I recently found myself in the middle of a debate on Facebook about whether or not the Washington Redskins football team should be forced to change their name or not. I came in on the side of the American Indians, agreeing that the name should be changed. My first comment read, “The word ‘redskins’ is derogatory. And the Native American community IS offended. We can’t tell black people to overcome their hatred for the ‘N’ word because we want to use it as a team name. I know that’s extreme, but the mascot of Compton High School used to be the Tar Babies, which is a very derogatory term… I believe that we should listen to those whom the racial slur is about and honor their wishes. Haven’t we dishonored them enough?”
But a friend of a friend commented that she didn’t think the word “redskin” was that big of a deal. She said that she had never heard anyone being called “Hey, redskin!” and the team should be allowed to keep their name.
And there, my friends, is where I lost my mind.
I mean, I get it. Some people are tired of all of the “PC crap” that is going around this country. There are lots of folks who get crazy around Christmas time if you dare to wish them Happy Holidays instead of a Merry Christmas. I know. I said happy holidays to a lady once, and I even celebrate Christmas, and she went nuts on me. Don’t mess with Christmas.
Another commenter stated that he heard on the news that Indians aren’t even that mad about it, and insinuated that it’s probably a bunch of people looking for their “15 minutes of fame.”
I went on to comment, “That commercial [that you can view here] that aired during the Super Bowl was produced and paid for by the National Congress of American Indians, the oldest, largest, and most representative of Native Indian and Alaska Natives in North America. Seems like a big deal to me. And just out of curiosity, how many American Indians do you know? And would you be comfortable shouting, “Hey, redskin!” next time you meet for coffee?”
The first commenter retorted that she is actually part Native American, and that it’s just her opinion. Just because it’s different than mine, that doesn’t make her wrong. But, yes. Yes it does.
Here’s the thing: unless you are paying attention, or have studied history, you honestly might not know that “redskin” is a derogatory term. Might. Although, we know not to call Asian people “yellow” or African Americans “colored,” but that is beside the point. I’m telling you right here, right now, whether you have heard it used or not, calling someone a “redskin” is derogatory and hateful. It is a racial slur, on the same level as the “N” word. Yes, it is. The etymology of the word comes from an excerpt taken from the Daily Republican newspaper in Winona, Minnesota, from September 24, 1863. It reads, “The State reward for dead Indians has been increased to $200 for every red-skin sent to Purgatory. This sum is more than the dead bodies of all the Indians east of the Red River are worth.” In case you didn’t get that, redskin literally means the scalp from a dead Indian that could be turned in for money. There’s a great article (click here) that shows that excerpt, and explains a bit more about the history of the word.
I know, I know, that was then. This is 2014, and the football team doesn’t mean it that way… but we certainly cannot turn a blind eye to what life is like today on the reservation. Do you know that that in 2013, the suicide rate on the reservations was three times the national average, and that one-quarter of Indian children live in poverty, versus 13 percent in the United States? They graduate high school at a rate 17 percent lower than the national average. Their substance-abuse rates are higher. They’re twice as likely as any other race to die before the age of 24. They have a 2.3 percent higher rate of exposure to trauma. They have two times the rate of abuse and neglect.
Or maybe you could read the poignant poem entitled “Red Anger” by R. T. Smith:
The reservation school is brown and bleak
with bugs’ guts mashed against walls
and rodent pellets reeking in corners.
Years of lies fade into the black chalkboard.
A thin American flag with 48 stars
hangs lank over broken desks.
The stink of stale piss haunts the halls.
My reservation home is dusty.
My mother grows puffy with disease,
her left eye infected open forever.
Outside the bedroom window
my dirty, snotty brother Roy
claws the ground,
scratching like the goat who gnaws the garden.
My father drinks
pale moonshine whiskey
and gambles recklessly at the garage,
kicks dust between weeds in the evening
and dances a fake-feathered rain dance
for tourists and a little cash.
Even the snakes have left.
Even the sun cannot stand to watch.
Our limping dog sniffs a coil of hot shit
near the outhouse where
my sister shot herself with a .22.
So each day I march
two miles by meager fields
to work in a tourist lunch stand
in their greasy aprons.
I nurse my anger like a seed,
and the whites would wonder why
I spit in their hamburgers.
Tuscarora, Choctaw, Cherokee…
the trail of tears never ends.
I would like to ask again. Knowing all of this, would you still walk up to a tribal member (not someone whose grandfather’s grandmother was half Indian, according to family legend) and feel comfortable using this word? And if your answer is no, if you would not have the guts to step out from the anonymity of your computer and actually use this word, then why should an NFL team be allowed to CONTINUE to use a name that has historically been used to encourage hate and all out genocide?
Yes, there is a rich history of football under the Redskins name. And yes, the NFL approved the name over 80 years ago. But during that time, it was also legal to segregate schools, lunch counters, and bus lines, and people could ride around in white hoods, burning crosses in lawns.
Change the name, Washington.
For more information, please visit www.changethemascot.org