MS. REBECCA SHEIR
I'm Rebecca Sheir, and welcome back to "Metro Connection." Our next story on today's "Origins" show is about the roots of a big controversy here in our region, the name of our local football team. A lot of people object to the name the Washington Redskins, including Ray Halbritter with the Oneida Indian Nation in upstate New York.
MR. RAY HALBRITTER
We do not deserve to be called Redskins. We deserve to be treated as what we are, Americans.
So what exactly is the origin of the word, redskin? As Lauren Ober tells us, it may come as a surprise.
MS. LAUREN OBER
This is an origin story in three parts. Part one, the word.
MR. IVES GODDARD
The word itself is a Native American tradition.
That's Ives Goddard, a senior linguist at the National Museum of Natural History here in the District. In 2005, he wrote an exhaustive paper charting the etymology of the word redskin.
Its emergence and use in Indian languages and in English has to be understood within the historical context.
That context, he says, was this, before Europeans arrived on the new continent, native people had no word for their race. You were Apache or Ojibwe, Salish or Seneca. There was no need for any self-designation beyond that. Then the Europeans landed. Native people needed a way to differentiate the two groups and color designation seemed like the easiest shorthand.
The use of red for Indians appears in 1725 in two different places in a French source and an English source in talks between Indian chiefs and colonial officials. And it's what the Indians use.
Goddard should know. He's been studying Native American languages his entire professional life. He speaks lots of them and when he heard claims in the early 1990s that the word redskin was derived from the practice of scalping Indians for a bounty, he balked. A manuscript written in 1815 by Meskwaki chief Black Thunder in his own language backed Goddard up.
A word, meeshkwinameshkaata, means redskin. And in fact, in the same sentence, waapeshkinameshkaata, which means whiteskin, which is a word that's still used today. The words for literally whiteskin in Meskwaki is still the word for European.
Still, Goddard accepts that while the word redskin has native origins, the way we view words, and the way we appropriate and reinterpret them, can change over time.
Ethnic labels can rise and fall in acceptability and so forth. We all know famous examples of that. Some words you can't even say on the air anymore, which 100 years ago was just kind of normal for many people.
One of those ethnic labels ended up becoming a big part of Washington's cultural landscape. And that brings us to part two of our story, the team.
MR. MIKE RICHMAN
The organization started in 1932 in Boston. They were known as the Boston Braves their very first season of existence.
Mike Richman is the author of "The Redskins Encyclopedia." He bills himself as the premiere historian of the team.
And they had been founded by a man named George Preston Marshall. And then the following year they became the Redskins, Boston Redskins and stayed in Boston for a total of five seasons. And then moved to Washington in 1937.
Back in the day it was common for professional baseball and football teams from the same city to have the same or at least similar names. In 1933 Boston's football team began playing in Fenway Park, home to the Boston Red Sox. George Marshall decided the team name should reflect the move.
He kept "Red," from Red Sox and he also wanted to keep that Native American theme.
So Marshall when with the name Redskins. Legend also has it that Marshall wanted to honor the team's coach at the time, Lonestar Dietz, who claimed to be Sioux. Plus, the team had some native players, so in Marshall's mind the name made sense.
Marshall was a visionary and my sense is when he saw the opportunity to capitalize on that Native American connection, he went for it.
As such, in the early days, the team's coach wore a headdress on the sidelines and its players covered their faces in war paint. George Marshall also installed a marching band that played the team's fight song, "Hail to the Redskins."
Back then it was acceptable. And in none of my research that I've done have I ever come across anything that said he tried to exploit Native Americans.
Richman may not feel the Redskins' name is exploitative, but that's far from a universal belief, which leads us to part three of this story, the controversy.
PROF. J. GORDON HYLTON
The first objections really date from the late '50s and early '60s. And they're only incidentally focused on sports.
So says J. Gordon Hylton, a visiting professor at the University of Virginia School of Law. In 2010, he wrote a law review article about the use of Native American team names.
The sort of initial wave of complaints is about the disparaging way in which Native Americans are portrayed in Hollywood films.
The representation of Native Americans as savage marauders pillaging wagon trains on the Plains didn't sit well. But it wasn't until the early 1980s that people began to make noise about native team names.
Once people begin to complain about the depiction of Plains Indians -- that this is unfair, and this is racist, and it's highly prejudicial, then I think that also adds to the sort of pejorative character.
For a long time, Native Americans had been seen as a public domain symbol for Anglo Americans, not unlike, say, the bald eagle. But many native people like Suzan Shown Harjo, a Cheyenne and Muscogee activist, didn't appreciate being an abstract motif in American popular culture.
In 1992, Harjo and seven other Native plaintiffs filed a complaint with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office against the Redskins, claiming that the team name was disparaging and should be deregistered.
This would not keep the Redskins from using the name, but it would deny them the kind of economic advantages of having a protected trademark.
That case fizzled on a technicality, but a new case is now being heard by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board. Harjo spoke about the issue with WAMU last year.
MS. SUZAN SHOWN HARJO
They can call themselves any old racist thing they want. The issue before the court is whether the federal government should subsidize with the exclusive right of making money that racism. And we think not.
As the debate over the team's name continues, the controversy has raised some critical issues. Who owns language? And how has the right to use it? And at what point can language be considered cultural property? There are no easy answers, but knowing the origins of the word in question is a first step. I'm Lauren Ober.
Transcripts of WAMU programs are available for personal use. Transcripts are provided "As Is" without warranties of any kind, either express or implied. WAMU does not warrant that the transcript is error-free. For all WAMU programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version. Transcripts are owned by WAMU 88.5 FM American University Radio and are protected by laws in both the United States and international law. You may not sell or modify transcripts or reproduce, display, distribute, or otherwise use the transcript, in whole or in part, in any way for any public or commercial purpose without the express written permission of WAMU. All requests for uses beyond personal and noncommercial use should be referred to (202) 885-1200.