“Hail to the Redskins!” fans sing, as their football team plays for our nation’s capital. The Redskins, founded in 1932, is an organization as tried and storied as any in the National Football League.

However beaten and battered the 46-man squad that squares off on Sundays in FedEx Field may be, no NFL team’s fight for yardage measures up to the history of Native American land struggle. That narrative is vaster and dirtier than the muddy gridiron field.

As early as the mid-18th century, the term “redskin” was used by Native American tribe leaders as a means of distinguishing between “whites” and “reds,” a racial framework imposed upon New World natives by white Europeans. In point of fact, its initial usage was actually “benign,” according to Ives Goddard, a linguist at the Smithsonian Institution.

But like all language, it fell prone to an evolving usage, reflecting the trajectory of American prejudices in the 18th and 19th centuries. By 1900, Native Americans understood well what it had come to signify — the bloody scalps of murdered Indians.

To many Native groups and activists today, the irony is striking. The very same American society that claimed ownership of, and therein definitional authority over, what had become a hateful aspersion, was the same society that over 100 years later flaunted the slur as an ostensibly inoffensive team name. Worse yet, at its inception in the 1930s, the Redskins represented a virtually all-white league with a similarly homogeneous fan base.

Yet the injury of commandeering a historically maligned people as an icon adds insult beyond mere semantics. Of the 32 teams in the league, 22 use animals as mascots; a fact that, to many Native Americans, equates their ancestors to animals. Few examples of comparably hurtful terms being plastered on billboards, clothing and television screens exist in modern society. But Native Americans in particular — due to genocide and stigmatization from the European world — remain a small, relatively powerless group in the circles of politics and business.

Defenders of the Washington Redskins cite custom. “With over 81 years of tradition created by thousands of alumni and millions of fans, the Redskins team name continues to carry a deep and purposeful meaning,” team President and General Manager Bruce Allen wrote in a letter to congressional lawmakers.

What is this “tradition” of the organization? Let’s examine the unspoken precedents in Washington Redskins history: eight logo changes; one relocation from Boston to Washington, D.C.; five different stadiums; and, yes, even a name change in 1933 from the “Braves” to today’s “Redskins.” The unassailable, sacred foundation of tradition appears shakier when viewed “in context,” the very argument used by proponents of the football team’s name.

But context is a tricky thing. Viewed in the context of the greater American story, Native Americans emerge as an obvious historical exception to the tradition of self-determination for groups, parties, societies and nations that willfully converge under the aegis of a common self-identity. Today, tribes and advocacy groups have repeatedly rebuked the idea that they will ever choose to identify with the disparaging and archaic term forced upon them by their past antagonists.

And for compelling reason. A prisoner is not free until every shackle is cut loose, and language — the term “redskins” in particular — invariably ties the Native American peoples to the history of oppression used for centuries to denigrate every aspect of their existence. Why wouldn’t Native Americans want to break free from this term and the history of subordination it evokes? Why shouldn’t they be able to?

The continued use of the Redskins’ name both represents and emboldens society’s claim to own the prejudicial term. It is a possession that denies the tenet of self-identity to a people whose history is rife with such denial. Forcing an unapologetic “get over it” attitude on the various and diverse Native American nations reignites, every Sunday, a vitriolic spirit of minority suppression that runs antithetical to our values and doctrines, but sadly not our history.

Graham Ambrose is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at graham.ambrose@yale.edu.

  • kevin24

    You know I am so happy that we have fixed the health, education, and economic issues that are present on Indian reservations so now we can start addressing minor grievances like a football team with a dated offensive name. Because heaven knows that a community with twice the rates of alcoholism and infant mortality, and four times the unemployment rate doesn’t have any other issues that should be occupying its time.

    • Justin

      And what makes you think that we aren’t already battling your referenced above bi products of failed western assimilation policies in our own native communities? Are you living on a Rez? Are you working on a Rez? Are you advocating for native communities at the federal government level? Simply inferring that nothing is already being done is minimizing the years of hard work and dedication staff and community members in tribes have already done and are currently doing. We want the name changed and like I referenced we are not monolithic culture we are very diverse so no there is not consensus amongst natives about this topic just as there never was with any humanitarian cause. If we can not be treated as human beings on Sundays with drunk people disgracing our culture and screaming scalp them and send them back to the Rez what makes you think any of our other issues will be concerns to anyone. I didn’t know our people had to be perfect before we can finally be treated like human beings and have a voice in something as easily settled as a derogatory name change. This is just a microcosm of the push back we get when we try to address much harder issues within the context of the “dominant” “culture”. We have issues I think we know that. We live it every day. This should be a slam dunk for us and even the layup/slam dunks never make it close to the court for native people. Much less the actual goal.

      • kevin24

        Well for starters, I know my way around a couple of of different reservations quite well (lived on Southern Ute, spent time on Mountain Ute and Navajo) and whatever is being done to battle said “bi products (sic) of failed western assimilation policies” is failing quite ignominiously. And yeah, there’s a lot of good work being done, and yeah, the community isn’t monolithic, but the reality is that the public dialogue only has so much bandwidth for so many issues, and the entire native dialogue has been taken over by a really, really, silly issue which does precious little to improve the lives and well-being for tens of thousands of people. A bruised bone is worth than a bruised ego. I don’t care how defensive people are about it.

        • Justin

          Maybe reference the National Congress of American indians http://www.ncai.org/ they are working at the federal and state level on your “issues” things that legislation can address. this issue is not about legislation as that was already signed and agreed with by the indigenous people’s rights act that the US signed with most of the world at the United Nations level http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/DRIPS_en.pdf The U.S. just isn’t living up to their agreement because we are a capitalistic society not the democratic society that is pushed as Rhetoric. this issue creates a dehumanizing aspect for Natives which make any issue not important as they are treated as less than human based on white washed history and the untruthful beliefs that many hold as truths based on the referenced white washed history.
          please see Stanford study on the effects of mascots on Native people.
          http://t.co/ltVHhiDryB

  • Science Student

    I agree with the author’s argument wholeheartedly — and I think the name will likely change in the not-so-distant future. Of course, the team in question is a private entity, whose ownership has doubled down on its use of the offensive name. But all businesses are driven (at least to some extent) by profit — and the team will likely change its name if that name starts costing it money. And that may well happen, since the FCC may ban its anchors from saying the name on air. Even more significantly, the Patent Office has voted to cancel the team’s trademarks — and if the team’s appeal fails, I would expect its name to change promptly.

  • yalemarxist

    Several other sports names that ought to be changed:
    * San Francisco 49ers – Refers to a period of brutal capitalist competition and oppression of Chinese immigrants that should hardly be celebrated.
    * Washington Nationals – Nationalism is the enemy of solidarity, an instigator of endless conflict.
    * Dallas Cowboys – Almost a worse name than the Redskins, in that it glorifies the wild individualistic ethos that has long plagued America and has allowed us to smooth over the plight of the Native Americans in our narratives of the West
    * San Diego Padres – Embodies both the patriarchy and our problematic religious heritage.
    * Nashville Predators – A fundamentally unhealthy ideal of aggression.

    Sports teams are false consciousness, but symbols matter.

    • http://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/lists/the-10-worst-ways-to-die-in-a-hieronymous-bosch-painting-53872 Hieronymus Machine

      While I understand the potentially pejorative nature of nicknames like “Redskins,” names like Patriots, Minutemen, etc. also raise ire–opposite complaint but the same outcome desired. This is not new. In 2003, UMass Athletic Director Ian McCaw did not disagree with “concern with the single-gender ethnicity of the [UMass] Minuteman [logo],” adding “the fact he’s carrying a firearm [in the logo] is also a concern.” (“Minutemen” replaced the controversial “Redmen” name in 1972.)

      “Single-gender ethnicity.” Heh.

      Here’s a representative list from 2013: http://www.wdrb.com/story/23690376/dyche-opinion-all-nfl-names-are-offensive

    • yalie

      Let’s not forget the Giants. Why members of the proletariat who happen to be…of diminished stature (solely in the physical sense; I make no claim about them in an intellectual or political sense) should be marginalized by an artificial, size-based elite is beyond this comrade’s comprehension.

      In the charming world of DDR and Soviet sports, teams were named after optical companies or farming-collective instruments or even weapons from the socialist arsenal. This resulted in names like “Torpedo”, “Traktor”, “Energie”, “Motor” and “Lokomotive”. Perhaps we could use similar names. They are nothing if not dynamic (Dinamo!), inclusive and symbolic of the best kind of struggle!

  • kevin24

    Note to self, you think things which bruise egos are as bad as dead babies, rape, and lives which are drastically shortened and reduced in quality. I’m not saying that the whole redskins thing isn’t a problem It’s dated, offensive, and should be done away with. But if you ask people who actually live on reservations (I spent two summers at a free clinic in Archuleta County Colorado ) they’ll tell you what their problems really are and most of them don’t care too much about a bunch of idiot troglodytes playing football in Maryland. So yes, I am saying that different problems deserve different amounts of attention, and I’m also saying that the amount of attention this problem has gotten is entirely out of proportion to the damage it’s causing to anything other than the media budgets of a few wealthy, easily offended individuals, who would be better off spending their money on things like health and nutrition education for kids in Southwestern Colorado.

  • Sam Klingher

    Firstly, great article GrahAmbrose! Secondly as a Freshman at Knox College I had my own experience dealing with alumni wanting to take Knox back to the time of one of its worst historical blemishes; a racist Redskins-like mascot at Knox called (Old) Siwash. Siwash was a Chinook word whose meaning is not known today, but was used against the Chinook people and eventually all Americans of indigenous heritage to mean “savage.” In the first decade of the 20th Century Knox alum George Fitch wrote “At Old Siwash.” The novel; a satire of an “elite midwestern liberal arts college” set during turn of the century America, emboldened the many at Knox College to tell future generations of Knox students that “Siwash” was a homonym that both had a racist definition and a “benevolent definition.” The so-called benevolent definition being synonomous to the phrase “small liberal arts college.” This weekend I was protesting a group of (very elderly) alumni spending their homecoming weekend persuading passersby to return to their racist “glory days” of their alma materout “free racist Siwash goodies” they told me of the allegedly homonymic definition of Siwash and that it was okay to still use Siwash at their mascot as “those of native heritage don’t speak good English and are practically illiterate.” Up until then I thought the desire to retain racist mascots and team names was almost exclusively ignorance, but after talking to a variety of pro-siwash “activists’ it was clear that their motivations stemed more from bigotry and racism than from ignorance. Knox College’s racist mascot has been erased from their official traditions of the school since the early-1990s, but to many (vocal) alum the Siwash was still the “De Facto” mascot of the school. Yet, like almost any 21st Century brand the Redskins and the Siwash are both marketed towards the youth. Although most at Knox were still ignorant at the end of the homecomming weekend I was glad that I was able to educate the populace of Knox College about one of their current or future alma mater’s racist past. Yet noticing that the majority of pro-Siwash fans were past the federal retirement age and that a majority of the anti-racist anti-siwash protesters were lingering around the federal drinking age I felt optimistic that soon most of the pro-siwash protesters would either die out, or lose their passion for bigotry. Therefore, leaving a new generation of more tolerant leaders who are willing to change the racist status quo and the and persuade the racist establishment to change bigoted mascots. Although the battle against the Siwash is far from over with pro-siwash sentiments boiling over every homecoming at Knox, I am confident the battle to change the mascots of our federal capitol’s football team along with other mascots will become sucessfull. Yet, once the redkin’s reign of terror is over it will still be the District of Columbia’s “De Facto” mascot for quite some time. For the huge proportion of old white men and women trying to hold onto the status quo in at Knox College this weekend are dwarfed by in numbers by the old how many old white men and women there are in Washington, D.C.