The Redskins Say Their Name Is "Respectful" – Here's the Truth They Need to See

Washington Redskins helmet, with a Native American character on it, laying on the football field.
ByAndrea Garcia-Vargas

Update (5/25/2014): On Saturday, Washington Redskins' team President Bruce Allen wrote a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid saying the team's name is “respectful” to Native Americans. "Our use of `Redskins' as the name of our football team for more than 80 years has always been respectful of and shown reverence toward the proud legacy and traditions of Native Americans," he wrote.

This after leading Senate Democrats urged NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to change the name earlier this week.


After a racist rant was leaked online last month, the NBA placed a lifetime ban on Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling a few days later. The move sent a strong message about the league's low tolerance for racism — at least, racism against the African-American community. 

But many people in the Native American community — as well as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — noticed an apparent double standard between the way Sterling's words and the actions were handled, as compared to the way other sports team owners have refused to acknowledge their own institutional racism.

If the NBA can punish Sterling, why shouldn't the NFL punish Daniel Snyder for not changing the Washington Redskins' name? 

The problem is that many people still don't believe these types of team names are derogatory. This perspective reflects a sad ignorance of the origins of a word like "redskin." By brushing it off as "just a word," society has forgotten the real, troubling history behind it — and behind the United States' treatment of indigenous people.

Image Credit: Dakota Fine, courtesy of Gregg Deal

Gregg Deal, an indigenous artist who lives in Washington, D.C., creates street murals to protest Snyder's decision to keep the Washington Redskins' name. 

"The Washington football team's name is the tip of a very big iceberg," Deal told PolicyMic. "When it's talked about in the mainstream media, the discussion is usually really shallow. Nobody talks about the history of the word — only that this is a racist term."

Through his art, Deal is trying to tap into that history, in particular, through highlighting Chief Joseph, a figure well known for his efforts resisting the federal government's attempts to seize six million acres of the Nez Percé Indians' territory.

"Americans are really short-sighted when it comes to history. No one wants to look past the 80 years of the Washington Redskins," Deal said. "If you take a step further back, you'd realized that this is a country that's never rectified or reconciled any aspect of its relations with Native Americans. And then for someone to name a football team with a racial slur?"

This ignorance is indeed typified by Snyder himself, who has repeatedly demonstrated a complete lack of history with statements like the following:

"What [Redskins] means is tradition, what it means is competitiveness, what it means is honor. It is not meant to be derogatory."

This seems as good a time as any to give Americans a (highly truncated) refresher course on the legacy of the word "redskins," even as professional and college sports teams continue to play with slurs emblazoned across their chests or spray-painted on the football field.

Image Credit: Flikr

There are different theories regarding the origin of the word "redskin," one of them being that the slur started out as pretty benign. The Washington Post and Slate have ascertained that according to historical scholarship, some Native American chiefs used the word "redskin" in their own languages to describe themselves. 

"I turn to all, red skins and white skins, and challenge an accusation against me," Meskwaki chief Black Thunder reportedly said at a treaty meeting once the War of 1812 had ended. 

But having had innocent origins shouldn't distract from what "redskin" eventually became.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

L. Frank Baum, the author of the beloved children's tale Wizard of Oz, used the term in an 1890 editorial in a South Dakota newspaper. Baum's connotations are clear.

"With his fall the nobility of the Redskin is extinguished, and what few are left are a pack of whining curs who lick the hand that smites them," Baum writes. "The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are."

The year this was printed was also the year of the Wounded Knee Massacre, during which 300 Sioux men, women and children were killed by soldiers from the U.S. 7th Cavalry, and their bodies were thrown into a mass grave.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Here's a harrowing headline from an article published in the Los Angeles Herald seven years after Baum's story and the bloody massacre at Wounded Knee:

"Value of an Indian Scalp." The sub-headline of the article reads: "Minnesota paid its pioneers a bounty for every redskin killed."

"It is not generally known in latter day Minnesota history that the state treasury once paid out cash as bounties for Sioux Indian scalps, just as this and many other states are now paying for wolf scalps," the article begins, before launching into a narrative in which Sioux are repeatedly referred to as "scalps" instead of humans.

Image Credit: Wikimedia

In the following excerpt from the 1905 novel Redskins and Colonists, one of the characters is afraid that the Apache or Navajo will eat the white character of Polly, or will be forced to marry a "redskin chief." The message here is clear enough that all audiences can understand: Native Americans are violent redskin savages whose aim is to harm white people — and white women, in particular. 

The message is equally transparent in this early 20th century Tom and Jerry flick, which portrays Native Americans as half-naked, murderous caricatures in feathered headdresses.

From these sources, it's clear that despite what Snyder — or anyone else — might argue, "redskin" has for many years been a loaded term historically used to denigrate and dehumanize Native Americans. A history of the term is also a history of the effort throughout modern American history to systematically discriminated and treat Native Americans as inferior. No if's, and's or "honor" about it. Sorry, Mr. Snyder.

Still unsure? Just ask Deal.

"I had someone call me a redskin with hate on their tongue, using that as a word of disdain," Deal told PolicyMic. "You can say it's racist in general terms, but when you hear that word with hate, it's an exponentially uglier word."

And this is precisely why many indigenous activist groups, including Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry, have organized to put pressure on Snyder and the NFL to change the Washington Redskins' name.

Image Credit: Flickr/Confrontational Media 

So, how is Snyder's embrace of the word "redskin" any different from Sterling demanding his girlfriend not take pictures with black men? Why hasn't the NFL stepped up just like the NBA? For too many years leagues have tolerated the use of slurs. One has to wonder, how much do they really know about the name they so proudly wear?