There’s a certain sort of modern irony–a sweet, sweet irony–in the uproar among the very small minority in the media, academia, and in the public at large who find the Washington Redskins to be an offensive team nickname. That is, it would be sweet, if the preposterous nature of the public crusade didn’t involve real attempts to ruin real people. For several years there have been those in the sports media: Michael Silver and Bob Costas, for example; those in the political sphere like Barack Obama and Senate Democrats, and those professional offense-takers and publicity hounds, such as Ray Halbritter and Amanda Blackhorse who equate the naming of a football team the Redskins as akin to using the “N” word for a team nickname.
Let’s pause for a moment. If we are discussing the relative offensiveness of two words and you won’t even say one of them, you already lose. By your own standard.
Ahem. Okay, back to the issue at hand–irony. Not irony in the literal sense that English majors would recognize, but modern irony–that bastardized word that is used even by otherwise well-educated people, all too often, to describe something that doesn’t make sense, is hypocritical, or just plain sucks–here’s looking at you, Alanis Morissette.
In order to fully understand the utter hypocrisy and ignorance of those calling for the dismantling of the Washington Football Redskins, one has to understand the origins of the word Redskin, how the Redskins adopted the nickname, and also the reasons for the apoplectic furor of some over the term.
First, the genesis. No one is sure when the first use of the term red skin occurred, but what is fairly clear is that it was coined by American Indians themselves, and was used to differentiate between the new “white skins” and the familiar “red skins.” The earliest known use was by Chief Mosquito in a letter to other Chiefs and an Englishman:
“I shall be pleased to have you come to speak to me yourself if you pity our women and our children; and, if any redskins do you harm, I shall be able to look out for you even at the peril of my life.” (1)
The term was widely used and recognized as a neutral descriptor (like today’s White or Black) by July 1815 when it was used at the treaty council at Portage des Souix and widely disseminated when Chief Black Thunder stated:
“My Father—Restrain your feelings, and hear ca[l]mly what I shall say. I shall tell it to you plainly, I shall not speak with fear and trembling. I feel no fear. I have no cause to fear. I have never injured you, and innocence can feel no fear. I turn to all, red skins and white skins, and challenge an accusation against me.” (2)
The term Redskin continued to be used, though less commonly than the term Indian, as a common descriptor of American Indians throughout the 1800’s and 1900’s. A linguistic study cited by Bruce Stapleton of 42 books written throughout that period found that the term Redskin was not used more negatively than the term Indian (though both were used more often negatively than positively, perhaps more reflective of the views at the time regarding American Indians on a whole). (3)
By 1933, the word was still neutral and it was commonplace to name sports teams after warrior peoples. A U Penn article in The Language Log references proof from the 1933 press release in the Boston Herald that the team was named the Redskins in honor of the coach and four American Indian players whom they had recently signed:
In 1933, George Preston Marshall, the owner of the team, which was then located in Boston, renamed it the Boston Redskins in honor of the head coach, William “Lone Star” Dietz, an American Indian. When the team moved to Washington in 1937 it was renamed the Washington Redskins. George Marshall clearly did not consider the name disparaging. (4)
And from the Boston Globe July 6th, 1933:
FOOTBALL BRAVES BECOME REDSKINS
It will be the Boston Redskins, and not the Boston Braves when the National Football League season gets under way next Fall. When Pres George Marshall entered an eleven from Boston in the professional football league last year the team was naturally christened the Boston Braves, but yesterday, just before starting for Chicago to attend the League’s annual meeting, he announced the change in name.
This new name is rather appropriate in more than one sense. The head and since the close of the 1932 season Pres Marshall and Coach Dietz have signed up a number of Indian players. Not only that, but the Boston National League ball park has long been called the Wigwam. (5)
The adoption of the nickname was unremarkable in 1933, and remains unremarkable today among those who are supposedly the victims of this slurrious assault on skin color. Among a litany of others, a Public Policy Center poll from the University of Pennsylvania study found that 91% of American Indians did not have a problem with the nickname. (6) What this establishes, is that there is a baseline of 9% of American Indians, much like Americans at large, who are professionally offended. Though parlance has evolved (we don’t use the term Negro any longer, even though this was once considered the most respectful descriptor), and the term is now archaic, we should of course consider the offensiveness of an antique team name by the intent and reception at the time. Not by manufactured outrage and faux-offense.
Enter modern liberals. Of course, most of the clamor surrounding the purported offensiveness of the team name of Redskins is created by our liberal friends. When they are not personally offended (which is not often), they make a point to be offended for others. This usually involves stepping in as an unsolicited advocate for people groups they feel are too ignorant or incompetent to be capable of being offended for themselves (as good intellectuals always do). This is what happened in the case of the Washington Redskins.
In the absence of real injustices that they cared to combat, like abortion or human trafficking, liberals of the late 20th and early 21st century were left with shibboleths about skin color to crusade over. Thusly, though we have established that the term Redskin was not offensive at the time it was first coined or when it was adopted by our nefarious football friends, liberals have spent 20 years claiming that the mere fact that the term Redskins delineates between one shade and the other makes it inherently racist. Without a shred of evidence of the racial animus that supposedly envelopes the use of Redskin, they have enjoyed moderate success in convincing those who do not pay attention to history or to nuance that the term is offensive. Their claims of offended parties thereby becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy over time (even though 79% of people generally and 82% of minorities still do not favor a name change and 91% of American Indians are still not offended). (6).
However, there are also American Indians who are opposed to the name. Take, for instance, Ray Halbritter of the Oneida Indian Nation. He calls himself the Chief of the noble Iroquois nation, but what Habritter actually is, is the CEO. Halbritter was an Ivy League-educated businessman who returned to the Oneidas in the 1990’s and initiated a hostile takeover of the Oneida Nation. The Oneidas were a matriarchal tribe which chose their Chiefs via the clan mothers. Halbritter circumvented this criteria, contrary to the wishes of the tribe itself and now sits unchallenged as the leader of this lucrative organization’s casinos, gas stations and resorts. He appoints his own clan mothers, now, and has repeatedly violated the tribe’s Great Law, the Haudenosaunee. (7). He has done so via hook and via crook, and wants to make a name for himself–what better way to do that than by beginning a national ad campaign designed to intimidate Dan Snyder into changing his team’s name? Why, he’d be a veritable Martin Luther King of the American Indians!
Then, there’s Amanda Blackhorse, the Navajo Indian whose crusade in U.S. Patent Court recently led the Federal agency to revoke the half-century old trademark held by the Washington Redskins. The court cited 35 USC 1052(2)(a) in ruling that the team’s trademark “consists of or comprises immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.”
Blackhorse contends that the use of Redskins as a team nickname heaps injurious mockery upon the American Indian people. Sounds serious. Super serious. Except that, as George Will reported in the Boston Herald on June 29th, Blackhorse’s testimony explains that “someone [once told her that teams’ mascots] are meant to be ridiculed…to be toyed with…to be pushed around and disrespected” and “have stuff thrown at them.” So, all mascots are disrespected, no matter who they are–So, at least we’ve established that Amanda Blackhorse has no idea what she is talking about…
She also stated that “any team name that references Native Americans” is a malicious “appropriation of our culture.” (8). And, there’s the other shoe. So, in other words, the Cleveland Indians, Florida State Seminoles, Atlanta Braves, and the Redskins of Red Mesa High School, from Blackhorse’s very own reservation–all offensive. Basically, in the event that a Native American finds the term Redskin as a team name to be offensive, they probably find any reference to American Indians of any kind to be equally injurious.
Ah, but we can’t leave out the hypocrisy! Let’s forget about the openly “disparaging” team nicknames of the Fightin’ Irish, Runnin’ Rebs, and Ragin’ Cajuns, let’s look at the New York Yankees. You might not think so given the proud use of the term here on the Exile, but the term Yankee was first used in the mid-1700’s and has customarily been a pejorative throughout its history. Funny, though New Yorkers have appropriated it now as a non-offensive term for their beloved baseball team, the word was originally a slur aimed at northerners, particularly New Englanders. How, then, can the U.S. Patent Office extend a trademark to a team that adopted a name with such a blatantly offensive origin? Why, you say, there is almost no one who is offended by the term, and it is now a neutral term? Why should that matter? It was a scurrilous insult way back when–certainly we’ve come too far to continue on with such bigotry today! Where are the boycotts? The irony, again, is striking.
Let’s recap: Redskin was a neutral term at its inception, coined by the people it references. It remained neutral until professional victims in the late 20th century determined that the mere mention of pigment was cause for crusade. Yankee, on the other hand, originated as a comical slur against Americans and northerners in particular. By the 20th century, it had become a neutral term among northerners but southerners and foreigners still use the term as a pejorative, to present. Is there something I’m missing? Where is the outrage?
The ill-informed opinions of a very small minority of people about a mere football team name would not usually be a problem–more of an amusement, really–except that these people find ways of using the power of government to enforce their views on others, without regard to the factual veracity of those opinions. Here, it was the U.S. Patent Office, but where does it end?
David Teesdale, finds that pointing out hypocrisy is a lovely way to reduce stress. It’s like squeezing a stress ball–made up of liberals
1. Goddard, Ives (2005). “I AM A RED-SKIN: The Adoption of a Native American Expression (1769-1826)”. Native American Studies (19:2): 4. Retrieved July 1, 2014. “French: “je serai flatté que tu Vienne parler toimeme pour avoir pitie De nos femmes et De nos enfans, et si quelques peaux Rouges te font Du mal je Scaurai soutenir tes Interests au peril De ma Vie”
2. Goddard, Ives (2005). “I AM A RED-SKIN: The Adoption of a Native American Expression (1769-1826)”. Native American Studies (19:2): 15. Retrieved July 1, 2014. “One of those who evidently noticed Black Thunder’s speech was James Fenimore Cooper”
3. Bruce Stapleton (March 6, 2001). Redskins: Racial Slur or Symbol of Success?. iUniverse. ISBN 0595171672.
4. The Origin of Redskin (March 26, 2004). The Language Log. http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002961.html
5. Chase Stuart (February 28, 2013). The Origins of the Name Redskins. http://www.footballperspective.com/the-origin-of-the-name-redskins/
6. “Most Indians Say Name of Washington “Redskins” Is Acceptable While 9 Percent Call It Offensive, Annenberg Data Show”, National Annenberg Election Survey, September 24, 2004, retrieved 2008-08-11
7. “Christian Peacemaker Teams’ Oneida Report”. 2014-06-20.
8. George Will (June 29, 2014). When Redskins is Heard a Disparaging Word. http://bostonherald.com/news_opinion/opinion/op_ed/2014/06/will_when_redskins_is_heard_as_a_disparaging_word