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Opinion :: The unanswered 'Redskin' question
· 11:55am July 3rd, 2014
Ok, my pale-face sihkiss*, it’s time for us to have a pow-wow.
We need to gather at the teepee, pass around the peace pipe and bury the hatchet about this NFL name thing. As a white guy who has enough Native American blood to have had a few people question my ethnicity but not quite enough to have my own casino, I have a bit more interest in this issue than most people.
It seems that there are people who insist that using a historically-inaccurate logo and a mascot with silly headgear, despite the fact that it is clearly and facetious depiction of a culture that represents millions of Americans, is perfectly acceptable.
I am referring, of course, to the Minnesota (or perhaps, the Vinton) Vikings.
Despite the antiquated, stereotypical, “Hagar the Horrible” costume worn by Ragnar, the Minnesota NFL team's mascot on Sundays, it is clear that the Norwegians never wore helmets with horns. The CPG Grey you tube link clearly depicts the historical ridiculousity of Ragnar’s helmet.
Using such clearly stereotypical imagery is an affront to the millions of Norwegian Americans who call our country home.
Oh, I can hear you now: “Wait a minute,” you say. “I thought the controversy was about the Washington Redskins.”
You would be right, in a way.
In some places, people are as grumpy about the stereotypical mascot and images in use by the football team which plays its games in on FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland – a 20-minute drive east from Washington, D.C., where the President Obama has suggested that Redskins owner Daniel Snyder should change the name, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has proclaimed a personal boycott of Redskins games until the team changes its name, and the U.S. government recently stripped the team of its federal trademark protection – as the Norwegians are about the Minnesota Vikings.
Actually, the Norwegians that I know have not expressed any sentiment about the Vikings, other than wishing they would actually show up on Sunday to play, for a change.
And while some people have complained about the Redskins’ name and Native American imagery, a recent news story indicates that there were no public complaints filed with the U.S. Trademark office before it made its ruling.
Before I go on, let me state the obvious: I do not say “Redskin,” unless I am referring to the team quarterbacked by the guy with the 3 in his name. You do not say “Redskin.” Lots of good people are now saying that because nobody now says “Redskin,” that it’s time for the team to call itself something else – anything else.
I respectfully disagree, and here are four reasons why.
First, Native American references are signs of respect. We name our children – and our teams – after people who inspire us, people whose history we want emulate, people who did something in their lifetimes that we hope to carry on in ours.
Even the U.S. government – which has taken a strong anti-redskin stand – has done this. Just look at what we call our military helicopters: Apache. Iroquis. Chinook. Kiowa. Lakota. Black Hawk. White Hawk. Jayhawk. People who express displeasure at Native American references in football have had little or nothing to day about those appellations.
Our entire culture and language are full of positive references to the culture and language of the people who lived here long before the first white man – a Viking – arrived.
At the turn of the 19th Century, one of the most feared and respected Native Americans in the new nation was Tecumesh; two Civil War generals – most notably William Tecumseh Sherman – were named after him. It was a sign of profound respect.
It still is.
Second, our sports teams represent a variety of cultures and ethnicities; often in fallaciously stereotypical fashion: Vikings. Raiders. Sooners. Fighting Irish. Cowboys.
One of the very first things the Vikings did when they arrived in the New World, according to historian Russell Freedom, was massacre the first Native Americans they saw.
“The first encounter was when the Vikings came across 10 Indians taking naps under their overturned canoes — and the Vikings killed them,” Freedom said in an interview with NPR.
So, whether it’s the NCAA – which forbids all Native American mascots (except for those with special permission from tribes such as the Florida State Seminole), the U.S. government or anyone else who takes a stand on the issue, they all seem to have taken the strange position that it’s wrong to use a mascot that represents a Native American, but perfectly OK to use one known for killing them.
Another example from our state: Hawkeye.
A “Hawkeye” is not a bird, or even the optical organ which allows a bird of prey to see a fish or rabbit from hundreds of feet above. "Hawkeye" is a character in the novel “Last of the Mohicans.” He was both a friend, and enemy, of Native Americans. He used words to describe enemy warriors that we would not use in this day and age. Yet, despite his well-known reputation for killing Native Americans, nobody has ever suggested that Hawkeye is an inappropriate team name or mascot.
And yet, the NCAA and even Native American groups would applaud the changing of a name from something that represents Native Americans to “Hawkeye.”
This leads to my third concern: Because of changing cultural norms, it’s very likely we will eliminate “Redskins” without knowing – or even caring – where the word came from, who first used it, and what it has meant throughout the history of our country.
Here’s one example:
“The term ‘REDSKINS’ is not and has never been one of honor or respect, but instead, it has always been and continues to be a pejorative, derogatory, denigrating, offensive, scandalous, contemptuous, disreputable, disparaging and racist designation for Native Americans.”
This sentence from the National Congress of American Indians was quoted in the last week’s decision by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in its ruling that canceled the “Washington Redskin” trademark name and several images owned by Pro-Football, Inc., the Redskins ownership group.
Another anti-Redskin allegation comes from Boston Globe sports writer Baxter Holmes, who recently wrote that the word Redskin is the worst team nickname of all those which offend Native Americans because it “represents a trophy of war—the bloody scalp of a murdered Native American, slaughtered for money, the amount dependent on whether it was a man, woman or child.”
While both of those statements are powerful motivation for removing the name “Redskins” from that football team, they are both completely, historically wrong.
In his survey entitled “I am a Red-Skin,” linguist Ives Goddard demonstrates how that in several times and places the first people who put the words red and skin together were Native Americans.
Among the first to be recorded using this phrase was Omaha Chief Big Elk, who was quoted in the July 29, 1815 issue of the Missouri Gazette as saying, “Who would not wish to die among you! That he may be buried with the honors of war, as you buried one of our red skin chiefs, who died at Portage des Sioux.”
That is just one of many incidents that Goddard discovered of Native Americans using the term red-skin to describe Native Americans. It was not a “pejorative, derogatory, denigrating, offensive, scandalous, contemptuous, disreputable, disparaging and racist designation.” It was merely, in the eyes of both white and Native Americans, a description, like blonde, or red-headed.
And Mr. Holmes' assertion that “redskin” means “scalp of a Native American” has been proven to be one of those modern urban-legend Internet history revisions. It was never used that way, although yes, at times during some wars with Native Americans, white people have offered bounties for killing them.
While I do respect Holmes status as a Native American and give more deference to what he thinks because of his ethnicity, I also think Mr. Braxton’s status as a journalist requires him to discover and write what actually happened; this, it appears he did not do this regarding that definition of “redskin.”
Finally, my fourth reason comes from a question from my 4-year-old granddaughter, Liana. Her innocent inquiry demonstrates for us the difficulty of expressing our ethnic and racial similarities and differences.
While hearing her mother singing the song, “Jesus loves the Little Children,” Liana heard the mention of children who are “red and yellow, black and white.”
Then she had a question we are not quite sure we answered to her satisfaction, a question that indicates that all of our discussions about “Redskin” leave us woefully short of a thorough understand of how all of our ethnicities blend into the American society, regardless of what we believe we should call that Washington, D.C. football team.
She asked: “But what about the BROWN children?”
*: Sihkiss is the Navaho word for “friend”
See the history of the word "redskin" compiled by Goddard HERE.
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