Redskin (slang)

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"Redskin" is a racial descriptor of disputed origin for Native Americans. Although by some accounts not originally having negative intent,[1] the term is defined in current dictionaries of American English as "usually offensive",[2] "disparaging",[3][4] "insulting",[5] "taboo" [6] and is avoided in public usage with the exception of its continued use as a name for sports teams.

The term derives from the use of "red" as a color metaphor for race following European colonization of the Western Hemisphere, although initial explorers and later Anglo-Americans termed Native Americans light-skinned, brown, tawny, or russet. According to historian Alden T. Vaughan, "Not until the middle of the eighteenth century did most Anglo-Americans view Indians as significantly different in color from themselves, and not until the nineteenth century did red become the universally accepted color label for American Indians."[7] Slang identifiers for ethnic groups based upon physical characteristics, including skin color, are almost universally slurs, or derogatory, emphasizing the difference between the speaker and the target.[8]

Historic use[edit]

"Redskin" was used throughout the English-speaking world (and in equivalent transliterations in Europe) throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a common term of reference for indigenous Americans. However, the more commonly used term from early colonization through the twentieth century was "Indian", perpetuating Columbus' belief that he had found the Indies.[9] The first use of red-skin or red Indian may have been limited to specific groups that used red pigments to decorate their bodies, such as the Beothuk people of Newfoundland who painted their bodies with red ochre.[10] Redskin is first recorded in the late 17th century and was applied to the Algonquian peoples generally, but specifically to the Lenape or Delaware (who lived in what is now southern New York State and New York City, New Jersey, and eastern Pennsylvania). Redskin referred not to the natural skin color of the Lenape, but to their use of vermilion face paint and body paint.[11] The indigenous peoples of the continent had no common identity, and referred to themselves using individual tribal names, which is also preferred to the present day. Group identity for Native Americans only emerged during the late 18th and early 19th century, in the context of negotiations between many tribes signing a single treaty with the United States.[12]

During the entire history of America until the turn of the Twentieth century, Indigenous Americans were hunted, killed, and forcibly removed from their lands by European settlers.[13] This includes the paying of bounties beginning in the colonial period with, for example, a proclamation against the Penobscot Indians in 1755 issued by King George II of Great Britain, known commonly as the Phips Proclamation.[14][15] The proclamation orders, “His Majesty’s subjects to Embrace all opportunities of pursuing, captivating, killing and Destroying all and every of the aforesaid Indians.” The colonial government paid 50 pounds for scalps of males over 12 years, 25 pounds for scalps of women over 12, and 20 pounds for scalps of boys and girls under 12. Twenty-five British pounds sterling in 1755, worth around $9,000 today —a small fortune in those days when an English teacher earned 60 pounds a year.[14] Since the proclamation itself does not use the word, citing it as the origin of "redskin" as another word for scalp has also been called "revisionist history".[16] However, an historical association between the use of "redskin" and the paying of bounties can be made. In 1863, a Winona, MN newspaper, the Daily Republican, printed among other announcements: "The state reward for dead Indians has been increased to $200 for every red-skin sent to Purgatory. This sum is more than the dead bodies of all the Indians east of the Red River are worth." [17]

A linguistic analysis of books published between 1875 and 1930 show an increasingly negative context in the use of redskin, often in association with "dirty", "lying", etc.; while benign or positive usage such as "noble" redskin were used in a condescending manner.[9] The term was in common use in movies during the most popular period for Hollywood westerns (approximately 1920-1970), with "redskins" usually being used to refer to Native Americans as primitive and warlike.[18] Now largely considered a pejorative it is seldom used publicly (aside from the football team - see below). As with any term perceived to be discriminatory, different individuals may hold differing opinions of the term's appropriateness.[19]

Current use[edit]

The Redskin Theater in Anadarko, Oklahoma. The town proclaims itself to be the "Indian Capital of the Nation" and its population is 41% Native American.

In the contemporary United States, "redskin" is often but not universally regarded as a racial epithet.[20] The term is considered by some to be extremely offensive (an r-word for Native Americans equivalent to the n-word for African-Americans),[21] but neutral by others.[22] The American Heritage style guide advises that "the term redskin evokes an even more objectionable stereotype" than the use of red as a racial adjective by outsiders,[23] while others urge writers to use the term only in a historical context.[24] The consensus based upon a comparison of current media usage and dictionary definitions is that the term has negative or disparaging connotations.[25]

Sports teams[edit]

Numerous civil rights, educational, athletic, and academic organizations consider any use of native names/symbols by non-native sports teams to be a harmful form of ethnic stereotyping which should be eliminated.[26] Several college teams that formerly used the name have changed voluntarily:

Other university and college teams changed their nicknames or mascots as a result of the NCAA ruling in 2005 that teams with hostile or abusive names or imagery would be barred from displaying them at post-season tournaments or hosting those games.[27]

In California, a bill presented by Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg to ban the use of the name Redskins as a public school mascot was vetoed more than once.[28] There were many opponents of the bill, including students from schools with the Redskin mascot - most prominently Tulare Union High School in Tulare, and Chowchilla Union High School in Chowchilla. However a wide range of civil rights,[29] and professional organizations [30][31] and over 500 American Indian groups [32] have called for the end of the use of all Native American references by sports teams.

The issue also exists in Canada. An Ojibway man in Ottawa, Ontario has filed a human rights complaint against the Nepean Redskins Football Club on behalf of his five-year-old daughter in an effort to get the team to change its name. “How are they going to differentiate the playing field from the school yard? What’s going to stop them from calling my daughter a redskin in the school yard? That’s as offensive as using the n-word.” Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo said he supports the move because the word Redskin is “offensive and hurtful and completely inappropriate.[33] Nepean Redskins president Steve Dean announced that the name would be voluntarily changed at an estimated cost of $150 000.[34]

High Schools[edit]

At the high school level 28 teams in 18 states have dropped the "Redskins" name during the past 25 years as a result of a combination of state legal action, protests from Native American groups, or voluntarily. However, there remain 62 high schools in the United States that continue to use the redskins name, three of which have a majority of Native American students.[35] In 2000 James S. Rickards High School changed its name from the Rickards Redskins to Rickards Raiders due to perceived racial implications of the word. The following year, under threats of litigation from the Native American Bar Association, Consolidated School District 158 in Huntley, Illinois changed the team name "Huntley Redskins" to "Huntley Red Raiders."[36] However some highly visible schools such as Union HS in Tulsa retain the name in spite of opposition by Native Americans. In 2011 the Red Lodge High School in Montana changed to the Rams after 50 years of being the Redskins.[37][38] In June 2013 administrators of a high school in Driggs, Idaho announced that it will drop its longtime "Redskins" nickname, logo and mascot to show respect for Native Americans.[39] In July, Members of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes met with Teton School District to express their support for this decision.[40] However a similar decision by the Canisteo-Greenwood School Board in New York prompted public protest resulting in a statement that the issue would be studied further.[41] Other High Schools in the process of making a name change include Lancaster, New York[42] and Port Townsend, Washington.[43]

After failing in her to appeals directly to Neshaminy High School, a parent filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission alleging "The Redskins" name is a form of harassment offensive to Native Americans and her 13-year-old son who attends the school. The school board unanimously voted to ask the commission to dismiss the complaint,[44] but the student paper voted to stop using the name.[45] However, the principal and the school board president have decided that the student paper's editorial board does not have the right to refuse to use the name.[46]

In December, 2013 the Houston, TX school district approved, in a preliminary vote, a new policy against any ethic mascots which would require a change for several schools including the Lamar High School Redskins.[47][48]

Washington NFL team[edit]

The term is most prominent in the name of the Washington Redskins, a National Football League football team. The team was founded in 1932 and was originally known as the Boston Braves, for their landlords, the baseball team called the Boston Braves. In 1933 the name was changed to the synonymous Boston Redskins when the team left Braves Field for Fenway Park, the home of the Boston Red Sox. Some accounts state that the name "Redskins" was chosen to honor the team's coach, William "Lone Star" Dietz, who began coaching in 1933, and whose mother was allegedly Sioux. In 1937 the team moved and joining Capitol Hill as the second football team of Washington, D.C., became the Washington Redskins.[49]

Public protest of the name began in 1968, with a resolution by the National Congress of American Indians.[50] Native American groups and their supporters argue that since they view the word "redskin" as offensive, that it is inappropriate for an NFL team to continue to use it, regardless of whether any offense is intended.[9][51][52] In contrast to amateur teams governed by the NCAA or other organizations, which can level sanctions against member schools, the professional Washington Redskins franchise and nickname are subject only to the other clubs in the NFL and, presumably, approval or disapproval as expressed through ticket and merchandise receipts, or lack thereof, from the public. As there has apparently been no adverse market reaction, there has been little or no incentive to change the name.

An attempt to revoke the trademark registration of the Washington Redskins team name failed when an initial revocation of the trademark was reversed in the 2005 court case of Pro-Football, Inc. v. Harjo. Harjo's case inspired many other Native American civil rights groups to pursue the topic, and subsequent lawsuits followed. One complaint filed stated: “The term ‘redskin’ was and is a pejorative, derogatory, denigrating, offensive, scandalous, contemptuous, disreputable, disparaging and racist designation for a Native American person.” Despite these attempts, "redskin" continues to be used as an NFL name.

Notwithstanding the protests of activists, a 2002 poll commissioned by Sports Illustrated found that 75% of those American Indians surveyed had no objection to the Redskins name. The results of the poll have been criticized by American Indian activists due to Sports Illustrated's refusal to provide polling information (e.g. how participants were recruited and contacted, if they were concentrated in one region, if one ethnic group is over represented and the exact wording and order of questions). But in 2004, a poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania essentially confirmed the prior poll's findings, concluding that 91% of the American Indians surveyed in the 48 states on the mainland USA found the name acceptable and setting out in detail the exact wording of the questions.[53]

The flaw in random and anonymous polls of Native Americans' opinion is that they must rely upon self-identification to select the target group. In an editorial in the Bloomington Herald Times, Steve Russell (an enrolled Cherokee citizen and associate professor of criminal justice at Indiana University), states that both the Sports Illustrated and Annenberg's samples of "self-identified Native Americans... includes plenty of people who have nothing to do with Indians".[54] The problem of individuals claiming to be Native American when they are not is well known in academic research, and is a particular problem when non-natives claim Indian identity specifically to gain authority in the debate over sports mascots.[55]

On an issue like this, public opinion is just a distraction. The reason the Redskins should change their name has nothing to do with what anyone thinks now, in the second decade of the 21st century. The reason the Redskins should change their name is the same reason they should have changed it decades ago -- the same reason they never should have picked the name in the first place. The word "Redskin" has a well-established history as a racist epithet, and such words have no business being sung and chanted in support of a professional sports team. Simple as that, and it has nothing to do with tradition or fan pride or whether anyone's still offended by the name today. If the word has ever been used to ridicule or belittle human beings on the grounds of race, what's the good reason to keep it alive in a glorifying context? Changing it would harm literally no one. It would be an act with no motive but basic human courtesy. - Dan Graziano, ESPN [56]

A small number of media outlets have independently taken the position that they will not use the name Redskins, but instead refer to the team as "Washington", with the exception of the Washington City Paper, which refers to the team as the "Pigskins".[57] David Plotz of Slate in an article announcing the decision to stop using the name stated, "Changing the way we talk is not political correctness run amok. It reflects an admirable willingness to acknowledge others who once were barely visible to the dominant culture, and to recognize that something that may seem innocent to you may be painful to others. In public discourse, we no longer talk about groups based on their physical traits: No one would ever refer to Asians as yellow-skinned. This is why the majority of teams with Indian nicknames have dropped them over the past 40 years."[58] One day later, Mother Jones and The New Republic concurred, making the same decision.[59][60] Sports writer Peter King has also decided that he will no longer use the name in his reporting, but will substitute "Washington" when referring to the team. "I can just tell you how I feel: I’ve been increasingly bothered by using the word, and I don’t want to be a part of using a name that a cross-section of our society feels is insulting." [61]

A bill was introduced in the US House of Representatives on March 20, 2013 by Eni F.H. Faleomavaega (American Samoa) and co-sponsoed by 19 others to amend the Trademark Act of 1946 to void any trademarks that disparage Native American Persons or Peoples, such as redskins. Ten members of congress also sent a letter to the NFL commissioner, all of the team owners including Dan Snyder, and a primary sponsor of the team Fred Smith, CEO of FedEx; requesting that the name be changed due to the many Native American organizations that oppose the continued use of the name, and in order to fulfill the NFL's own policy regarding diversity.[62] A co-sponsor, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D - DC), stated she supports the local team but not the name.[63]


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  58. ^ David Plotz (2013-08-08). "The Washington _________ :Why Slate will no longer refer to Washington’s NFL team as the Redskins". Slate. 
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  63. ^ Johnson, Andrew (March 21, 2013). "House Dems Introduce Bill to Ban ‘Redskins’ Trademark". The National Review. Retrieved March 21, 2013. 

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