The news spread like wildfire when the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) canceled six federal Washington Redskins trademark registrations. Those who seemed to be most vocal about this decision were offended by the decision, and talk radio phone lines lit up for days afterwards with disgruntled fans arguing that North American Indians and the USPTO had no right to tell anyone in America what they could do with their “property.”
As I drove back home, I listened to many callers and to many radio talk shows as I traveled from one radio station’s reach to another over the course of several hours. Whether it was Sean Hannity or Leland Conway or any number of other talk radio hosts I listened to, the objections were plentiful and centered on several myths and misconceptions. The indignation was overwhelming at times.
So I decided that I would take a look at some of those objections, myths, and misconceptions, and provide a clear, concise, factual explanation to help clear the very muddy waters.
1. The term Redskins is part of our football culture. It’s our heritage.
Long before it was part of football culture, it was part of another American sport: killing North American Indians for money.
In 1755, the government in the colony of Massachusetts gave white men forty pounds sterling for every male Indian scalp over twelve years of age, and twenty pounds sterling for the scalp of Indian women and children under twelve years of age. Because a male Indian scalp was worth the same as a deer pelt which was known as a buckskin, the term “buck” was applied to Indian men.
A hundred years later, Harvard physician and social commentator Oliver Wendell Holmes described Indians as “a sketch in red crayons” and stated that it was natural for white men to “hate” Indians, urging them to “hunt [Indians] down like the wild beasts of the forest, and so the red-crayon sketch is rubbed out, and the canvas is ready for a picture of manhood a little more like God’s own image.”
2. But that was a long time ago, and things changed after the American Civil War.
Lots may have changed with the American Civil War, but the bounty on North American Indian scalps didn’t.
In the September 25, 1863 edition of the Daily Republican of Winona, MN an ad was placed by the government that read: “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.” Of course, the Daily Republican wasn’t the only newspaper to carry that ad.
In the 1876 centennial celebration, William Dean Howells made it clear in his speech that Indians were to be exterminated, and described them as “hideous demon[s], whose malign traits can hardly inspire any emotion softer than abhorrence.”
3. But that was in the olden days, long before the turn of the century. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, people’s opinions changed.
That’s a nice thought, but it’s not rooted in fact. For example, in 1889, Theodore Roosevelt commented: “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe that nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.” That certainly doesn’t sound very friendly no matter how you read that sentence.
4. It’s not like the term redskin meant anything but the color of their skin … in a complimentary way.
As in any “business,” there are always those who cut corners or who pass off counterfeit product for the real thing (pardon that horrific comment). Back in the day, it wasn’t unheard of that some bounty hunters were scalping any dark-haired infant, woman, or man to maximize their profits — dead or alive — so the bounty payers began to insist that the scalps include “red skin” to prove that the hunter had indeed killed an Indian, and not a white person with dark hair. And to ensure that it was truly a “red skin,” only scalps with both ears included qualified for the bounty.
5. Yeah, but nowadays, the term is used to honor North American Indians.
If that’s the case, then why haven’t we heard of teams being named with racist names that reflect other cultures? Where are the Kansas City Kikes and the San Diego Spics and the New York Niggers? How come there isn’t a team called the Toronto Trannies or the Houston Homos? They don’t exist because such pejoratives do not honor their cultures. It denigrates and insults their cultures. And it’s just plain WRONG.
And if the team name is meant to honor a cultural group, why not let the team name reflect the owner’s heritage and culture? It would seem fitting to have him re-brand the team with his own personal identity, culture, and heritage, since his name is very publicly tied to the team. Wouldn’t that make more sense?
6. It’s not like there’s lots of Indians anyway. You never really hear much about Indians because that’s how small the percentage of Indians is in North America.
Actually, in the U.S., North American Indians make up 2% of the population. But here’s the thing: If it’s about numbers, then the argument cannot be made that a small percentage of the population has no right to be respected.
Transgender people make up 0.3 percent of the American population according to The Williams Institute at UCLA. No one in their right mind would dream of ignoring the transgender population when they state that certain terms and comments are not acceptable … including some terms that were thought by mainstream America to be acceptable just a few years ago.
7. It was just 5 people complaining. It’s not like it really bothers North American Indians much to have the team named the Washington Redskins. It’s just a few troublemakers stirring the pot.
Back in 1999, the trademarks were canceled by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Four years later, on appeal, the decision was reversed on a technicality. The most recent cancellation was a new application, and that new application didn’t go through in just a few weeks. Like the appeal, there were years put into it.
More importantly, however, is the fact that the American Indian Movement, lead countless protests against the misappropriation and gross misuse of Indigenous culture. Of course, it was risky business to make too much noise when North American Indian children were being taken from their families and forced to live in residential schools (the last residential school was closed in Saskatchewan, Canada in 1996). Sometimes people have a “funny” way of exacting vengeance against those they feel are threatening them or their way of life, and since that sort of vengeance existed had existed for generations already — with the government’s blessing — it was a very real concern and worry for many North American Indians.
8. The thing is, Dan Snyder has sunk a lot of money into the name, and it’s not fair for him to lose that investment.
Fine. I understand that it’s not that hard to change logos. In fact, the Washington Redskins have changed their logo on a number of occasions over the past 80 or so years.
If Dan Snyder is so attached to the name, let him change the logo from that showing the profile of a North American Indian to a red skin potato. Then again, maybe the potato farmers would object to this, so that might not be such a good idea after all.
It would be interesting to see what suggestions readers and visitors to this blog can come up with to help Dan Snyder re-brand his football team. Remember to keep the comments G-rated. No suggestions that are -isms will be posted.
ADDITIONAL SUGGESTED READING