'Redskins' in Media and On the Ground

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The Washington Post poll about "redskin" sports names raised uproar in social media, but, as Harlan McKosato pointed out, "what we see on social media nowadays…does not reflect how Native people in general necessarily feel about certain issues."

McKosato suggested that some issues—like the names debate—exist primarily in the media, while other issues—like the quality of daily life—exist in communities on the ground. He concluded that any poll trying to capture Native opinions about Native issues ought to be "focused on tribal members only…. strictly … folks that grew up in Native communities and with Native relatives and family."

McKosato described the Post poll as "fundamentally flawed," because it conflated two questions into one: "Do you find the term 'redskins' offensive?" and "Does the term personally bother you?" He said he would answer yes to the first and no to the second, and that the failure of the poll to separate the two precludes a true understanding of where opinion stands.

The results of two other poll questions support his criticism. Only 9 percent of respondents answered yes to the combined double question about "offensive" and "bothered." However, when the poll asked if they "feel the word 'Redskin' is disrespectful to Native Americans," 21 percent said yes. And 17 percent said yes when asked if they would be "personally offended" if a non-Native called them a "redskin."

The doubling and more than doubling of yes answers to disaggregated similar questions raises doubts about the statistical significance and the policy usefulness of the poll as a whole.

A further problem arises from the fact that the Post poll accepted responses from any person self-identified as Native, regardless whether they were "enrolled as a member with a Native American tribe" or lived "on or near reservation / tribal land." This definition tracks the language of "federal recognition," implying that a poll respondent was Native even if not part of the federal regime.

Any definition of Native carries baggage. The federal recognition definition has the status of U.S. law. Native self-identification includes Indigenous peoples who evaded or avoided the U.S. system. Self-identification, however, also opens the door to people who have no actual association with Native Nations at all.

Even if we accept the notion that an Indian does not have to be "recognized" by the U.S. to be a "real Indian," the conflation of the two categories not only undermines the significance of the poll, but also obscures a more basic question: More significant than whether you are 'legally' Indian, "Do you find it offensive that the U.S. subordinates Indigenous Peoples to its own definitions?" I don't know what the responses would be to such a poll, but I know the question aims at a deeper issue than the name of a sports team.

The fact that Indians are legally subordinated by U.S. law, coupled with the long and continuing history of violence associated with the term "redskin," raises yet another problem with the poll: When a major national newspaper asks someone whether they are "bothered" by the fact that their existence has been caricatured by their skin color, their response cannot be separated from their effort to avoid physical danger and social ostracism. Their effort to "fit in" to American society skews their responses.

The Post's interviews accompanying the poll show that poll respondents were in fact concerned about "fitting in" to majority views about Indians and about the potential for violence against Indians. For example, the Post reported that Barbara Bruce, a Chippewa teacher, said, "I’m proud of being Native American and of the Redskins. I’m not ashamed of that at all. I like that name." But, the interview continued, "She and many others surveyed embrace native imagery in sports because it offers them some measure of attention in a society where they are seldom represented." In other words: "fitting in."

The Post quoted another poll respondent, identified only as a "New York resident," Judy Ann Joyner, a retired nurse whose grandmother was part-Shawnee and part-Wyandot, who said, "You’ll find people who don’t like puppies and kittens and Santa Claus. It doesn’t mean we’re going to wipe them off the face of the earth." Aside from the oddity of comparing Indians to puppies and kittens and Santa Claus (!), Joyner's remarks indicate her awareness of the genocidal efforts in American history—what has been called the American Holocaust—to wipe Indians off the face of the Earth. Such a respondent will understandably try not to emphasize her Indianness.

When we add to this that the poll showed more than half of respondents (56%) had heard "not too much or less" about the "redskin" debate, the significance of the poll diminishes further. An Indian (or Indian-related) person who has heard little or nothing about the issue will be that much more likely to respond from an underlying concern with "fitting in" and avoiding a repeat of historical genocide.

In short, the WashingtonPost poll results show lack of knowledge of the issue (56%); confusion about who is Indian ('enrolled' or not); and worry about the dangers of being Indian ("fitting in"), with a consequent desire to keep your head down in the crossfire of American media while simultaneously trying to gain social approval by participating in American sports culture.

Marshall McLuhan, the communication theorist whose most famous statement was "the medium is the message," argued that different media have different social and personal effects. Social media and journalistic media may deal with the same issue, but they impart different effects, because "it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action."

The “redskin” poll emanated from journalistic media—The Washington Post, a major national newspaper with a high level of editorial direction, embedded in elite politics. The whirlwind response to the poll came from social media, an indiscriminate aggregation of viewpoints from among the population at large.

These two forms of media shape and control the scale and form of human association and action about 'redskin' in different ways. On one hand, journalistic media engaged American society in an "official" way, positioning Indians (Native Americans) within the discourse of an American "melting pot" of different ethnicities. On the other hand, social media engaged people in the "pot" directly, positioning Indians ('skins!) not as poll respondents, but as active culture shapers.

As we think about these different effects of different media, however, let us keep in mind non-mediated communication—direct communication among people who share their lives—as Indians or not, on their own lands or not, in their own languages or not. These are people of whom Harlan McKosato said, "I can’t imagine that guy waking up and the first thing he does is check his Facebook, Twitter or Google account."

When the dust settles around the Washington Post poll and the social media uproar about 'redskin,' there will still be talk about—and some living—what it means to be Indigenous in the face of a corporate-state world.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.