called the Meskwaki, pushed back. “Restrain your feelings and hear calmly what I say,” he told them. “I have never injured you, and innocence can feel no fear. I turn to all red skins and white skins, and challenge an accusation against me.”
So there’s that. There’s also this: If “redskin” was, in the ensuing years between James Madison’s presidency and Barack Obama’s, considered a denigrating term for Indians, that is not a commonly used term now. Today, the word “Redskins” conjures up in most Americans’ minds a National Football League team, period.
Having said that, events have moved beyond academic discussions of linguistics. A tipping point seems to have been reached this season. The reasons why it’s happening now are something of a mystery, even to the protagonists on both sides.
For starters, the sports world — like the larger world — has become less accepting of the salty language of the locker room, and more sensitive to how casual slurs directed at women, homosexuals, the handicapped and racial groups can cause hurt feelings.
In addition, and this is never irrelevant in sports, the Redskins are losing this year, though at 3-5 they're still in the playoff hunt thanks to a weak NFC East. Their own fan base is restless and the coaching staff is being constantly criticized by experts around the country over everything from the play-calling to their handling of star quarterback Robert Griffin III’s injuries. Moreover, because of his combative personality, team owner Dan Snyder is widely disliked by fans and even other owners.
Add to the mix a dash of political correctness, the effects of our increasingly partisan politics, and the smug posturing (or, depending on your view, the principled stands) taken by sportswriters and sportscasters ranging from Costas to Sports Illustrated's Peter King. This small, but budding cabal of writers who refuse to use the word “Redskin” in their stories now includes Washington Post columnist Mike Wise, whose columns about Redskins games — but without the “Redskins” have become hard to read.
More distracting to the Redskins’ players and coaches, almost certainly, are the picketers who’ve begun to show up at Redskins’ away games. There are only a handful of them — at least, so far — but what team mired in a slump needs the hassle?
Even Obama has weighed in. “If I were the owner of the team and I knew that the name of my team, even if they’ve had a storied history, that was offending a sizable group of people, I’d think about changing it,” he said.
Snyder says he has thought about it — and the answer is an emphatic no. But that’s unlikely to be the last word on this subject. It appears that the handwriting may be on the wall. If so, that presents a more agreeable task than deciding who is right in this argument.
That job is choosing the next mascot. The challenge is yours, readers of RealClearPolitics and RealClearSports, to vote for our nominations.