Is the Washington Redskins name racist?

from wikimedia commons
photo credit: wikimedia commons

Sunday in Minnesota, outside their game against the Vikings, the Washington Redskins were confronted with the largest protest yet against their team name and mascot. So it seems like an opportune time to explore this controversial topic—Is the Washington Redskins football team name racist, and should it be changed? These thoughts were also prompted by recent news that the team, and its foolish boy-owner, Daniel Snyder, is now suing individual Native Americans for complaining about the name (and for legally challenging related trademarks). I’ll talk a bit about the stupidity of their lawsuit below, but the bulk of this post will be my own personal thoughts on the team name and how history should inform the current debate.

I grew up in the DC suburbs and as a kid I was a Redskins fan—it was the glory days of Super Bowls, Joe Gibbs, the Hogs and Darrell Green (who I once talked to in a Sam Goody!), and before Dan Snyder destroyed almost everything good about the team. When the mascot issue was raised in the 80’s I was a little kid and I was defensive about it—I thought Indians were cool and I didn’t understand how people could be upset about a team name that (to me at least) suggested Indians were tough, aggressive and strong. In the intervening decades I’ve thought a lot more about this question and my opinion has evolved, for reasons I’ll discuss below.

I want to offer one disclaimer before I jump in: I realize this is a complex issue that is emotionally difficult for many people. I apologize in advance if anything I write seems insensitive or offensive. I want to treat this issue thoughtfully and respectfully, but frankly I think any strong opinions on this issue are bound to upset some people. I’m going to try to stick to ‘facts’ as much as possible, but because we are discussing history, there is always a certain layer of subjectivity—we simply can’t know all the facts about events that occurred decades and centuries ago.

As always, I welcome discussion and corrections in the comments, but please be constructive and polite to all.

1. What’s the real historical use of the word ‘Redskin’? If you read the message boards under any article about the Redskins you can find plenty of back and forth about the historical usage of the word “redskin” and about its use for a team mascot in particular. The ‘facts’ are disputed and like any good history controversy, you can find ‘experts’ with impressive credentials who totally disagree with each other.

The strongest negative claim is that the word ‘redskin’ specifically originated as a reference to the scalps of dead Native Americans, which were collected for bounties offered by the US and state governments. As Amanda Blackhorse, who is one of the lead petitioners in the trademark case, and is being sued by the team, said this summer:

“The name itself actually dates back [to] the time when the Native American population was being exterminated, and bounty hunters were hired to kill Native American people… So, in order to show that they made their kill, they had to bring back a scalp or their skin.”

There definitely were bounties placed on Native Americans in 19th century America. However, there is very, very little historical evidence that the term ‘redskin’ originates from this practice or was ever widely used in that context. The claim primarily seems to stem from a single article in Esquire magazine by Baxter Holmes, who cites his family’s oral tradition as evidence. His story has been challenged, and in response, Esquire provided this newspaper notice from 1863, which reads “The State reward for dead Indians has been increased to $200 for every red-skin sent to Purgatory.” This is a chilling quote and it illustrates the brutality of our nation’s treatment of Native Americans. There is no defense for this history, however, it’s an odd bit of evidence for Esquire to offer because it simply does not establish the fact that was under dispute—that the term ‘redskin’ referred to a scalp. It says nothing about scalps and the way it’s written suggests that the word is referring to the entire body or the soul of a Native American, not a collected scalp (you don’t send scalps to Purgatory). I’ve not seen any other evidence for the claim that the term redskin specifically referred to Native American scalps.

On the other hand, defenders of the name cite published reports of prominent Native Americans from the early 19th century using the term to refer to themselves and their tribes. For example, both an Osage chief and a Sioux chief used the term in an official meeting with President Madison in 1812. Clearly this usage indicates that, at the time, the term was at least neutral and referred to Native American people, not to their scalps.

Ultimately, the most reasonable interpretation seems to be that the word ‘redskin’ was simply used to refer to Native American people in general, both for good and ill. This word was used in formal situations by Native Americans themselves and by well-intentioned whites working for Native American rights. And this word was also used by racist, imperialist xenophobes, who were actively committing genocide against Native Americans.

 2. Why does a football team use the name?

The history of the Washington football team’s use of the name and mascot ‘redskins’ is convoluted and somewhat lost to history, but the short version is this: the team started in Boston in the early 1930’s and originally chose the name Braves because they played on the same field as the Boston Braves baseball team (since relocated to Atlanta). They then moved over to Fenway Park and renamed themselves “Redskins” as an homage to the resident Red Sox. In 1937 they decamped for Washington DC but kept the Redskins name. Based on this history, it seems pretty clear that the name was less of a deliberate decision and more of an accident of marketing—the owners were just trying to attract the preexisting fan bases of the much more popular baseball teams.

Based on the general tradition of sports mascots—usually something tough, fierce and hopefully local—I would guess that using Native American mascots (Redskins, Braves, Indians…) was inspired by the ‘noble savage’ myths and a desire to appropriate the positive aspects of Native American stereotypes—I simply can’t fathom why a sports team would deliberately name themselves after something they disparage, or a literal symbol of failure (in the case of the ‘scalp’ claim). Other sports teams that are named after groups of people (Vikings, Fighting Irish, Celtics, Texans, Fighting Illini…) also seem to be chosen for reasons of pride, or because these groups have tough reputations.

That said, however, all of these non-Native American ethnic team names reference groups of people that are directly associated with the fan bases—i.e. Minnesota, home of the NFL’s Vikings, is also home to many folks of Scandinavian ancestry. Native American mascots are much more commonly used than any other ethnic group, and in most cases, such as with the Washington Redskins, they don’t seem to have any substantive connection to the culture or ethnicity of the fans. Native Americans also have a substantially different history in America than the Irish, Vikings or Texans. For these reasons, I would argue that the use of Native American mascots is both more troubling and ought to be held to a different standard than these other ethnic team names.

3. How does the name sound today? Despite just spending 800 words on it, I actually think that too much is made of the historical meaning of the word—whether Redskins was a positive or negative term 80 years ago is fairly irrelevant to today’s conversation. Our language and our values evolve and well-intentioned ideas of the last century often seem misguided today. It’s much more important, in my opinion, to understand how the name sounds to modern ears and how it impacts our contemporary society. Today the name Redskins is undeniably troublesome, at best it sounds uncomfortable and to many people it is simply racist and offensive. We, as a society, are simply not comfortable referring to groups of people by their skin color, and I think that’s a good thing.

Regardless of historical usage, if changing the name would make people (specifically Native American people) happier today, then we should consider it. I’m not sure that’s the case, however. To be clear, there are certainly many Native Americans who are truly upset about the name and who would like it changed. Native Americans are not all of that opinion, however, and to many the name serves as a source of pride and as an acknowledgement of Native Americans existence in American culture. Changing the name might please some Native Americans, but it could anger or offend others who would prefer to keep the name. It is difficult to determine the majority opinion of Native Americans on this topic, because there just isn’t much data.

The only scientific poll on this question was conducted by the Annenberg Foundation, in 2004. They didn’t ask about changing the name, only whether the name was racist. 91% of self-identified Native Americans said ‘no’ and only 9% thought it was racist. Many folks dispute this poll’s methodology, particularly the fact that the respondents were ‘self identified’ Native Americans. It is argued that there are a lot of mostly-white folks who claim Native American ancestry (presumably because it’s cool) and that including these folks in the poll means that you aren’t really polling Native Americans. This is an important criticism, but the methodology used by Annenberg (an otherwise very reputable polling organization whose results are often cited by good news sources) is pretty much how all polls are conducted, and is usually very reliable. Every time you see a poll result in the media that says something like “X% of group Y supports Z” the results are based on this same self-identification methodology. It usually works pretty well.

Either way though, this is the only scientific poll of this question among Native Americans that I’m aware of, and I don’t know of any other existing data that shows most Native Americans are upset about the team’s name.

4. This is another self-imposed failure for the football team. Dan Snyder is an idiot and he has handled this issue (and pretty much everything about owning the team) in a horrible, short-sighted way. He is a megalomaniac and does silly things like buying media outlets that criticize him, parading Native American WWII vets around in Redskins gear, and now suing people who are challenging the Redskins’ trademarks.

Regardless of your feelings about the name, there is a rich irony in his complaint, which essentially boils down to “Hey, you can’t publicly accuse me of disparaging people because that disparages me.” The other irony in this situation is that if Snyder was a good owner with fan support and a decent team there would probably be a lot less traction for complaints about the name. However, Snyder has squandered so much good will that virtually nobody wants to publicly be associated with him or defend the team.

5. This is also another failure for Native Americans. I get pretty frustrated by PC debates about language like this because, in my opinion, they don’t really help and they often distract time, attention and resources away from more important problems. There are real, and huge, social problems facing Native Americans today: compared to the rest of American society they are far more likely to live in poverty, to drop out of high school, to be alcoholics, to be the victims of abuse and to die of preventable conditions. These are major social problems and many of them are the direct result of hundreds of years of brutal, systematic oppression by the US government. Compared to these issues, the name of a football team is pretty insignificant. If activists succeed in forcing a name change, it will only be a symbolic victory and it won’t directly improve the lives of any Native Americans. For this reason, it seems to me that, if your goal is to help Native Americans, any time spent protesting at Redskins games is time wasted.

On the other hand, names and words are important and changing them can have social value. Symbolism matters and the process of controlling a conversation (i.e. telling mainstream America which words to use) can be a way for historically oppressed groups to claim power and assert themselves. This is a good thing.

6. My opinion doesn’t really matter. I’d be a chicken if I didn’t come down one way or the other on this issue, so I will give you my personal opinion: I don’t really think this should be a ‘democratic’ issue and I think we should take the opinions of Native Americans a lot more seriously than the opinions of folks like me—but, if changing the name would positively impact the Native American community, then I’m all for it. Let them be the Washington Warriors or the Washington Pigskins (so they can still be ‘the skins’ and fans can dress like Hogettes, thus preserving traditions). It would be fine and in a few years almost nobody would care (as long as they come up with a better name than “Wizards”, that name is weak. #bulletsforever).

I’m not sure, however, for reasons outlined in #3 above, that changing the name would positively impact the Native American community. It seems clear that changing the name would make some Native Americans happy, but there is good reason to wonder if it wouldn’t anger more than it pleased. So my real opinion is that we should make a better effort to scientifically measure the opinions of Native Americans on this issue so that we can have an informed conversation about what the actual predicable consequences of a name change would be. Also, Dan Snyder is an idiot.

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