We should be impressed with how many people are well versed in Native American culture and history. It’s been amazing and enlightening to see all kinds of average citizens report and comment so expertly on First Nations and Aboriginal issues lately. Of course, this post isn’t really about how much is known about Native Americans as much as how deplorably inadequate our education about the culture(s) still is.
The story that has caused all the questionable commentary was the news the U.S. Patent Office revoked the name trademark for football team, the Washington Redskins. The public response has revealed that a number of people feel immersed enough in Native American culture that they can speak for how Native Americans should or do feel about all kinds of issues. This includes how to react to the use of a term historically known as racist for the sake of sports team logos and names.
I keep reading things like, as a Native, I’m one of the people who doesn’t really care about this, and so why should anyone else. I most definitely have feelings about this – I feel hurt, angry, and sometimes surges of the humiliation burn I endured at times throughout my life because I am a Native person. The sting of being called a dirty redskin when I was a child is as piercing now as it was then.
I’ve read over and over that even if I do care, what I feel is beside the point because there are far more people out there who really matter. I happen to think it’s the ones who stand against racism and discrimination of any form that matter. I believe in the ones who say let’s make the world a better place without the cost of that being another human. I seek those who speak beyond the words that filled so many, too many, of the commentaries like this:
BUT – 90% of the Universe Likes the Name!
“90% of Indians don’t mind the name Redskins.” or sometimes it’s stated as, “90% of Americans like the name”. These statements refer to the often cited, but academically questioned, National Annenberg Election Survey from 2004. They proudly quote that 90% figure, but that’s 90% of the 768 respondents – 691 people who claimed Native American ancestry, not 90% of all Native Americans. That’s part of why people take exception to this poll. It also took almost a year to find those 768 respondents, which begs the question, which neighbourhoods were they looking in?
If you want to get technical, according to U.S. Census records for 2004, there were approximately 3,000,000 Native Americans in the U.S. then. The number needed to statistically represent 90% of Natives (with a 3% +/- error margin) would’ve had to have been at least 1,100 people – preferably Native Americans who live within the culture, or are well-versed in it.
There is a constantly ignored October 2013 SurveyUSA poll that showed 59% of 500 non-Native American Washington DC residents thought the name was offensive. 79% of them didn’t think changing the name would make them think less of the team.
There was something else I noticed in the comments and that was how many Native American relatives we all have. If the number of self-identified part-Native Americans claiming not to have a problem with the name is true, then Native Americans must really represent close to a third of the overall U.S. population. For sure the Cherokee nation’s population has got to have tripled in the last week.
There is tremendous debate as to the truth of the word’s offensiveness. This is where the vast in-depth knowledge of Native American history appears most in the comments. The origin of the word is debated to the nth degree with disagreement about the word being born of racism. Therefore, no racist beginning, no problem.
Origin is not the point
the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history. The origin of a word and the historical development of its meaning.
plural noun: etymologies
A paper by Ives Goddard is often cited as incontrovertible proof that the word did not begin as a slur because he cites English and French notes from 17th-19th century journals where they note a chief and some tribal members called themselves red people. First Nations are hundreds of cultures. Some people take exception to those notes because Native historians – as in the Native peoples themselves – did not record their history in the same way, and most do not historically refer to themselves as red people, let alone redskins. In any case, the paper does acknowledge the term evolved into a slur, or “obloquy”.
Next, victoriously trotted out are exceptions to the view that most Native Americans are offended and why they shouldn’t be:
- The first Redskins coach was Native – Disputed as someone who took on a Sioux identity to escape the draft. He also did not name the team.
- The team was honoring that coach and four Indian players – disputed by redskins owner in a 1933 interview with the Hartford Courant.
- The Natives have always been proud of these honors – it was Natives who started the trademark revocation in 1992, but overall objections to the name began in the 1950s.
- Many school teams, even Native ones, call themselves redskins and are damned proud of it. Most are forgetting when those schools were originally named and by whom, but even so, self identification to claim the name is not the same thing.
- Oklahoma is Native named and is Choctow for ‘Red People’. Actually, ˆ“Ogla-ut-homma”, has a different etymology. In the Choctaw language “Homma,” can mean rust, brown, tan, or red. Oklahoma could easily be translated as ‘tan people.’
This may be interesting debate so far, but what isn’t disputed is that the name evolved into a term that evokes centuries of derision, hatefulness, discrimination, and attempted genocide. The term is recorded in historical accounts repeatedly calling for the scalps and genitalia of our ancestors. It’s this part of history that most resonates with the people who are offended by the images and names that dehumanize them to a cartooned existence, i.e. redskins.
Despite that, the reasons given to keep the name run the gamut from derision to the absurd; Natives and white liberals are just whiners and choosing to be victimized. There is simple ignorance of the issue to blaming Obama, who apparently is in need of another distraction. Some people are very concerned about the expenses this could cost teams if they have to re-tool names or images. Some people want to cling to tradition, eagerly willing to overlook the horrific and bloody history associated with the term.
Coming to terms with the idea of change can be hard, and for some people, very hard. Changing something that is eight decades along is even seen as dishonoring “tradition”. However, if a tradition is based in the highly questionable honor of documentable racism, the time for change is long overdue.
Banning racist slurs may not change everything, but words do have power and standing against words that caused so much damage is the beginning of the end of discriminations, and it says, yes, we do matter.
Besides, there are already cases to show that it can be done without irreparable loss.
- The University of Utah Redskins became Utah Utes in 1972.
- The Miami University (of Ohio) Redskins became the RedHawks in 1997.
- The Southern Nazarene University Redskins became the Crimson Storm in 1998.
- To date, there were more than 3,000 American Indian mascots and names used in school K-12 athletic programs; more than two-thirds of those have been changed.
Still don’t think any racism underlies the word? Then why do you suppose that in every single one of those comments – all those stridently opposed to change and steadfastly insistent that the term redskins is really an honor – why did none of them refer to Native Americans as redskins? Not a single one.
Some may have noticed I didn’t capitalize the term in some areas. I did that in order to reflect how that term changes tone even with a simple adjustment of a letter. I doubt the irony of that was missed by even the most ardent slur defender.
∗Updated June 29, 2014 to include the Oklahoma reference increasingly cited as self-description for entire Native American nations. With thanks for the information provided by Paula Starr, Executive Director at Southern California Indian Center.