BurgundyNGold Glasses: “What Does The Name “Redskins” Mean Anyway?”

Posted by: BurgundyNGold on Saturday, September 19th, 2009

Earlier this week, sometimes Washington Post columnist and perpetual provocateur, Mike Wise, launched another misguided volley in his ongoing crusade against the name "Redskins" as it relates to our beloved local football franchise.  In reading the article, it didn’t surprise me that Wise yet again found a way to inject his own inflammatory, ill researched opinions into a story about Native American and self-annointed activist Suzan Harjo and her litigation exploits against Redskins owner Daniel Snyder and the Washington Redskins.

Initially, I was left shaking my head, primarily in resignation to the disappointing lack of substance and wherewithal that passes for sports journalism these days.  Though not a proper journalist myself, I decided that the best thing to do would be to set the record straight where people who cared about the topic might read about it, as well.  Hopefully, by telling the facts as they are about the franchise, its ownership and the Redskins name itself, some few souls who might pass by this little corner of the Internet will at least come away with some well researched facts about the matter.

It has been asserted by a handful of Native American activists and more than a few media sorts who profess to carry the trumpet of tolerance that the name is, at least, insensitive to Native Americans and, at most, outright racist.

The facts, however, do not bear this out.

Origin Of the Name "Redskins"

The most common tactic employed by anti-Redskin name activists relies upon the fact that there has been no shortage of insensitive or downright racist team or group nicknames in the racially fractious history of our otherwise great nation.  It is no surprise that activists have seized upon the opportunity to call these organizations to task.  To be sure, in many of these instances, the activists were correct in doing so.  I have no quarrel with decrying overtly racist or outright offensive names without the benefit of the regional or historical heritage to provide warrant for any such nickname.

Unfortunately, for the Redskins, the team founder and longtime owner, George Preston Marshall, is widely regarded as have been a staunch racist or, at least, having shamelessly employed racist business practices.  In fact, it was because of these practices, the Redskins were the last team to integrate minorities onto their roster.  While nobody debates this happened and that it was wrong, the debacle was more than forty five years ago.  Yet, it still haunts the franchise to this day, giving activists such as Harjo and Wise cause to believe that the name is inherently racist and overtly offensive.

The Redskins football club was founded in 1932 as the Boston Braves — no doubt in an attempt to capitalize on the fact that they played on the same field as the then Boston "baseball" Braves.  In 1933, the team moved to Fenway to play on the same field as the Boston Red Sox.  At that time, the team was renamed to Redskins.  Given the ploy to attempt to capitalize on the name of the Braves the year before, it seems more than reasonable that the name was changed to piggy-back on the popularity of the baseball Red Sox franchise.  This, in and of itself, is not racist.  Rather, the history of events suggest that the practical nature of business is how the name came to be.   While on the surface this new name might evoke offense in some, as we shall see, it should not.

According to America’s Fascinating Indian Heritage: The First Americans: Their Customs, Art, History and How They Lived , a book published by Reader’s Digest:

"The term Redskin, applied by Europeans to Algonquins in general and the Delawares in particular," says the Reader’s Digest in its book America’s Fascinating Indian Heritage , "was inspired not by their natural complexion but by their fondness for vermilion makeup, concocted from fat mixed with berry juice and minerals that provided the desired color." The men "would streak their faces and bodies with bright red ocher and bloodroot," adds the Reader’s Digest .

Indians painted their skin for decorative and ceremonial purposes. "Red is generally accepted as being one of the colors most easily available to and most used by Indians," as Ronald P. Koch states in his book Dress Clothing of the Plains Indians ."

Note that the publisher of this book isn’t some Johnny-come-lately.  It’s Reader’s Digest, one of the most voluminous and distinguished publishers in recent memory, if not ever.   Also note that the specific group of Native American tribes mentioned are the Algonquin people, several tribes of which have called the Chesapeake watershed region home, including:

Conoy - a member of an Algonquian people formerly living in Maryland between Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac river; allies of the Nanticoke people
Nanticoke - a member of the Algonquian people formerly of Maryland and eastern Delaware
Powhatan - a member of the Algonquian people who formerly lived in eastern Virginia

For those without the benefit of a cursory knowledge of local regional history — including, as it would seem, Mike Wise — the Powhatan people are especially storied.  It is this group that English settlers first met in Jamestown and that fed the pilgrims through their first winter.  It is from this group, as well, that Pocahontas is remembered.  Additionally, it is with the Powhatans that the legend of her relationship with John Smith came to be.

So, it would seem that, the term "Redskin" has deep ties to local Native American heritage, and not in any way that should be deemed offensive.  Even if George Preston Marshall had no knowledge of this when he named his team "Redskins" back in Boston in 1933, none of that matters now.  When he moved the team to Washington in 1937, the loop of history closed and the knot of Native American heritage was inexorably tied to the franchise — if for no other reason than dumb luck.

Native American Opinion

Another tactic employed by anti-Redskin name activists is to promote the perception of a veritable tsunami of public support for changing the "Redskins" name.  One can only assume that this is what Wise is endeavoring to foment with his latest attempt to make news as opposed to reporting it.

These activists imply — if one can do anything so subtle with a bull horn — that Native Americans overwhelmingly consider the name disparaging and that it adversely affects them in large and small ways, including aspects of individual self esteem.  That would be something to consider.  If it were true.

With a few keystrokes on the Google, one can get all of the details one might ever want regarding Native American polls and the name "Redskins".  I guess they don’t get Google over at the Post .  If their crappy message board is any indication, they’re probably still using Alta Vista.  And Erol’s dial up.

There have been a number of reputable, large scale surveys conducted on the issue of the name "Redskins" and whether it is offensive to Native Americans.  One such survey of Native Americans conducted by Sports Illustrated in 2002 showed that 75% of Native Americans said they "weren’t offended" by the name "Redskins", with 69% feeling that the Redskins should be able to continue using the name.   In another such survey conducted by the Alderson Institute for Public Policy in 2004, a whopping 90% of respondents did not find the name offensive, as reported by MSNBC .

In looking at these numbers, it would seem that Wise and Harjo are either wholly uninformed or are vastly misrepresenting the feelings of Native Americans.  I leave that up to the observer to decide which and to determine why.  In any event, that particular dog doesn’t hunt.

Looking Ahead

If you were to look around this town, you’d be hard pressed to find a more unpopular, unsympathetic character than Snyder.  Since he took over at Redskins’ owner in 1999, he has effectively alienated all but the most sedate of team fans.  He has meddled and muddled his way through his tenure, the only constant being mediocre teams and ever increasing costs for tickets, parking, concessions and team apparel.  Recently, the aforementioned Washington Post ran an intriguing expose on the aggressive — if not downright predatory — nature of Snyder and his Redskins marketing group, which included lawsuits of ticket holders under financial duress.

There can be very little debate at this point that Snyder is a ruthless businessman.  One thing that Snyder has done very effectively, however, is to defend the Redskins name and trademark — even if for the wrong reasons.  Snyder was and is only interested in protecting his trademark.  It is the proverbial golden goose for the franchise and the franchise is the only profitable thing that Snyder has going.

Personally, I do not believe that Snyder cares much about the history of Native Americans as they relate to his football club.  If he did, he would have taken the opportunity years ago to found a Native American museum in the lower level of his stadium that pays homage to the local Algonquin tribes.  Additionally, Snyder’s Redskins could have fostered a real partnership with local Nanticoke and other tribes who are currently facing the extinction of their language and culture.

There is a lot of Native American history here; history without which the name "Redskins" would have no meaning or honor.  Some of this history is inspiring, some of it tragic.  Yet, all of it is noble and should be maintained and preserved (at least on some nontrivial, materialistic level like merchandising) by a Redskins organization that professes to care so much about heritage.

As long as Snyder’s greed blinds him for the need to do these things, I cannot believe that he cares too much about the heritage of the Native Americans.  It also makes me wonder how much he cares about any kind of heritage, not least of which that of the Washington Redskins.  Ironically, if he actually took the time and relatively few dollars to set up a heritage museum and a local tribes preservation and education fund, he might not find himself at odds with Native American activists at all.

That all said, it is important to separate one’s personal dislike for an individual from an objective review of the facts.  This is where Mike Wise has once again fallen down, sullying the otherwise revered name of name of the Washington Post in the process.

So, the next time that someone suggests to you that the term Redskins is racist, offensive or devoid of local heritage, be sure to give them an educated, well thought out retort.  Unless, of course, if that person is Mike Wise who, demonstrated by his lack of research, isn’t even interested in honoring the heritage of his own profession.

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