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"Redskins" means Indians don't matter

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Redskins. Can anybody really pretend that this term does not refer to the color of skin, to a supposed ethnic feature of a people?

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, thought so, and passed a January 11 resolution calling on the Washington, D.C. football club by that name to consider changing it. The resolution, which called the term "demeaning and dehumanizing to Native Americans," caused a brief firestorm. Media pundits weighed in on the issue, which gained a moment of consideration in the national discourse.

As expected, Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder asserted that the term, as he uses it, refers to a tradition of Plains Indians painting their bodies red for war and not to the color of a people's skin. The intention is to "honor" Native Americans, he has said. Others argued that the resolution was "incendiary." "I think it's tantamount to saying to Redskins fans and to our constituents, 'you are bigots,'" stated Fairfax County supervisor Gerald Connolly. While Snyder's new myth can at least be credited for its exceptionally creative spin, Connolly's statements amount to hyperbole and disingenuous extrapolation.

The resolution, proposed by outgoing Council Chair, Carol Schwartz, a Republican, backs up a similar vote in November from the D.C. Council. Others nearby have also called for a change of the team's name. Montgomery County School Board in August banned use of Indian names for mascots, team names and logos. And a Maryland statewide ban is expected to pass.

A lawsuit by several prominent American Indians forced the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to cancel federal trademarks used by the Washington team. Stated lead plaintiff Suzan Harjo (also an Indian Country Today columnist): "In 1970, when the first Native reference was removed from an American sports team, there were approximately 3,000 athletic programs in the U.S. using Native names, symbols, logos or mascots. Now, at the beginning of 2002, more than half have been eliminated, and only 1,200 remain." The term "redskins" itself has already been dropped from use by sports teams in at least three high schools and two colleges. That's good progress and serves America well.

But the issue continues to be recalcitrant. Enter the pundits. On Fox Channel, Brit Hume and associated "All Stars" pooh-poohed the whole idea of such a term being insulting. Chuckling at the mere thought of it, the pundits dismissed the issue as ridiculous or hopeless, so why bother. Tucker Carlson, on CNN's Crossfire, asked the inevitable question whether there weren't more important things for Indians to worry about? And The Washington Times supported Connolly's outrageous comment and praised him for standing up "in the face of a hurricane wind of PC bloviating."

Considering the well-established historical use of the term "redskins," to describe American Indians in a pejorative way, all such questions seem to come from places beyond ignorance or even paternalism. In fact the refusal by so many otherwise knowledgeable people to give up their attachment to using Indian names and motifs for sports teams and mascots belongs in the realm of the psychological, perhaps even the pseudo-mystical.

Rick West, director of the National Museum of the American Indian, a stickler for all expressions grammatical and precise in meaning, said in a newsmaker luncheon at the National Press Club that, "there are words that are just not appropriate." Careful not to associate his personal belief with any official position of the Smithsonian Institution, he stated: "?words mean different things. If you're talking about red skin particularly, that's pejorative."

The sin of the insult rides the wave of appropriation. This is perhaps what makes it so difficult to eradicate. Not only is the idea of insult rejected, the strident claim is made that an honoring is being rendered by the use of the term. It is an established reality that Indian words, concepts and identities (not to mention land and resources) have been appropriated throughout American history -- a complicated phenomenon that, particularly in this case, deserves great scrutiny.

Yet, under any analysis, the term "redskins" is offensive to the overwhelming majority of Indians, even when applied to a football team. It is a consistent insult to some who will certainly chop at this rafter of poor taste until it breaks. Clearly, the term identifies a people by the color of their skin. Is there anything that American public discourse rejects more than a racial epithet? Writes Harjo, in "Team Spirits" (University of Neb. Press, 2001), "The term, Redskin, has despicable origins ... [in] the practice of paying bounties for the bloody red skins and scalps as evidence of Indian kill."

Expert testimony from the patents hearing (Harjo, et. al. v. Pro-football, Inc.), by Dr. Geoffrey Nunberg, asserted that the word has been in use for at least 300 years. An exhaustive review of dictionary entries, citations in the press, use in movies and encyclopedias from the early 1800s to present, etc., convinced the patent board that the word is "a connotative term that evokes negative associations," often used in the "context of savagery, violence and racial inferiority." A film study of the use of "redskins" in over twenty westerns found no "positive instance" of the use of the term. All uses were in the context of insult, coupled to negative adjectives, such as "dirty" or "lying."

Partially as a result of Dr. Nunberg's testimony, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board found that "the substantial composite of the general public finds the word "redskin(s)" to be a derogatory term of reference for Native Americans." In an April 2, 1999 ruling, the Appeal Board's three trademark judges granted the petition to cancel the Redskins federal trademarks "on the grounds that the subject marks may disparage Native Americans and may bring them into contempt or disrepute." The Indians' victory has been appealed to the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia.

However, even Redskins owners must admit that times have changed. What is mere "political correctness" to some is to others the awareness that abuse of any of the nation's peoples, regardless of population size, is unacceptable. It is more possible now for minority populations to establish a public space for their issues. If the people in question -- not just a few activists as some suggest, but the bulk of the affected group -- don't like the term and consider it insulting, what else is there to say?

The response of the Washington professional football team owner and that of obstinate American pundits at this time is all too clear.

To Indians: your beliefs don't count. Furthermore, we will define for you your issues and prioritize what you should be concerned about. We'll continue to explain our history so that eventually you will realize that for more than 500 years we've always had your best interests in mind.

The Washington football club now known as "Redskins" might never escape the reality of its discontented relations with the bulk of American Indian opinion. However, as a professional club located in the nation's capital, it has the opportunity to study the issue fully and profoundly. The Washington D.C. sports team could and should lead in this respect. It could provide a refreshing, intelligent and responsible gesture by changing its name and transforming itself into a more encompassing American identity. It's not easy, but it's the right thing to do, which should always be the preferred strategy.

For tribal leadership, continued support of this issue remains important to help build a better national society, one into which our children and grandchildren will enter, as Dr. Martin Luther King stated, not judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.