I am just as annoyed as anyone by our nation’s propensity for political correctness, because it is frequently condescending and spoken by people who believe their careful words can hide their true feelings. But there is a difference between political correctness and sincerity. There is also a difference between placating people and bestowing honor.
This year, coinciding with the annual dispute over the celebration of Columbus Day, President Obama once again stirred up racial divisions by inserting himself into the debate over the use of the name “Redskins” by Washington’s NFL franchise team. In an AP interview, the President said he would “think about changing” the name if he owned the team. Many people, Native Americans especially, consider the term “redskin” an offensive racial slur. Leaders from various Native American groups have called upon Redskins owner Dan Snyder to change the team’s name, but Snyder has been defiant, saying he will “never” change the name, citing the team’s storied eighty year history. While it’s hard to see how a football team’s eighty year history trumps thousands of years of indigenous culture, most Americans remain opposed to a name change.
The Washington Redskins are just one of countless sports teams across the nation, both professional and academic, which have appropriated Native American cultural symbols: arrowheads, war bonnets, tomahawks, feathers, etc. and paired them with “native” names like “Indians”, “braves”, “savages”, “chiefs”, “warriors”, etc. The result is an amalgamation of cultural confusion not unlike that which occurs in the aftermath of any culture-clash. History shows us that a variety of reactions always emerge from cultural conflicts. There are always groups calling for a return to traditional ways, those urging an adoption of the dominant culture, and those seeking a middle-ground of mutual understanding, respect and co-existence. In America we find all of these, including the descendants of European settlers co-opting Native traditions. As a descendant of European settlers, it’s bothersome for me to see my people adopting the trappings of Native culture in their desire to be more “spiritual”, “tribal” or otherwise “in tune” with the Earth. Hanging a dream catcher from your rear-view mirror doesn’t solve that problem. In their ignorance, they believe this somehow honors Native people. When it comes to football, many people believe the Redskins name honors Native Americans. But it’s hard to make that argument when the very people they claim to be honoring say the name does not honor them. And I’m pretty sure dressing up in war paint and feathers for a game, getting drunk and mocking traditional spiritual songs with chants of “hey-ya-hey-ya” doesn’t honor them either.
While I agree with Alex Jones that President Obama pounced on the mascot debate as a way to exaggerate the prevalence of racism in America and distract from the government shutdown debacle and the disaster that is Obamacare, I disagree with his belief that the team name honors Native Americans. In a recent Infowars broadcast, he compares the Redskins to other NFL teams like the Minnesota Vikings, believing the name Redskins similarly conveys bravery, honor and strength. There are a couple of problems with this comparison however. I staunchly defend Alex Jones against accusations of racism, but I believe he is misinformed in this case. Native American tribes are sovereign nations and they exist as such to this day. The Vikings were an ancient, seafaring people, who’s culture has since been absorbed by modern society over the centuries, much like the ancient Celts, Saxons, Hittites, Vandals, etc. The term “Viking” is from the Old Norse and means roughly, “one who takes part in an overseas expedition”; unlike “redskin”, there is no derogatory association. Although, if any modern-day Vikings existed, they might very well protest the romanticized image of a gruff, blonde-haired warrior, complete with horned helmet, which historians conclude was only used in religious ceremonies, not in battle. They might also protest their entire culture being reduced to a football mascot. “Redskin” is a slur, the same as “nigger” or “wetback” or “slanty-eye”. Yes, so we’re told Native Americans called Europeans “paleface”- arguably also a slur. Personally, I’m not offended, but I might be if a Native-owned football team called themselves the Plymouth Palefaces and made the likeness of say, a crazed Reverend Dimmesdale spiking a football their logo!
So what about other teams, like the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame? Their mascot is basically a bare-knuckled boxing leprechaun. Pretty offensive if you’re of Irish decent, right? In this case, maybe not. Why? Because the Irish people have become part of the dominant culture in America. I suspect the case might be different if the team was owned by an English lord in the sixteenth century. So, it’s also a matter of setting. Native Americans are not part of the dominant culture; they continue to suffer the devastating effects of European colonization and a great many live in startling poverty. What becomes lost to history is the fact that each tribe of the Americas had a unique culture; for a long period of time, their collective way of life was officially targeted by the U.S. government for complete eradication. Dan Snyder didn’t personally conquer the Natives, but he certainly profits from their “brave” legacy.
With that being said, not all Natives are offended by the team’s name. Not all Natives take offense to being called “Indians” or “American Indians”, despite the fact that the term originates from Christopher Columbus’ faulty conclusion that he had landed in the East Indies when he came ashore in the Caribbean; he called the indigenous people he found living there indios. I live on a reservation in Montana and have personally witnessed tribal members wearing Washington Redskins jackets and Cleveland Indians hats; for some it is a matter of pride. Many call each other Indians. Whether or not that should be discouraged is not really for me to decide. Similarly, in the song Sucka Nigga (1993) by the group A Tribe Called Quest, Q-Tip raps, “And being that we use it as a term of endearment” in reference to the word “nigger”, pointing out that for many young Black people, the word serves as an expression of friendship. The song was part commentary on the heated debate over the use of the word at the time. Some African-American people are offended by the word, others are not. Some prefer to be called “Black” instead of African-American. For most, whether or not an offense has been committed depends entirely on whom is using the word and whom it’s directed at. I don’t recall ever hearing a Native call another Native “redskin”. It’s not necessarily the wording you choose, but what’s in your heart that matters; that’s the general consensus. But that wording can still evoke pain.
I have to agree with Obama and Bob Costas here, who called the team’s name an “insult” and a “slur” during NBC’s Sunday Night Football broadcast (featuring the Washington Redskins vs. the Dallas Cowboys ironically), although the manner in which these types of political distractions are disseminated to the people (frequently through NBC) is questionable. The political pressure is on and the media is gearing up. We don’t need the government to step in here; we should leave it up to the people to protest or boycott the Redskins or the NFL if they see fit. But I do think Dan Snyder, the NFL and much of the conservative media need to lend an ear to Native people’s objections. I’m sure most Natives feel there are more pressing issues concerning their people that they’d rather have the President address, and Bob Costas never took issue with the name Redskins before that I can recall, but changing the team’s name would serve as an important gesture of respect, nonetheless.