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Monday, November 16, 2009

"What Do You Mean 'Redskin'?"

 In recent years the word redskin has become more controversial, with some Native American groups and their supporters arguing that since they view the word redskin as an offensive slur that it is inappropriate for an NFL team to continue to use it, regardless of whether any offense is intended. The matter must account for all connotative history of the word, both past and present.

In contrast to amateur teams governed by the NCAA or other organizations, which can level sanctions against member schools, the professional Washington Redskins franchise and nickname are subject only to the other clubs in the NFL and, presumably, approval or disapproval as expressed through ticket and merchandise receipts, or lack thereof, from the public. As there has apparently been no adverse market reaction, there has been little or no incentive to change the name.

 The Term Redskin

Regardless of arguments about the origin of the word and its various connotations throughout American history, New American dictionaries will classify and define redskin as Offensive Slang "used as a disparaging term for a Native American."

The term was once in common use, as evidenced in Western movies, but is now largely considered a pejorative and is seldom used publicly (aside from the Washington football team). As with any term perceived to be discriminatory, different individuals may hold differing opinions of the term's appropriateness.The Oxford English Dictionary cites the redskin came from the reddish skin color of some Native Americans, as in the terms red Indian and red man, and gives instances of its usage in English dating back to the 17th century (and cites a use of red in reference to skin color from 1587).

Historical Theories of the Meaning of Redskin

True, many people believe that redskin should be recognized as an accepted term today. These people see nothing wrong in using the term as the symbol of the Washington NFL franchise. Three main theories are often mentioned when the topic is argued.

1. One theory is that the term was meant as merely a physical indicator, similar to the words "white" and "black" for Caucasians and African Americans, respectively.
2. Another theory holds that it was first used by Native Americans during the 1800s as a way of distinguishing themselves from the ever-growing white population.

3. An often mentioned third but not proven origin involves the bloody skins (red-skins) of Native people as "prizes," in which they would be scalped after battle and their skins bought and sold in local towns.

The Belief For the Positive Connotation

Guy Gugliotta, Washington Post writer (October 3, 2005) said, "Smithsonian Institution senior linguist Ives Goddard spent seven months researching its history and concluded that "redskin" was first used by Native Americans in the 18th century to distinguish themselves from the white "other" encroaching on their lands and culture.

When it first appeared as an English expression in the early 1800s, Goddard claimed, "It came in the most respectful context and at the highest level. These are white people and Indians talking together, with the white people trying to ingratiate themselves."

It was not until July 22, 1815, that "red skin" first appeared in print, Goddard found -- in a news story in the Missouri Gazette on talks between Midwestern Indian tribes and envoys sent by President James Madison to negotiate treaties after the War of 1812.

Bill Poser (, "Language Log," March 26 2006) reported that Goddard found, "The term (redskin) entered popular usage via the novels of James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851)." In the early- to mid-nineteenth century the term was neutral, not pejorative, and indeed was often used in contexts in which whites spoke of Indians in positive terms. Goddard concludes:
"Cooper's use of redskin as a Native American in-group term was entirely authentic, reflecting both the accurate perception of the Indian self-image and the evolving respect among whites for the Indians' distinct cultural perspective, whatever its prospects. The descent of this word into obloquy is a phenomenon of more recent times." 

 The Belief For the Negative Connotation

Goddard's view, however, does not impress Cheyenne-Muscogee writer Suzan Shown Harjo, lead plaintiff for Native American activists who, for the past 13 years, have sought to cancel trademarks covering the name and logo of the Washington Redskins. (Guy Gugliotta, Washington Post, October 3 2005)

"I'm very familiar with white men who uphold the judicious speech of white men," Harjo said in a telephone interview (with Guy Gugliotta). "Europeans were not using high-minded language. [To them] we were only human when it came to territory, land cessions and whose side you were on."

Goddard, aware of the lawsuit and Harjo's arguments, said that "you could believe everything in my article" and still oppose current public usage of redskin. Evidence cited by Harjo and others has pointed to a much harsher origin for redskin, but Goddard, a linguist who studies the Algonquian language of northeastern North America, casts doubt on much of it. "While people seem to be happier with the agonistic interpretation of past events," he said, "when you get on the ground, the real story is much more complicated and much more interesting."

Reporting his findings in the European Review of Native American Studies, Goddard noted that the first appearance of the word was long thought to have occurred in a 1699 letter written by "Samuel Smith," quoted in a 1900 memoir by his descendant, Helen Evertson Smith, titled "Colonial Days & Ways."

"My father ever declardt there would not be so much to feare iff ye Red Skins was treated with suche mixture of Justice & Authority as they cld understand," the purported letter said. Another part of the letter is quoted in the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary as the etymological origin of "redskin."

When Goddard studied the letter, however, he concluded it was a fake: "The language was Hollywood. . . . It didn't look like the way people really wrote."

Harjo argues that pejorative use of "redskin" grew from the practice of offering bounties to anyone who killed Indians. Bounty hunters "needed proof of kill, but they had a storage problem," she said. "Instead of a body, they accepted the 'redskin' or the genitalia, or scalps."

In April 2001 the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights called for an end to the use of Native American images and
team names by non-Native schools, stating, "These references, whether mascots and their performances, logos,
or names, are disrespectful and offensive to American Indians and others and are particularly inappropriate and insensitive in light of the long history of forced assimilation that American Indian people have endured in this country." The commission declared that "the stereotyping of any racial, ethnic, religious or other group, when promoted by our public educational institutions, teaches all students that stereotyping of minority groups is acceptable, which is a dangerous lesson in a diverse society," and noted that "false portrayals encourage biases and  prejudices that have a negative effect on contemporary Indian people." (Statement of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on the Use of Native American Images and Nicknames as Sports Symbols)

The American Counseling Association adopted a resolution December 2, 2001 opposing the use of stereotypical  Native American images as sports symbols and mascots.

 The American Psychological Association adopted a Resolution August 21, 2005, recommending the immediate retirement of American Indian mascots, symbols, images, and personalities by schools, colleges, universities, athletic teams, and organizations.

 The Most Recent Ruling of the United States Supreme Court

News from the Associated Press and Fox News (November 16, 2009) stated the Supreme Court won't hear an appeal from Suzan Shown Harjo (Harjo v. Pro-Football, Inc., 09-326). This ends the latest round in the 17-year court battle between the Redskins and a group of American Indians who want them to change their name

Fox reported that Harjo and her fellow plaintiffs have been working since 1992 to have the Redskins trademarks declared invalid.They initially won — the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office panel canceled the trademarks in 1999. But U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly overturned the ruling in 2003 in part because the suit was filed decades after the first Redskins trademark was issued in 1967.

The U.S. Court of Appeals then sent the case back to Kollar-Kotelly, noting that the youngest of the plaintiffs was only 1 year old in 1967 and therefore could not have taken legal action at the time. But Kollar-Kotelly rejected that argument, saying the youngest plaintiff turned 18 in 1984 and therefore "waited almost eight years" after coming of age to join the lawsuit. The Court of Appeals upheld that decision in May, and the Supreme Court now has refused to review that decision. (Fox News, November 16 2009)

The plaintiffs have a backup plan: A group of six American Indians ranging in age from 18 to 24 filed essentially the same claim two years ago, but the new case has been on hold until this one was resolved.

None of the judges has commented on whether the Redskins name is offensive or racist, instead holding in favor of the football team on legal technicalities.

My Conclusions (and Micheal Tomasky's)

Let's consider other pejorative terms in United States history. Michael Tomasky in The American Prospect (August 20, 2006) said, "Let's start with the mother of all racist pejoratives — you know the word I mean. This one I won't put it in print; it's too lurid. Obviously, no one would name a team the Washington N-----s, and anyway, I don't think Redskins is equivalent to that. We white folk (this includes not just the United States, but pre-U.S. colonialists) may have killed far more native people, but what we did to black people occupies a more prominent place in our national memory, and I think probably rightly so. So the N-word, so fully associated with that history, is a special case, and it has no equal."

But, Tomasky said there are several pejoratives for black people that are one or two ticks down from the big one. And here, we start to see very clear parallels with redskin. Tomasky continued his parallel, "The closest one is spade. Both refer specifically to pigmentation (the latter a metaphor drawn from a deck of cards). Both mock and categorize entire races explicitly because of pigmentation. So if you think Washington Redskins is OK, then you believe that Washington Spades would be fine, too."

Also, Tomasky remarked, because of the nature of the conflict between white man and Indian, the word redskin carries another, more implicit meaning — it marks the people described as a different, hence exotic, hence somehow threatening tribe. Here, the equivalency is with Jews. Could we imagine the Washington Hebes?

I see the issue more clearly by taking a step even further. Could the Washington NFL team be known as the Washington Whiteskins? I think it unlikely that today such a team symbol could stand because of a common perception of its connotation to racist, White supremacy groups. Again, reference to skin color or exotic tribe can be taken as offensive and disturbing to vast numbers of American citizens.

Or, we could be completely safe and benign by calling the team the Washington Christians. Oops... I know a lot of groups in America who would be upset by that moniker. Yet, we do have the American League's baseball team -- the Los Angeles Angels.

Hey, how about naming the team for the meanest, dirtiest hombres in the country? The Washington Politicians?

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