The Never Ending Name Debate

I know all of us have heard just about every angle of the Redskins name controversy over the past couple of years. The Huffington Post has recently published a story titled "The Most Important Super Bowl Ad You Didn't See." In the commercial, a very brief, yet prideful, history of the Native Americans was presented concluding with a direct attack at the term "Redskins." I'll post the video here for anyone that wants to watch it:

The reason why I'm writing is because I recently took a justice class at the university I attend, and we had to create a thesis for our final research paper. Being a lifelong fan of our football team, I immediately thought about the controversy surrounding our team name. I get to write about my favorite team in the world, on a topic that is so relevant to equal justice and living in a civil society. The paper ended up being much longer than I anticipated, simply because I was far too interested in the topic to merely skim the surface. I worked pretty hard on the paper, and just wanted to share it with the rest of the HogsHaven community to see what all of you thought. I did my best to remain objective in my research and writing, while ultimately defending the team name. In reading this, I hope I offend no other members of the community, nor anyone for that matter. I respect all race, religion, creed, gender, etc... and hope everyone finds this insightful, and perhaps a little enlightening. Enjoy, and as always, HTTR.

In Defense of the "Redskins"

The majority of professional sport and college mascots can be separated into two distinct categories. Many schools and cities use some type of animal to identify their athletic program. Others rally around human groups whose significance lies in their uniqueness. While the majority of the latter in the role of mascot are distinguished by their past, their present, as it is for all groups, is a different reality. While the historical portrayals of cowboys and brewers seem to cause no direct harm to present-day cattle herders and brew masters, the existence of Native Americans as iconic sports mascots continues to be extremely controversial and a hot spot for moral debate.

Many colleges are following a sweeping trend of disassociating their sports teams, and their mascot, from Native Americans that used to represent their school. The trend has not yet migrated to professional sports. While names such as the Indians, Braves, and Blackhawks have received their fair share of criticism from the general public, no name has caused more backlash and political controversy than the Washington Redskins. Opponents will point to the context of the term when used by European settlers and, thus, link it to general views on racial stereotypes. Supporters often target its historical acceptance and alleged "prideful" introduction into Native American culture. In this essay, I will argue the use of the moniker "Redskins" as a sports mascot is not degrading and insulting towards Native Americans. Moreover, its usage is an attempt to honor their culture and history, one that was continually placed in jeopardy by the actions of the immigrants to our continents, as well as the political leaders of our country.

One of the main arguments critics provide against the use of the name is the origin of the word and the context it was used in. The term Redskin "should remind every American there was a time in our history where America paid bounties for human beings" (Sigelman 204). This of course references the practice of killing Native Americans and turning their bodies in for a paid reward. Although not common, this did occur during the 19th century as an effort to try to scare Indians off their land and push them further west. Because transporting an entire body, or more, across rugged terrain was not particularly easy, the collectors of these bounties began skinning a portion of the dead body as a more convenient way of proving their kill and redeeming their reward. Due to this, many people continue to link the term today with the archaic and barbaric practices that were employed by anglo-european settlers. It is for this exact reason that Redskin is seen by some as a derogatory term akin to the N-word for African Americans and W-word for those of Mexican or South American descent. Even Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines Redskin as "usually offensive," confirming many people’s beliefs and opinions on its defamatory nature.

The issue with Merriam-Webster’s dictionary is that it is a group of professional editors’ job and place to determine the definition of a word, based on its common and assumed use and connotation. Back in the 1800’s, when the first catalog of the English language was produced, the definition of words was determined by how the masses applied and used the word at the time, not necessarily allowing for subjectivity and progressive morphing. In fact, a book titled "The Professor and the Madman" gives a inter-personal perspective into the two men who essentially created the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1857. Professor James Murray was in charge of creating the first edition and sent out a brochure across all of England asking people to write in with quotations of words, and how they were used and how they evolved over time. This democratized effort proved that the dictionary was not under charge of a few, yet millions and millions of people had an influential say about the definitions that were eventually published (Winchester). The stark difference between this method and the one currently employed by Merriam Webster makes it easy to see how issues of acceptability arise with certain words, especially considering controversial terms such as Redskin. Knowing this, Merriam Webster’s definition of "usually offensive" may not be as valid as some would think, proving that critics can not simply point to the dictionary definition of the word.

The ambiguity surrounding the origin of the name is certainly troubling; however, there is sound evidence that contradicts the previously stated belief that Anglo-European settlers first used and applied the term. "The first two known occurrences of redskin, that were published contemporaneously, are in translations of speeches by two Indian chiefs of different tribes" (Goddard 6). Black Thunder and Big Elk, chiefs of the Meskwaki and Omaha tribes respectively, were both quoted and translated using the term redskin in the summer of 1815 as a source of identification and differentiation between their people and the white settlers. The continual usage of redskin as an Indian expression to distinguish themselves from their white neighbors has been documented and continued throughout the 19th century. Not only did Indians and whites use this term alike, but recorded documentation also existed of white people referring to themselves as "we white-skins" (Goddard 13), further proving the use of the term as an identifying factor and less of a derogatory idiom. The application of redskin as an in-group term was completely genuine, echoing both precise perception of the Native American self-image and the continually developing appreciation among whites for the Indian’s unique culture. "The word redskin reflects a genuine Native American idiom that was used in several languages, where it grew out of an earlier established and more widespread use of ‘red’ and ‘white’ as racial labels" (Goddard 16).

This is the primary foundation for my argument. The term originated independently within the Native American tribes as a way of distinguishing themselves from other white settlers. Granted, it did develop a negative connotation because of its association with Native American bounties, this surely in itself does not make the term derogatory in nature. Although being a Native American probably does not harbor the same amount of stereotypes of being African American or Asian per say, not once have I ever heard a person of non Native American descent label or identify an actual Indian as a redskin. Although my interaction with Native Americans is limited, plenty of people identifying as Native American have stated they have never heard of, nor been on the receiving end of a derogatory attack referencing that word. Looking past your personal views on the connotation of the term, it’s worth acknowledging who is trying to change it. The majority of politicians who are stridently opposed to the use of the name and wish to see it changed do not identify with Native American heritage. While their views and opinions are certainly educated and worth being heard, what would it say about us if their voices forced the issue? If the term harbors any element of prideful undertones and implications, why not leave it up to Native Americans to decide on the fate of the name? Making important decisions affecting their culture and lifestyle without their consideration and consent is, more or less, exactly what we did when we forced them from their lands and decimated their population. Although this decision is far less significant, our historical tendency to make decisions on their behalf must be taken into consideration.

Although some may say the facts behind the origin of the name are too ambiguous to rely on for argument sake, there are still concrete facts and evidence that support the main argument. Perhaps the most tangible and telling of all this evidence was a poll conducted in 2004 by the Annenberg Public Policy Center. The survey asked 65,047 participants, 768 of whom were Native American, whether they thought the use of the term Redskins was offensive. 91% of the Native Americans who completed the survey did not find Redskins offensive and actually liked the name. One of the most common critiques offered to dispute this evidence was the failure of the poll to ask more specific questions to ensure that these self identified Native Americans actually had roots in Native American life and were still engrained in the culture. Regardless of this, roughly 700 Native American proclaimed that the name was a non-issue. The scope of the sample size is enough to ensure that many of the participants do fully identify as Native American, especially when considering the poll collected data from every state with the exception of Alaska and Hawaii. Susan Shown Harjo offered a different assessment on the validity of the poll claiming, "It’s not up to the offending class to say what offends the offended" (Redmon). She also claims that this is a perfect example of internalized oppression, believing many of the identified Native Americans have been persecuted and subjugated by American culture to a point where they have come to accept the term in benevolence. Although the majority of the participants were not self-identified Native Americans, the fact that nearly 700 that were is sound enough evidence to refute her first objection. On her second point, she is simply making a blanket statement and assumption on behalf of a very large group of people. To tell actual Native Americans that their opinion was not defensible simply due to the misconstrued and assumed belief they’ve come to accept the term as part of American culture is attacking their heritage and value systems. Not only is it offensive in this light, but it actually demeans the group by questioning their ability to reply with intelligence and candor. Like any other ethnic group, Native Americans deserve to be treated as a responsible educated group of people with logical opinions on controversial public issues. Harjo’s claim about their obliviousness would be congruent to telling a group of African Americans that their views on racial profiling cannot be taken seriously because they cannot fully grasp the controversial nature of the practice. (Annenberg Public Policy Center. "Redskins Survey." Survey. 24 September 2004.)

It’s worth noting and observing where the term exists in other parts of America. There are high schools across the country that, like Washington’s football team, use Redskins as their mascot. For example Wellpinit High School in Washington state, whose student body is roughly 90% Native American, display their image with honor. Kingston High School in Oklahoma has used the term for over a century and the surrounding town members of the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes view it with a certain amount of pride. Brett Hayes, an English teacher at the school who is a member of the Choctaw tribe, says for the students, "it seems like it's just people who have no connection with the Native American culture, people out there trying to draw attention to themselves" (Reilly). Perhaps most interestingly, the word Oklahoma itself is Choctaw for "Red People." Although not the same term, red people and redskins were used interchangeably between Native Americans. I wonder how people would feel if they changed the name to the Washington Oklahoman’s. Fundamentally, is there really a difference between this and the current team name?

The primary and most obvious objection addressing this argument comes down to percentages. As previously stated, a nationwide poll came to show that 91% of a large group of Native Americans considered the name change a non-issue. While the force behind this argument follows the simple logic of majority wins, some believe that the opinion of that small minority is perhaps more significant and important than the 91%. It helps to compare this ratio to smaller, more commonplace examples. Mike Wise, a columnist for the Washington Post, offered the analogy of throwing a dinner party. He posed the question if nine of your ten guests said they enjoyed the meal, yet the tenth vehemently disagreed, would you personally consider the dinner a success? In response to this counter point, I argue that it’s neither fair nor congruent to compare a matter of national scope and implications to a personal dinner party. There are many common world instances where a nine to ten ratio marks an incredible success rate, while there are others in which it marks significant failure. On top of this, I would indeed consider this dinner to be a success. If nine of ten Native Americans found no problem with the use of the name, while a clear group inside this nine actually considered the name to be a term of endearment with constructive insinuations, why should that one persons voice so clearly outweigh and dominate the opinion of the other nine?

Perhaps more serious and objectionable cases arise when comparing redskins to other ethnic mascots or groups of people. One very important and valid point to consider is the fact that a lot of people or groups of people that are represented as a mascot do not exist anymore. Teams such as the Vikings, 49ers, 76ers, and the Senators (of the Roman variety) pay homage to a specific or general group of people that are historically significant. However, there are still mascots that represent current and living groups of people. The Dallas Cowboys and Milwaukee Brewers have already been previously alluded to in this paper, but we also see the Montreal Canadiens and Green Bay Packers, among others. So the question naturally arises, does the non-existence of that specific group of people make it socially acceptable to portray them as a mascot, and more importantly, what distinguishing factor about the Redskins makes it unacceptable compared to other existing groups of people?

I understand the belief that obsolete people, such as the Vikings, are socially accepted when used as a mascot because there’s no way to offend a group of people that are more or less extinct. Offending a group of people is not the only issue at hand, however. The selection of mascots usually stems from two explanations. They are sometimes historically relevant to the city they play in, or they can exhibit qualities and values that are hopefully similarly exhibited by the team they represent. By looking at a brief history of the state, it is fairly obvious that Pirates have no historical relevance to Pennsylvania. That brings us to the second point. Although Vikings and Pirates are well known to have exhibited values such as strength, bravery, and courage, they were also ruthless human beings who raided, raped, and murdered innocent civilians. I find it extremely difficult to justify these deplorable actions, much less celebrate them, while a mascot meant to honor the original inhabitants of our nation receives wide spread criticism. On top of this, you could also make the argument that Pittsburgh’s mascot is symbolizing a group of people that are very much existent and relevant in present day. Although the image and tradition of the team embody Caribbean pirates, that doesn’t change or excuse the fact that pirates today are perhaps even worse than they were centuries ago. Granted, the point of this article is not to attack the history and legacy behind those two franchises, but defend Washington’s; I think it’s important and relevant to pay attention to the double standard that we often exhibit when it comes to judging the moral and ethical implications of the use of a mascot.

There are many people in the country that view the Redskins mascot as a mockery towards the Native American race. These people see not only a human being with red skin, but also a "‘symbol of a human being who is presented as violent, as aggressive and uncivilized, as a caricature of an ordinary human being’" (Galbreath). Many believe this mascot and logo perpetuated the negative stereotype and profile of a violent, savage human. The utilization of the Redskin as a mascot; however, is not aimed at depicting a savage, barbarous, cruel group of people. Instead, it aims at honoring an ethnic group with a tremendous amount of pride and honor that has survived the exclusion and prejudice we have forced upon them. This is important because it highlights a crucial concept that Deborah Hellman stresses in her views on racial profiling and statistical generalizations. Most people believe racial profiling is problematic and offensive due to the nature of the practice. Hellman disagrees, countering with the belief that racial profiles are used all the time and no one takes offense to them (for example the FDA legalizing a heart medicine to be prescribed only to African American males due to a unique gene type). Racial profiling by police officers is problematic because it reinforces the negative, and untrue, stereotype that most blacks are criminals, and expresses an insulting demeaning message towards African Americans. The use of an Indian chief as a profile for the Redskins logo and mascot is not problematic because it does not reinforce any negative stereotypes about the Native Americans. The team does not attempt to re-create rituals or practices that are customary and sacred to Native American culture as means of bolstering fan allegiance. They honor Native Americans with the use of their mascot in hopes that the team will portray the positive characteristics that make the Native Americans such a proud group of people. This notion remains valid and defensible against one of the last objections to the use of the name Redskins, which is, why should any team use any type of racial group or ethnic background to depict their mascot?

Another mascot that I believe bares important features for comparison sake is the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The most common explanation for the origin of the name claims to pay tribute to the fierce, determined, and tenacious qualities of the Irish people; however, there are people who take offense to the name. Among the aforementioned qualities, one of the most common stereotypes that depict Irish people is their tendency to abuse alcohol, and as an effect, become extremely aggressive and belligerent. This mascot is also similar to the Redskins in the sense that Irish people are just as much a part of present day American culture as Native Americans are. So why is it that there is essentially zero resistance against Notre Dame’s mascot, while the Redskins exist in a political firestorm?

The most obvious explanation to provide for this is Irish Americans are nowhere near as marginalized in the United States as Native Americans are. The fact that they have been and continue to be a very vulnerable ethnic group in American society makes the use of Native American mascots much more offensive to them than an Irish one would to Irish Americans. To counter this argument, I propose, again, looking at what both mascots are embodying.

The Fighting Irish is widely accepted in our culture because of the underlying image behind the mascot. Regardless if some people view it as offensive, citing the previously mentioned Irish stereotypes, the name and mascot honors the Irish people, specifically in regards to their durable, resilient, never say die attitudes. This is not explicitly stated anywhere in Notre Dame’s creed or mission, but it is understood because people know the University would never choose an ethnic group in hopes of mocking and defaming their proud culture. The same can be said and holds true for the Washington Redskins. The name was not chosen in hopes of associating the team and fan base with a group of people depicted as ruthless savages. As it has for the past 80 years, the term Redskin exists to honor an extremely dignified and self-respecting race of people.

Regardless of your stance on the Redskins, an even larger majority of the population takes no objection to Cleveland using the Indians as their mascot for their professional baseball team. The same can be said for the Atlanta Braves and Chicago Blackhawks. Examining more closely forces us to consider if Redskins is morally objectionable due to the fact that it may or may not be a racial epithet, or more simply because ethnic groups should not be represented by a mascot. Although the case for the Fighting Irish has already been presented and defended, I often wonder what the public reaction would be like if the Miami Marlins suddenly became the Miami Mexicans, honoring the Latino population that thrives in South Beach. What about if the Golden State Warriors ironically gave up their Native American mascot to become the California Chinamen, paying homage to the influx of oriental immigrants that came to the West Coast early in the 20th century. Needless to say, both of these name changes would be shut down before the proposal even lifted off the ground due to the political correct nature of the world that we live in. The aforementioned constructive undertones of the Fighting Irish and Redskins are what distinguish these two mascots from the hypothetical Mexicans and Chinamen.

Native Americans are just as much a thriving ethnic group in the United States as Asians and Mexicans are, although the later two groups undoubtedly represent a larger percentage of the U.S. population. They both have significant roots in the history of our young nation; however, these histories are vastly different. From a revisionist perspective, this country belongs to the Native Americans. Although we come together the fourth day of every July to celebrate the day this country was officially signed into actuality, it has been a country, and more importantly, a home from whom we usurped it for centuries. The collective actions of our past will forever tarnish the reputation of this Nation that we hold in such high esteem, so it is to the future we look to repair them.

We provide plenty of occasions and opportunities to celebrate Asian and Latino heritage every year, but these heritages are not uniquely specific to America like the Native American’s is. Just as much as professional football, Native Americans represent an incredibly important and significant aspect of the United States, which is why we choose to honor their history, amongst many other ways, by labeling our Nation’s capital’s football team the Redskins. The past marginalization and exclusion of Native Americans is something we will continue to aim to fix and honoring the Natives of this country as a sports mascot helps to depict them in a better more visible light. This recognition by no means is an attempt to degrade and insult their heritage, but a mere salute and commendation towards their decorated past, present, and future.

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