Honoring Native Americans with Disrespect

BET.com, News Analysis, Ed Wiley III Posted: Sep 29, 2004

In the nation’s capital, where 20,000 Native Americans converged this week for the most grandiose tribal gathering in U.S. history, several Indian groups are demanding that the city discard an icon they say reminds them of America’s historic hate of their people: The Washington “Redskins” mascot.

After 15 years of development and $219 million in costs, Washington, D.C. introduced a museum on the National Mall Tuesday that recognizes the historic contributions of Native Americans. Ironically, say a wide range of religious, civil rights and Native American, organizations, long after the hoopla of the unveiling dies down, the most resounding roar rising out of Washington will be the praises lifted to a degrading icon.

“‘Redskins’ is the most derogatory name our people can be called” – tantamount to calling an African American a nigger, a Latino a spic or a Caucasian a honkie – says Suzan Harjo, who heads the Morning Star Institute, a national Indian rights organization. Most people believe that the term “Redskins” relates to the color of Native Americans’ skin, which is derogatory enough, but the moniker has a far more nefarious connotation Harjo says.

She points to government-sanctioned bounties that White men put on Indians that could be collected by producing the dead bodies of her ancestors. As it became increasingly difficult to store and transport heaps of putrid, rotting corpses, colonial governors, and subsequently U.S. officials, agreed to pay for Indians’ scalps and skins, which were crammed into sacks. Colonists often scalped Indians and stripped the corpses of skin, says Dartmouth College historian Colin Calloway.

Tina Holder, whose origins are Blackfoot, Cherokee and Choctaw, is a longtime opponent of the “Redskins” name. She offers the following description:

“Back not so long ago, when there was a bounty on the heads of the Indian people... the trappers would bring in Indian scalps along with the other skins that they had managed to trap or shoot,” says Holder, whose arguments were included in a recent court filing in support of Harjo's claim. “Trappers and hunters began using the term ‘redskin’ ...they would tell the owner that they had bearskin, deerskins...and ‘redskins.’ The term came from the bloody mess that one saw when looking at the scalp ...thus the term ‘red’...skin... So, you see when we see or hear that term...we don't see a football team... we don't see a game being played...we don't see any ‘honor’...we see the bloody pieces of scalps that were hacked off of our men, women and even our children... we hear the screams as our people were killed...and ‘skinned’ just like animals. So, yes, ...you can safely say that the term is considered extremely offensive.”

Holder is not alone. There are more than 500 Native groups, hundreds of tribes and tens of thousands of signatures calling for the retirement of the more than 3,000 Indian-name mascots currently in use. The United States Commission on Civil Rights, chaired by Elsie Meeks, a highly respected Lakota woman, has urged public schools to cease with such names. In 1992, the NAACP issued a resolution stating that Indian logos undermine “self-determination and dignity of Indian people” and urged all teams to change their names; for athletes, particularly Black athletes, to use their influence to effect change; and for everyone to stop purchasing items with racist logos. Others standing against Indian-name teams include the National Education Association, the United Methodist Church and the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association

In 1999, after seven years of litigation, Harjo, with the support of many of these groups, convinced a three-judge appeals board of the federal Patent and Trademark Office to cancel the Washington pro football club’s moniker on the grounds that the name disparages Native Americans, which is a violation of federal law.

Four years later, however, a lone federal District Court judge overturned the decision, saying that the decision was not supported by the record and that challengers had waited too long to file their claims. Now Harjo is asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to reinstate the original decision. The court will hear oral arguments Nov. 23.

In August, Indian and religious organizations filed friend-of-the-court briefs on behalf of Harjo. They include the National Congress of American Indians, representing two-thirds of the 327 federally recognized tribes; the National Indian Youth Council, the largest Indian youth organization; the Tulsa Indian Coalition Against Racism, founded by 39 Indian Nations; and the Religious Interfaith Council of the Washington Metropolitan area.

One group that could be more supportive, says Harjo and others, is the African American community, who know firsthand the pain and degradation of racist labeling. It wasn’t that long ago that one could go into a store and purchase “Nigger Head Oysters” or a jet-black, red-lipped Aunt Jemima pancake box or buffoonish “Sambo” and “Black-Mammy” knick-knacks. Black people – with their relatively newfound political power and consumer clout – could now insist that society tear down its derogatory images and lower its rebel flags from state capitals. They could even demand that presidential candidates show up at their churches on Sunday morning.

In addition, during this nation’s infancy, Blacks fleeing slavery often found the Indian Nations their only refuge, and Blacks frequently ascended to the highest ranks of Native American culture. Many African Americans can trace their roots to Native American tribes. In fact, during the mid-19th century at least 13 Indian tribes had so many Blacks that the federal government wanted to reclassify them as Negro.

Still, some of the Blackest cities in America boast teams with names like “Redskins,” “Indians,” “Chiefs,” “Braves,” and “Seminoles.”

“What’s happening to us is very similar to what happened to Black people,” says Harjo, noting that the NAACP has made no public comment since issuing its proclamation 12 years ago. “During your struggle, we all pitched in and didn’t ask why. We have a common history. For all those reasons, we need to help each other out. This is a dignity and justice issue, and it is heartbreaking that we are not supported by Black people. We would never support blatant kinds of racism.”

When contacted by BET.com, the NAACP declined comment, referring this reporter to the resolution it issued in 1992. A spokeswoman for D.C.'s Black mayor, Anthony Williams, said she could not remember any recent position by the mayor, who was unavailable for comment. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), an African American, told BET.com that the name should be changed because anything so offensive "is unacceptable." Councilwoman Carol Swartz (R), a White woman, has also been vocal in her opposition to the name.

Indians need help, says Harjo, because the U.S. government was so successful in its multi-tiered, multi-century plan to exterminate Native peoples that a Million Indian March is an unlikely scenario.

According to the 16th-century historian Bartolome de las Casas, between 1492, when Christopher Columbus arrived in the western hemisphere, and 1560, some 40 million Indians had either been slaughtered by Europeans or died from the White man’s disease. Methods to get rid of Indians included hanging them en masse, roasting them on spits, hacking their children into pieces to be used as dog food, and a long list of even more horrendous practices, las Casas wrote.

A number of modern-era historians agree that there were between 50 million to 100 million Indians in the so-called New World before Europeans arrived, and that 90 percent to 95 percent of those were eliminated over the next few centuries. “The decline of Native American populations was rapid and severe, probably the greatest demographic disaster ever,” writes University of Wisconsin Professor William M. Denevan in his The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492. “An overall drop from 53.9 million in 1492 to 5.6 million in 1650 amounts to an 89 percent reduction.” And the White man’s policies to rid the American landscape of Indians continued throughout the 19th century.

But many sports fans say that focusing on America’s bloody past misses the point that Indian names honor Native Americans. Others say concentrating on a team’s name is a waste of time.

“We got high unemployment in the Black community, little girls and boys being taken out by stray bullets, and people trying to figure out how to pay the gas bill,” said Dar’rell Claxton of Northeast Washington, D.C. “Worrying about whether a team is called the ‘Redskins’ or the ‘Blackskins’ is wasted motion.”

Karl Swanson, the Redskins’ vice president for communications, says that team officials “have no plans to change the name,” even though “we’d make a lot of money if we changed the name because we could re-sell everything everybody already bought. As far as I can see, the name will last forever.

“We, like them, have the freedom of our belief about what these things stand for, what they represent," he continued. "If [they] think it’s offensive, does that, per se, mean it is? It is pretty well established that there are words that have come to take on meanings beyond the actual word itself. Not to be trite, but when kids say things are ‘cool,’ that doesn’t mean it’s cold; when they say something’s ‘the bomb,’ that doesn’t mean it will explode. It’s pretty well understood that in football, the Washington Redskins stands for a tradition that honors Native Americans.”

Says Harjo: “How can we be honored by the name of the Washington football team, a name that reminds us of the heinous and horrible things that have been done to us? Why must we constantly be reminded of the terrible things in our past? If you want to help us, help us address the problems of diabetes; help us with problems of poor housing. We’re at the bottom of the ladder in so many different categories. We need help, but we don’t need a name that hurts us.”

Even some longtime fans acknowledge that it might be time to abandon a mascot that has proved to be hurtful to such a significant segment of society.

“I’ve been a supporter of the Washington Redskins since I got to D.C. over 28 years ago,” says Mason Bennett, a retired dentist. “But I’ve thought about this issue a lot over the past couple of years, and I don’t think I’d stop routing for them just because they changed the name.

“A friend of mine said something that makes more sense every time I hear it: ‘What kind of person would go up to a Native American and say, Hey Redskin? You’d have to be either a racist or just plain insensitive not to understand how wrong that would be.”

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