Redskins: What's in a Name?

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The Washington Redskins have a loyal fan base and one of the most profitable sports franchises in the world. Despite the team’s success at keeping its throng of supporters, the Redskins also have drawn widespread criticism.

Season after season, critics call on the Redskins organization to change the name of the team, which embraces the use of what’s widely considered a racial slur. Redskins owner Dan Snyder has remained steadfast, however, in insisting the team’s name remain the same. Fans, too, generally support keeping the name. An Associated Press-GfK poll conducted in May found that 79 percent of fans would like the team to retain its name. (A more recent survey commissioned by a Native American tribe, however, determined that 55 percent of fans were receptive to a name change.)

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While Native American tribal groups have long protested the name, there is fresh momentum behind the movement to change it, led by the Oneida tribe based out of upstate New York. Last week, the D.C. City Council issued a resolution insisting that Snyder rebrand the team. Earlier this week, President Barack Obama waded into the controversy as well, supporting the idea of changing the name, citing its use as offensive to “a sizable group of people.”

Though the term “redskin” has undoubtedly been used as a pejorative in its history, the word was not originally conceived as a slur, according to Smithsonian anthropologist Ives Goddard in a paper published in 2005. The earliest known usage of the word redskin was by Native Americans themselves.

Transcribed discussions between Piankashaws chiefs, indigenous to the lower Wabash River, and Col. John Wilkins dating back to 1769 shows the term used repeatedly by the Native American negotiators to distinguish themselves from those of European descent.

The first documented public use of the term was in 1812 in a speech by President James Madison to a delegation of chiefs representing a number of tribes in the American West. Madison repeatedly referred to “red people” and expressions such as “all the red tribes” and “their red brethren,” according to Goddard. Three years later, the term would first appear in print, according to Goddard’s research, in the Missouri Gazette, used to detail talks between envoys sent by Madison and Native American tribes.

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As conflict between western tribes and settlers heated up in the 19th century, the term gradually took on a more negative connotation. One editorial written by L. Frank Baum, the author of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” for example, called for the eradication of all Native Americans in the wake of the death of Sitting Bull, writing the words: “With his fall the nobility of the Redskin is extinguished.”

Hollywood Western films of the early 20th century made both frequent use of the term redskin as well as the stereotype of Native Americans as aggressive savages. Actor Marlon Brando even refused his Oscar for Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Don Vito Corleone in “The Godfather” over the treatment of Native Americans by the film industry.

Starting in the late 20th century, Native American tribes and fans alike began to challenge universities and professional sports teams that derived their mascots from racially insensitive portrayals of indigenous groups. While many opted to change their teams’ symbols, some, such as the Florida State Seminoles, managed to hold onto their image thanks to their cooperation with Native American groups.

 

Photo: Corbis