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The “Redskins,” racism, and the future of a franchise

NFL: DEC 01 Redskins at Panthers Photo by William Howard/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

At the risk of putting the final, tenderizing blows on a very dead horse, I thought it was worth composing some thoughts on the current moment in time, the Washington Redskins’ associations with racism, and origin stories for the team’s moniker and logo. Many Redskins fans will be familiar with some, or all, of these details. Some will not be. Many non-Redskins’ fans won’t be familiar with any of it. This is intended as an attempt to lay it all bare, and to facilitate a discussion that can result in broader understanding.

To begin, and to attempt to minimize claims of bias, let me first lay out my own position: I grew up as a fan of the team, with cheering on the Redskins a key point of contact with my father. We didn’t necessarily share a lot in common, but we both loved the Redskins, and both loved watching them together (and still do). In my younger years, I actually penned a letter imploring a name change (well before it was fashionable to do so). Decades have passed, and as they often do, views have become more complicated.

Ultimately, I would still root for the team, even if the name changes, though I’d rather that it didn’t. I absolutely understand the terrible treatment of American Indians throughout the country’s history, and I think that we all - and particularly those profiting off American Indian images - owe that community a great deal, and should take concrete steps to improve their welfare, to honor their history, and to acknowledge that people of all ethnic backgrounds spent much of this country’s existence trying to wipe them from the face of the earth.

To that end, my perspective is that breaking the connection between Washington, DC’s football team and its American Indian imagery can be just one more form of cultural erasure for a group of people who should ultimately be more prominently featured in the American experience. I believe the Washington Redskins (or perhaps some other name that retains the logo) should be turned into an organization that can serve as an exemplar for how to work in coordination with, and improve the lives of the American Indian community. More thoughts on that later.

The Redskins Were Birthed in Racism

Let’s get this out of the way at the beginning: The Redskins franchise was brought into existence by a virulent racist who leveraged that racism for a perceived business advantage until the federal government eventually forced his hand. That racism, however, was not directed at American Indians - quite the contrary - but African Americans.

When George Preston Marshall was awarded an NFL franchise in Boston in 1932, the team was originally called the Braves. To avoid confusion with the Boston Braves baseball team, he changed the name to the Boston Redskins in 1933. The change allowed Marshall to keep the American Indian imagery associated with the team, and also recognized the team’s head coach, William “Lone Star” Dietz, who was purported to be of Sioux heritage. At the time, the team also had six players of American Indian descent on the roster.

The fact that Marshall selected the name “Redskins” for his franchise suggests he saw it as an honorific title at the time, certainly not as a slur or way to degrade American Indians.

Marshall moved the Redskins to Washington, DC in 1937, after winning the division title game in 1936 and failing to get the desired level of fan support from Bostonians. From 1934 to 1946, there was an implicit “gentleman’s agreement” among NFL franchises not to hire African American players. Finally, in 1946, the LA Rams hired two African American players, causing a great deal of consternation among the rest of the owners, but ultimately breaching the dam of segregation. Nevertheless, one owner held fast.

Sixteen years after NFL (re) integration began, Marshall remained the last owner not to integrate. This, despite the fact that his teams of that era were absolutely pathetic, likely in large part because they didn’t take full advantage of the talent pool. In 1960 and 1961, the Redskins won one game apiece. From 1946 to 1962, they had a total of 3 seasons above .500.

Until 1960, with the founding of the Dallas Cowboys, the Redskins were the southernmost team in the NFL, and Marshall’s racism seems to have been a good fit with the demographics of that fanbase. Versions of the Redskins’ fight song during that period included references like “Fight for Old Dixie,” where the contemporary fight song refers to “Old D.C.” Marshall actively marketed the Redskins as the “South’s team,” and seems to have believed that an all-white team was good for business, even it if wasn’t good for winning.

“We’ll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites.” - George Preston Marshall

By the early 1960s though, the tides of change had arrived. In 1962, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy told Marshall that unless he signed an African American player, the federal government would revoke the lease on D.C. Stadium, where the Redskins were playing at the time. As an aside, this bit of history makes the re-naming of D.C. Stadium to “RFK Stadium,” after his assassination, all the more poignant. The stadium itself, and its location, are, in effect, a monument to integration, and I strongly suspect any future re-development of the site will play on that theme.

Faced with the potential loss of his lease, Marshall finally relented and drafted Syracuse’s Ernie Davis in the 1962. Because of Marshall’s reputation, Davis refused to play for him. The Redskins traded Davis to the Cleveland Browns for Bobby Mitchell, who became the first African American player for the Redskins, and an inductee into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1983. Curiously, in his obituary it was said that Marshall became “one of Mitchell’s most enthusiastic rooters.”

In 1963, after a debilitating stroke, control of the team was shifted from Marshall to a group of conservators.

In June 2020, the monument to George Preston Marshall at the RFK stadium site was removed and references to George Preston Marshall, including in the Redskins Ring of Honor and at FedEx field were removed in response to growing concerns about his tainted legacy.

Treaty with Indians Photo by: Picturenow/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

“Redskin” Was an American Indian Creation

The gold-standard work on the etymology of “red skin” was conducted by Smithsonian Senior Linguist, Ives Goddard, in 2005. “I am a Red-skin”: Adoption of a Native American Expression (1769-1826), goes into painstaking detail exploring the first appearance of the term “redskin” in the Americas and concludes the following:

“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. This terminology was developed by Native Americans to label new categories of the new ethnic and political reality that they confronted with the coming of the Europeans.”

In the early 1800s, the term “red-skin” was used by American Indian leaders to create a sense of “supra-tribal” identity when negotiating with the US Federal Government. It was intended to reference American Indian solidarity and unity, and to contrast these collected individuals with their “whiteskin” negotiating partners (e.g., the French, British, and former American colonists).

For some, this might be enough to say, “See, there, words mean things, and “redskin” wasn’t created as offensive. Quite the contrary, it was adopted as a description of American Indian unity.” But, it’s not that simple.

MattInBrisVegas provided a great introduction to this idea in another thread, but I will expand upon it here. In grammar, there are, broadly, two schools of thought. The first are “descriptivists,” who describe the ways the ways that people DO use language, in an arm’s length fashion, recording - with a minimal amount of their own input - trends and patterns. The second group is “prescriptivists,” who see themselves as in charge of how words SHOULD be used, and the “correct” way to use them. Prescriptivists tend to be much more rigid in defining terms, whereas descriptivists tend to have a more flexible orientation to usage.

A “prescriptivist” account of “redskin” might lock in on the 17th and 18th century definition that Goddard provided above, but the reality is, whatever rules we put in place, language has a nasty habit of morphing on us. One common example is the word “moron.” Originally, the word entered the English lexicon in 1910 as a neutral, medical term intended to describe, “one of the highest class of feeble-minded persons, with a technical definition of adult with a mental age between 8 and 12.” By 1922, the word had been dropped from medical use as a result of its evolving into an insult. Words do “mean something,” but they also often change, through usage, to “mean something else.” That, fundamentally, is the descriptivist position.

A descriptivist account would surely recognize that sometime in the period after “redskin” initially had positive connotations of American Indian unity and solidarity, its usage took on a much darker meaning. As the orientation of the new (white) Americans shifted from one of sympathy towards the American Indians, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, to enmity in the mid-1800s and beyond, with westward expansion, the word itself transformed:

“With his fall the nobility of the Redskin is extinguished, and what few are left are a pack of whining curs who lick the hand that smites them.” - L. Frank Baum (author of the Wizard of Oz)

The word itself was composed of the exact same letters, yet its effect was the polar opposite of its initial usage, because though it was describing the same group of people, its intent had been changed by the users.

With the conflicts between white Americans and American Indians dropping off - as a result of their near extermination - after the early 20th century, the usage of “redskin” to describe anyone other than Washington, DC’s football team, declined steeply in the 1950s. And, in a certain irony, an accurate descriptivist account would again register that shift. The word “redskin” went from a self-description of American Indian people (contrasted with the new immigrants), to a pejorative description of the American Indian people (by the new immigrants), to a description of a football team and its players. Any prescriptivist account, that the word only means one of those things, misses the mark and the complexity of its history. One particularly sticky element of the word “redskin,” however, is the direct link between its connotations and the complexion of its utterer.

It would be tone deaf, and oblivious to history, for white Americans, and white Redskins’ fans to fail to recognize that, for many American Indians, white people calling them “redskins” is synonymous with this country’s attempt to exterminate them. That is certainly not the way I believe most Washington Redskins’ fans use the word, but it is important to recognize why some see it as malignant. However we’ve also seen that the meanings of words can (and do) change.

Origin of the “Redskin” Controversy

Since the 1960s, Suzan Shown Harjo, an advocate for American Indian rights, has been working to end the use of American Indian mascots and stereotypes by sports teams. In 1992, she and several colleagues filed a lawsuit with the US Patent and Trademark Office attempting to cancel the registration of the “Washington Redskins” trademark on the grounds that it was offensive to American Indians. Despite losing that battle, Harjo and others have had significant success in their broader efforts, with 2/3’s of teams with American Indian mascots dropping them by 2013.

Harjo, and others more recently, have perpetuated the outlandish notion that word “red-skin” is derived from a heinous practice, the “scalping” of the genitalia of American Indians:

In 1863, for example, the Daily Republican in Winona, Minn., carried the following notice: “The State reward for dead Indians has been increased to $200 for every red-skin sent to Purgatory. This sum is more than the dead bodies of all the Indians east of the Red River are worth.”

The notion that George Preston Marshall, or a high school comprised of American Indian students, would name their mascots after these twisted bounties beggars belief. A far more plausible explanation for the usage above (which makes the practice no less horrific), is that it’s simply a re-use of the term used positively by American Indians, and later, negatively, by white Americans, to describe people of indigenous origin (or in this case, their soul). Even the hyphenated usage above is consistent with Goddard’s description of its early form.

The reality is, the treatment of American Indians by white Americans was horrible enough that there’s no need to fabricate tales about what “red-skin” “really” means to make the team’s name seem even more offensive.

Detroit Lions v Washington Redskins

The Logo

For the many things the franchise has done wrong since its inception, the way it handled the design of the current logo, commissioned in 1971, under the ownership of Edward Bennett Williams, was thoughtful, respectful, and well-executed.

At the urging of Walter “Blackie” Wetzel, a former Blackfeet tribal chairman and National Congress of American Indians President, the team changed its logo from the burgundy and gold “R” to the American Indian head logo the team sports today. Wetzel, who died in 2003, was an activist for American Indian civil rights and believed the new logo honored American Indian people.

Of his grandfather, Lance Wetzel said:

“Grandpa saw that the “R” was not the right representation of this team and organization. He stepped up to the plate when no one else would, which was an enormous deal to give that logo a sense of respect. There was no harm, he didn’t want to offend anyone. (He just wanted) to have an actual Native American on the helmet, a man who wanted to do something like this with heart and determination.”

The logo itself depicts a Blackfeet Chief, John “Two Guns” White Calf, who also appeared on the Buffalo nickel.

“When I look at the logo, I mostly think of my dad because he was a person who found pride in the Redskins logo, of having our people in the spotlight, and being represented by a big-time professional team,” Lance Wetzel said. “Back in that time frame, there wasn’t a whole lot of positives about Native Americans. To look at that helmet and see the representation there, I see a whole lot of pride.”

Polls, Polls, Polls

In 2004, the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania fielded a poll of 768 people who identified as Indians or Native Americans. In that poll, 90 percent of respondents said that calling the Washington football team the “Redskins” didn’t bother them. Nine percent found the name offensive. Specific subgroup findings are below:

There was little variation among subgroups of Native Americans. Eight percent of men and 9 percent of women said the name was offensive, while 90 percent of each sex said it did not bother them. Ten percent of Indians under 45 found the name offensive, compared to 8 percent of those 45 and older. Thirteen percent of Indians with college degrees or more education said “Redskins” was offensive, compared to 9 percent of those with some college and 6 percent of those with a high school education or less. Fourteen percent of Indians who called themselves politically liberal said the name was offensive, compared to 9 percent of moderates and 6 percent of conservatives. Among Indians with household incomes of $75,000 or more, 12 percent found the name offensive, compared to 9 percent of those with incomes between $35,000 and $75,000 and 8 percent of those with incomes below $35,000.

The designers for that poll later raised issues about its representativeness, however, given that the questions were asked as part of a larger, national survey.

In 2016, the Washington Post, which has a fairly well-established position opposing the Redskins’ name, fielded another poll asking Native Americans about the name. This poll sampled 504 people, from every state and DC and found that 70% of Native Americans didn’t feel “Redskins” was disrespectful to Indians, 80% would not be offended if a non-native called them that name, and 90% were not offended by the Redskins team name.

“It’s 100 people okay with the situation, and one person has a problem with it, and all of a sudden everyone has to conform,” Judy Ann Joyner, 64, whose grandmother was part-Shawnee and part-Wyandot, told the Post. “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.”

More recently, in early 2020, researchers from the University of Michigan, and University of California, Berkeley - convinced the earlier polls weren’t an accurate reflection of true, American Indian opinion - fielded their own poll of 1,019 Native American participants. Their findings were significantly more mixed than the earlier polls, with 49% of their respondents “offended” by the Redskins name, 13% indifferent, and 38% not offended. They also found that those with stronger senses of Native American identity were more likely to be opposed to the name and the use of Native American mascots.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 08 Samford at Florida State Photo by Logan Stanford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Alternative Models

The Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians, and Florida State Seminoles. One of these things is not like the others. Unlike most instances of professional and college sports’ teams using American Indian imagery to represent their teams, Florida State University has unique, deep bond with the tribe whose name the school shares:

For almost 70 years, Florida State has worked closely, side by side, with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The relationship, built on respect, is so mutually supportive that in 2005 the tribe — which rarely puts such things in writing — took an unprecedented, historic step with a public declaration of support. The Seminole Tribe invited the university president at that time, T.K. Wetherell, to Big Cypress Reservation to receive a written resolution from the Tribal Council affirming its enthusiastic support for the university’s use of the Seminole name, logos and images. Subsequently, Chief Jerry Haney of the Seminole Tribe of Oklahoma also publicly stated his support.

As part of the relationship, FSU has an ongoing set of cultural engagement activities with the Seminole tribe, including a scholarship program for students coming from reservations, an explicit mention that the team does not “have a mascot,” as well as courses focused on Seminole history and traditions.

This sort of partnership, built on mutual respect, honoring - and promoting - the traditions of the represented party, and contributing to their cultural and social success, is an ideal model for teams to adopt in an environment where simply profiting off the imagery of American Indians without their engagement and benefit is no longer desirable or acceptable.

One Path Forward

Engagement on the subject of the Redskins’ team name and its associated imagery requires a recognition of where concerns about them come from as well as the franchise’s legitimately checkered racial history. Recent steps to de-emphasize former owner George Preston Marshall, and to elevate team heroes, like Bobby Mitchell, are a step in the right direction, but it seems clear that they alone will not be sufficiently robust to tamp down objections to the team’s name.

Some (on both sides of the issue) would argue that the best outcome is for the team to divest itself from its American Indian association altogether. I disagree, as that simply results in one less opportunity for awareness building and American Indian community benefit.

“It will erase us,” Robert Doore [Blackfeet business owner] said. “It will erase us from history. It will erase us like we never happened. Let’s never forget the past because that’s what defines us. But if we dwell in the past and worry about a newspaper clipping that’s over 100 years old, then we’re going to die in the past.”

“We have an opportunity here with this Redskins discussion to educate America,” Doore added. “Why not use the massive platform of the Washington Redskins to reach millions of Americans? Let’s start fighting for something that matters. Let’s attack something like housing. Let’s attack alcoholism. I’ll fight tooth-and-nail if we can, but changing a football team name will do nothing for us.”

If Daniel Snyder is adamantly opposed to changing the name, as he has articulated in the past, then he should adopt a tone of conciliation and engagement with representatives of the American Indian community to strike a path forward. In the same way the word “redskin” shifted from a term of pride to one of vilification, I believe there is an opportunity to yet again shift its meaning. The Washington Redskins, in concert with the American Indian community, can help reclaim a term that was once one of unity and solidarity in the face of some of the most dramatic division that we have witnessed in a generation.

“We’re not dying. We’re very much alive. If the Redskins want to give us anything, create a foundation to help educate our children and to make the history the schools are teaching more realistic.” - Glenda Gilham [Blackfeet member].


What are your thoughts?

This poll is closed

  • 23%
    Change the name and the logo
    (533 votes)
  • 20%
    Change the name, keep the logo
    (464 votes)
  • 1%
    Change the logo, keep the name
    (24 votes)
  • 55%
    Keep the name and the logo
    (1278 votes)
2299 votes total Vote Now