Column: The Washington Contradictions

In early April, the NFL announced the Washington Redskins would be hosting the franchise’s first Thanksgiving Day game this year. When considering the Native American contributions to Thanksgiving and the meaning of redskin, it seems a little strange to have this contradiction.

The word redskin has a long and varied history. The Beothuk tribe, located in what is now Newfoundland, Canada, was said to have painted their bodies with red ochre. White settlers referred to them as “red men.”

Ives Goddard, a Smithsonian historian, told NPR early historical records show redskin used as a self-identifier by Native Americans. They used the word when negotiating with the French and the Americans. Redskin was used in James Fenimore Cooper’s 1823 novel The Pioneers.

Decades after, the word began carrying a violent connotation.

Cooper’s book was seen as sympathetic to Native Americans, so Earl Emmons released Redskin Rimes in 1915. The book is incredibly racist and aims to paint Native Americans in a negative light. This is when the word moved to a slur. It began popping up in American Westerns and came to refer to the scalped head of a Native American.

I don’t know about anyone else, but given the varied and uncomfortable history of this word, I wouldn’t want to create a sports team with all the branding revolving around such an offensive term.

From a marketing and public relations perspective, the team is eliminating a large segment of fans  — of all ethnic backgrounds — for no solid reason. I get it, the team has been called the Redskins forever and no one likes experiencing change.

I get that some people don’t understand why the term is offensive and should be changed. But here’s the thing — everyone has different experiences and feelings. Why is it such a negative thing to be respectful of all people? If I can change one small thing in what I do every day so people aren’t hurt by my words, I’m going to do it.

Growing up in a region with long, rich Native American history, there are still 20 schools in the state of Idaho that have mascots mocking Native Americans. Ten schools are called the Indians, four are the Warriors, three are the Savages and three are the Chiefs.

I’m from Washington State. I grew up going to powwows as a kid, learning extensive amounts of Native American history in classes and generally being aware of the region’s varied history. This is why I’m surprised so many schools in Washington and Idaho are still nicknamed after Native Americans.

In 2015, Adidas announced it would offer free design resources and financial assistance to any high school still sporting Native American imagery as a mascot. About 2,000 high schools still use names that “cause concern for many tribal communities,” the company said in a statement.

“Sports have the power to change lives,” Adidas executive board member Eric Liedtke said in the statement. “Sports must be inclusive. Today we are harnessing the influence of sports in our culture to lead change for our communities.”
Granted, Adidas profits off sales of merchandise for the Cleveland Indians, Golden State Warriors and Chicago Blackhawks – all Native American mascot themes. I think it would behoove Adidas to consider donating funds from these teams, in an effort to align the company’s views with actions. However, this is a good step in the right direction. As the country attempts to move forward, it is important to make amends and shy away from continuing to support such a racist term.

Tess Fox can be reached at arg-sports@uidaho.edu


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