“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 firstname.lastname@example.org.