Where Does The Washington Football Team's Controversial Name Come From? (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Where Does The Washington Football Team's Controversial Name Come From?

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:09
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

00:00:28
We do not deserve to be called Redskins. We deserve to be treated as what we are, Americans.

SHEIR

00:00:33
So what exactly is the origin of the word, redskin? As Lauren Ober tells us, it may come as a surprise.

MS. LAUREN OBER

00:00:40
This is an origin story in three parts. Part one, the word.

MR. IVES GODDARD

00:00:44
The word itself is a Native American tradition.

OBER

00:00:47
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.

GODDARD

00:00:58
Its emergence and use in Indian languages and in English has to be understood within the historical context.

OBER

00:01:05
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.

GODDARD

00:01:27
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.

OBER

00:01:43
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.

GODDARD

00:02:05
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.

OBER

00:02:19
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.

OBER

00:02:29
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.

OBER

00:02:43
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

00:02:52
The organization started in 1932 in Boston. They were known as the Boston Braves their very first season of existence.

OBER

00:03:00
Mike Richman is the author of "The Redskins Encyclopedia." He bills himself as the premiere historian of the team.

RICHMAN

00:03:07
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.

OBER

00:03:20
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.

RICHMAN

00:03:37
He kept "Red," from Red Sox and he also wanted to keep that Native American theme.

OBER

00:03:40
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.

RICHMAN

00:03:55
Marshall was a visionary and my sense is when he saw the opportunity to capitalize on that Native American connection, he went for it.

OBER

00:04:03
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."

RICHMAN

00:04:20
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.

OBER

00:04:28
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

00:04:38
The first objections really date from the late '50s and early '60s. And they're only incidentally focused on sports.

OBER

00:04:46
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.

HYLTON

00:04:57
The sort of initial wave of complaints is about the disparaging way in which Native Americans are portrayed in Hollywood films.

OBER

00:05:05
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.

HYLTON

00:05:17
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.

OBER

00:05:29
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.

OBER

00:05:48
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.

HYLTON

00:06:00
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.

OBER

00:06:09
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

00:06:19
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.

OBER

00:06:32
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.
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