WASHINGTON REDSKINS The Native American Mascot Controversy By Anna Yang Origin of “Redskin” The origin of the word “redskin” is debated. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the term “redskin” came from the reddish skin color of some Native Americans, as in the terms red Indian and red man. The OED cites 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. Multiple theories fight for prominence as to the true historical origin of the word.
One theory, mentioned above, is that the term was meant as merely a physical indicator, similar to the words “white” and “black” for Caucasians and Africans, respectively. 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. 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.
To date, there is no historical documentation or evidence to support this theory. Yet another theory is that the term “Red Indian” originated to describe the Beothuk people of Newfoundland who painted their bodies with red ochre, and was then generalized to North American indigenous people in general. However, Smithsonian linguist Ives Goddard says the evidence to support such a claim is “unfounded” and further claims the term was first used in the 1800’s. Washington Football Team: The Truth The Washington Redskins were originally known as the Newark Tornadoes and then the Boston Braves.
Most accounts can agree that team owner George Preston Marshall changed the franchise name from the Boston Braves to the Boston Redskins in 1933 to recognize then coach, William “Lone Star” Dietz. Dietz, who claimed half-German, half-Sioux background, embraced what he perceived to be a Native American heritage. Marshall was a fan of his coach, Dietz, who was by most accounts a star in his day. However, one could surely debate if Marshall naming the team ‘Redskins’ in recognition of Dietz’s claimed heritage was truly an honor or not.
Marshall himself had issues with race as the Redskins were the last NFL team to integrate in 1962. So, the age-old defense of the use of Redskins, regardless of the meaning behind it, goes that since the team was named in honor of “Lone Star” Dietz, and if he, being part Indian, didn’t mind, then everything is okay. But there’s the catch: Lone Star was raised as a “white man” who didn’t even become aware with his purported heritage until the latter part of his teenage years, upon hearing an argument between his adopted parents.
In 2004, Linda Waggoner, a professor in American Multicultural Studies and Philosophy, wrote a 5-part series, “Reclaiming James One Star,” for Indian Country Today which investigated the validity of Dietz’s claimed Native American ancestry, bringing into light multiple false accounts from his early youth. The ultimate conclusion is that one can neither concretely confirm nor disprove that Dietz was any part Indian.
But, Dietz embraced the Native American culture to the extent of dressing in full Indian regalia, including on the sidelines of some games, enrolling in Indian schools, taking a Native American wife, and becoming a well-known artist depicting life on the plains. Regardless, it seems silly that the use of Redskins hinges on whether one man may or may not have been a Native American in any way, shape, or form. Although Dietz’s true heritage has been questioned by some scholars, the Washington Redskins name and logo, which is a picture of an Indian, was officially registered in 1967.
The Controversy In recent years, the name has become controversial, with some Native American groups and their supporters arguing that since they view the word “redskin” as an offensive racial slur that it is inappropriate for a NFL team to continue to use it, regardless of whether any offense is intended. Clarence Page of the Orlando Sentinel wrote in 1992 “[The Washington Redskins] are the only big time professional sports team whose name is an unequivocal racial slur. After all, how would we react if the team was named the Washington Negroes?
Or the Washington Jews? … It is more than just a racial reference, it is a racial epithet. ” Many others believe that the name is a positive reference to the culture of Native Americans. Many Redskins’ fans say that it is a reference to the strength and courage of Native Americans. Some individuals who support the use of Native American mascots state that they are meant to be respectful, and to pay homage to Native American people. Many have made the argument that Native American mascots focus on bravery, courage and fighting skills rather than anything derogatory.
Karl Swanson, vice-president of the Washington Redskins professional football team, declared in the magazine Sports Illustrated that his team’s name “symbolizes courage, dignity, and leadership,” and that the “Redskins symbolize the greatness and strength of a grand people. ” Steven Denson, director of diversity for Southern Methodist University and member of the Chickasaw nation, while not issuing a blanket endorsement, has nevertheless stated that there are acceptable ways to use Native American mascots if it is done in a respectful and tasteful manner.
He states, “I believe it is acceptable if used in a way that fosters understanding and increased positive awareness of the Native-American culture. And it must also be done with the support of the Native-American community. There is a way to achieve a partnership that works together to achieve mutually beneficial goals. Despite vocal and legal action from Native American groups and scholars, the majority of people surveyed on the subject do not find the name offensive. Following the 1992 Super Bowl protests, the Washington Post posted a survey in which “89 percent of those surveyed said that the name should stay. In a study performed by the National Annenberg Survey, Native Americans from the 48 continental U. S. states were asked “The professional football team in Washington calls itself the Washington Redskins. As a Native American, do you find that name offensive or does it not bother you? ” In response, ninety percent replied that the name is acceptable, while nine percent said that it was offensive, and one percent would not answer. Protests Soon after the name change, Native Americans started to write letters to owner Jack Kent Cooke, encouraging him to change the name.
Others boycotted Redskins products and protested. At one protest, “Native Americans handed the fans redskin potatoes as they entered a Redskins game, suggesting that if the team will not change their name altogether, then they should at least change their mascot to the potato. Many of these events were led by Suzan Shown Harjo of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). Redskin’s owner Jack Kent Cooke responded to these pleas in an interview stating “There’s not a single, solitary jot, tittle, whit chance in the world that the Redskins will adopt a new nickname. There was a large protest at the 1992 Super Bowl between the Redskins and the Buffalo Bills. Since the game was held in Minnesota, the area’s large Native American Population was able to voice their anger over the name. The American Indian Movement’s (AIM) Vernon Bellecourt was one of the main organizers and voices of the event. Before and during the game, approximately 2,000 Chippewa, Sioux, Winnebago, and Choctaw, and other Native Americans and members of the local population protested. Some of the signs they carried read “We are not Mascots”, “Promote Sports not Racism”, and “Repeal Redskin Racism”. Legal Action
In 1992, Susan Shown Harjo, President of the Morning Star Institute, joined forces with other prominent Native Americans as well as Dorsey ; Whitney law firm of Minneapolis and petitioned the U. S. Patent and Trademark office. They based their lawsuit on the idea that Federal Trademark law states that certain trademarks are not legal if they are “disparaging, scandalous, contemptuous, or disreputable. ” The legal battle went on for seven years and in 1999, the judges canceled the federal trademarks of the Redskin name “on the grounds that the subject marks may disparage Native Americans and may bring them into contempt or disrepute. Upon the news that the Redskins had been sold, the owners appealed the decision to a district court in the District of Columbia in Pro-Football, Inc. vs. Harjo. The court reversed the decision on the grounds of insufficient evidence of disparagement. Subsequent appeals have been rejected on the basis of laches, which means that the Native Americans had pursued their rights in an untimely and delayed manner. If Harjo had won the case, the Washington Redskins would be able to keep the name and many of its federally trademarked rights, but they may have still lost out on millions of dollars’ worth of merchandise sales.