For eighty years Washington’s football team has called itself Redskins, which was probably not what Sitting Bull or Geronimo would have recommended as a sobriquet of American Indians. Now, as European-Americans become increasingly interested in paying — if nothing else — lip service to the concerns of Native Americans, the nickname is increasingly troublesome.
Wherever the Redskins play, be it home or road, they’re likely to encounter a couple dozen or more protesters brandishing signs denouncing what they perceive as a racial slur.
American Indians have long opposed the appropriation of their symbols and culture by sports teams. Ever since the early 1970s, Indians, Braves, Chiefs, tomahawk chops have come under attack, just as African-Americans objected to blackface actors and Mexican-Americans to the Frito Bandito.
Public demonstrations by Native Americans led to the Stanford Indians changing their name in 1972. It did not provoke masses of fans to desert their team.
Even so, Redskins owner Daniel Snyder told USA Today last May that “we’ll never change the name. NEVER. You can use caps.”
Commissioner Goodell and President Obama both have urged him to reconsider.
“If I were the owner of the team,” Obama said, “and I knew there was a name of my team – even if it had a storied history – that was offending a sizeable group of people, I’d think about changing it.”
You can be sure Snyder is thinking about it. How can he not? But when will he do it is the question.
No doubt most Redskins fans want to keep the nickname. On grounds that it was OK with Sammy Baugh and John Riggins and it’s OK with them. Besides, it has flavored one of the most compelling rivalries in sports: Cowboys-Redskins.
Snyder answered the president with polling indicating 90 percent of Native Americans have no problem with the nickname.
But it’s significant that in the state with the largest Native American population – Oklahoma – a Republican congressman, Tom Cole, did something he almost never does: side with Obama. Cole said the name Redskins “isn’t like warriors or chiefs. It’s not a term of respect. It’s needlessly offensive to a large part of our population. They just don’t happen to live around Washington, D.C.”
What makes the name repugnant, Cole suggested – as if you need to be told this – is the reference to skin color. We live in a country that for half a century has prided itself on not judging people by the color of their skin. It doesn’t get much simpler than that.
By the way, as far as I can tell, nobody has red skin except white people who get sunburned.
I grew up in a time when science rather than religion was taught in public schools. As I learned it, the people of Mexico are mostly descendants of prehistoric Asian tribes, as are the “Native” Americans in the USA. Yet the Native Mexicans are considered brown. Cross the border into my home state of Texas, and “Indians” are described as red.
Living in Oklahoma for five years and meeting many Cherokees and Choctaws, I saw their skin as brown, not red.
For that matter, Chinese do not have yellow skin – unless suffering from jaundice.
And white people do not have white skin — unless dead.
So why label people by skin color?
And why would anyone object to removing the labels?
In Oklahoma I learned to appreciate the cultural contributions of various Native tribes. Their dances, their spirituality, their awareness, resourcefulness, craftsmanship, focus and grace. Their soothing music from instruments that echo nature’s symphony of wind and birds and rumbling waters.
Too bad these finer things are not glorified like their weaponry and their ferocity.
Too bad most Americans never see the soaring architecture of the Bandelier and other ancient New Mexico cliff “dwellings” – another English word that minimizes the Native American legacy. These are the remnants of magnificent stone/adobe apartment buildings set inside elevated caves.
And, to the north, the wonderfully rugged lands of the Lakota:
In South Dakota the stars in clusters
guard battlegrounds of Sioux and Custer,
Mount Rushmore looms with white man’s faces
over red man’s sacred places,
‘Chief Crazy Horse, where are your lands?’
They taunted him as they bound his hands,
He had an answer to their query:
‘My lands are where my people are buried’
My meager effort at poetry may not be politically correct, as it includes the term “red man.” It’s true, as the keep-the-Redskins crowd loves to point out, that American Indians have referred to themselves as red. But that was only to distinguish themselves from their oppressors and tormenters.
We beat them with bullets, disease and whiskey and herded them into starvation. Worse, we pretend to be proud of it. How long must we keep insulting them? Is this a tradition worth preserving?
Cris Collinsworth does not think so. Last week, on Showtime’s Inside the NFL he recounted (recanted?) his play-by-play of a Cowboys-Redskins game: “As I was saying the word ‘Redskins,’ in my brain it was coming out of my mouth ‘red (pause) skin.’ . . . Something about that just didn’t feel right. I have a feeling if it were the Blackskins, the Brownskins, the name already would have been changed.
“I really do believe . . . they were trying to honor the great history of Native Americans. . . . You don’t give a derogatory name to something you love. . . . But in this day and age, red SKINS just doesn’t work.”
If Mr. Snyder wants to honor Native Americans, as he claims, he might take the name of a specific tribe, Choctaws or Mohawks. Or, as Florida State University has done, Seminoles. Or San Diego State, Aztecs. Or if you want to get truly fierce and violent, since that’s the sort of game football is: Comanches.
Choosing a Native tribal name – any of them — might lead a few more football fans toward knowledge of a tribal nation’s history and culture, which might not be a bad thing.
Let’s not forget that one feature of American exceptionalism is our unequaled diversity. It brings creativity, competition, productivity, treasures that are more than skin-deep. To name a team after a skin color, especially a false stereotype, is far too simplistic for the capital city of the world’s greatest country. It honors nobody. All it does is dishonor stupid white men who came up with it in the first place. And by the way, I have nothing against stupid white men. Without them I can’t compete in anything.
The point is, Collinsworth is right that red skin, as ANY skin, is no longer appropriate for a team name. Truth is, it NEVER was. And hey Mr. Snyder, you can use caps.