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For the past few years, the Washington Redskins have been embroiled in battle after battle over their nickname. Many people object to the name, including Ray Halbritter with the Oneida Indian Nation in upstate New York.
"We do not deserve to be called Redskins,” he said. “We deserve to be treated as what we are: Americans."
But according to academics, the word didn’t begin as a slur. That might surprise some. But not Ives Goddard, a senior linguist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. He’s been studying native languages for his entire professional career.
In 2005, he wrote an exhaustive paper charting the etymology of the word “redskin.”
“The word itself is a Native American tradition,” he said. “Its emergence and use in Indian languages and 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,” Goddard said. “It’s what the Indians use.”
When Goddard first 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 supported Goddard’s beliefs.
In that manuscript, the native words for “redskin” and “whiteskin” appear in the same sentence. Today, that Meskwaki word for “whiteskin” is still the term 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 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 people,” Goddard said.
One of those ethnic labels ended up becoming a big part of Washington’s cultural landscape. The Redskins franchise, founded by George Preston Marshall, has been in Washington since 1937. But before that, they were in Boston. The team’s original nickname when the organization began in 1932 was the Braves.
Mike Richman, a Redskins historian, is the author of “The Redskins Encyclopedia” and the Washington Redskins Football Vault. He explains that 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 of the Boston Red Sox. 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,” Richman said.
So Marshall went 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 an opportunity to capitalize on that Native American connection, he went for it,” Richman said.
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,” Richman said. “Nothing I’ve come across has told me he tried to exploit Native Americans.”
Richman may not feel the Redskins’ name is exploitative, but that’s far from a universal belief. People began to raise objections about the team’s nickname in the late 1950s and early 1960s, says J. Gordon Hylton, a professor of law at Marquette University Law School and a visiting professor at the University of Virginia School of Law.
In 2010, Hylton wrote a law review article about the use of Native American team names.
“The initial wave of complaints is about the disparaging way in which Native Americans are portrayed in Hollywood films,” he explained. 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 racist, and highly prejudicial, all of which were true — then I think that adds to the pejorative character,” Hylton said.
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. If they won, the ruling wouldn’t prevent the Redskins from using the name, but it would deny them the economic advantages of having a protected trademark, Hylton explains.
That case fizzled on a technicality, but a new case, Blackhorse v. Pro-Football, Inc., is now being heard by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board. Harjo spoke about the issue with WAMU last year.
"They can call themselves any old racist thing they want,” she said. “The issue before the court is whether the federal government should subsidize with the exclusive right of making money that racism. We think not."
Music: "Akua Tuta" by Robbie Robertson from Music for the Native Americans