How racist is the term Redskin anyway?

Discussion over the name of Washington D.C.'s football team's name has not faded with time. Where did the word actually come from? Photo: Redskin name protest/ AP

WASHINGTON, October 28, 2013 —The controversy surrounding the name of the Washington Redskins’ football team does not seem to be going away.

The Associated Press has reported that NFL officials will be meeting with the Oneida officials who oppose the name and perceive the term Redskin as an ethnic slur, on Wednesday.

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Daniel Snyder, the owner of the Redskins, has clearly stated he does not wish to change the name of his football team. This past spring he told a reporter from USA Today to feel free to print the word “never” in all capital letters.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the other franchise owners could put enough pressure on Snyder to force a name change, but Goodell has stated that the name and any change will be the owner’s decision.

Just how offensive is the term Redskin?

When arguing against the use of the Redskin name, the Phips Proclamation is often referred to in order to highlight the cruel time in American history when Native Americans were hunted and killed by the European colonists for their lands.

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The proclamation was issued by King George and offered cash rewards for each Indian scalp. The crown offered 50 British Pounds for each male scalp over the age of 12, 25 British Pounds for each adult woman scalp and 20 British Pounds for each child’s scalp.

The belief is that the term “red skin” was used to describe the skin of each scalp that would still be attached, but the reality is that although the proclamation is horrifying and unacceptable, the “red skin” term was never used.

Ives Goddard, a senior linguist in the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution, explained in his paper “I am a Red-Skin” that the term was used by Native Americans to identify themselves from the Colonists.

Goddard found documentation from 1769 during negotiations with the Piankashaws and Lieutenant Colonel John Wilkins. There would be four talks between the war chief and Lt. Col., conducted in French, who the tribe was still strongly attached to.

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The chief ended the first talks with an invitation which was translated, “I shall be pleased to have you come to speak to me yourself if you pity our women and children; and if any redskins do you harm, I shall be able to look out for you.” And later in a more heated exchange, the chief said “You think that I am an orphan; but all the people of these rivers and all the redskins will learn of my death”.

Many dictionaries and history books say that the term came about in reference to the red paint or clay used to paint their bodies.

Goddard went on to point out that the first known English use of the term was almost a half a century later in 1812.

After the 1820s, Goddard shows that the term was widely and commonly used.

Roger L. Nichols documented an even earlier use of the term in his book, The American Indian: Past and Present.

In Nichols first chapter, How Indians Got Red, he shows that by the mid 1720s the southern Native Americans were already calling themselves “red”. In 1725 the French asked an Indian council if they wished to become Christian. The response from the Taensas chief was recorded:

Long ago…there were three men in a cave, one white, one red and one black. The white man went out first and he took the good road that led him to a fine hunting ground…The red man who is the Indian, for they call themselves in their language “red man”…

The fact that Native American’s historically used the term Red Skin to describe themselves does not mean that it has not become a racist term.

Suzan Shown Harjo, a Native American writer and activist who brought the lawsuit Harjo et al v. Pro Football, Inc, to end the use by the Washington team, in 2005 told the stories of three different people who have had derogatory and cruel statements yelled at them, all with the term Redskin.

Harjo claims that native people often hear things such as dirty redskin or stupid redskin.

Native Americans say that being called a redskin is equal to a black person being called the N-word.

If someone were to want to use a racial epithet toward a Native American, the term Redskin would come to mind.

A British man who was watching a Redskins’ game at a local bar recently, who did admit to not being a football fan, questioned how people would feel if a British soccer team were to call themselves the Colonists as their mascot? Would Americans be offended?

Daniel Snyder has repeatedly stated publically that he has no intention to be hurtful to anyone and that he feels that the use of the term Redskin is used to honor the Native American population.

Snyder wrote an open letter to season ticket holders a few weeks ago stating that he has listened carefully to all sides of the controversy and that although he respects the opinion of anyone who is against the use of the name he points out that 90 percent of self identified Native Americans, do not find the team name to be offensive.

He also referred to an Associated Press poll which shows that 70 percent of the general population supports the use of the name.

A Washington Post poll conducted in June showed similar numbers of support for the team keeping the name but of those that support the football team’s name, more than half said they find it an inappropriate term to call someone of Native American descent.

At the end of the day, it does not matter what anyone thinks of the team name except the team’s owner and he has made his position clear.

Snyder’s attorney has been making statements to anyone who will listen over the past few days to make sure that the public knows that there is no truth to the rumor that Snyder has asked a neighbor to patent the name Bravehearts for the team.

Goodell set the bar extremely low during an interview on radio station 106.7 The Fan show with La Var Arington and Chad Dukes, when he stated that if even one person was offended by the Redskin name “we have to listen”.

It would take unprecedented action by the NFL to force an owner to change the name against his will.

A gesture that might be appreciated would be for Snyder to eliminate the middle verse of the teams fight song which refers to scalping as well as uses derogatory broken English to sing “we will take ‘um big score.”

The team has been open to change in the past. The fight song used to sing, “Fight for old Dixie” but was changed in 1959 to “Fight for old D.C.”



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Susan L Ruth

Susan L. Ruth is a long-time Washington, DC resident with extensive ties throughout the community.  She is a genealogical researcher and writer, and is an active volunteer in the Northern Virginia competitive swimming community.  Susan previously worked providing life-skills to head injured adults. 

Susan and her husband Kerry currently live in Northern Virginia with their three sons, Ryley, Casey and Jack and their American Bulldog, Leila.


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