Redskins: what’s in a name? 

Native Americans protest the racial slur that is a mascot

click to enlarge AIM members stood in front of Lucas Oil Stadium and protested the use of the term "redskin" as an NFL team mascot. - LORI LOVELY
  • AIM members stood in front of Lucas Oil Stadium and protested the use of the term "redskin" as an NFL team mascot.
  • Lori Lovely

“Ain’t no game, change the name,” chanted protestors outside of Lucas Oil Stadium prior to the Colts-Redskins game on a balmy but breezy day in November, Native American Heritage month. Just days after the Thanksgiving holiday so many Native Americans find repellent, AIM Kentucky-Indiana chapter members and supporters, including State Representative Reggie Meeks, of Cherokee Ojibwa heritage, drove up from Kentucky to spread the message that Native Americans are not mascots.

Vowing to never change the name, team owner Dan Snyder has repeatedly insisted that the name is intended to honor Native Americans, but to that, Albert Ortiz Running Wolf, Kiowa, co-chair AIM Indiana-Kentucky, responds: “We didn’t ask to be honored with a racial slur. Viking is a job; Redskin is a racial slur. Stop making excuses for racism.”

Legal battle

Some people are no longer making excuses. In August the California Assembly deemed the nickname disparaging and urged the National Football League to change it. Similar votes were taken in New York, New Jersey and the District of Columbia.

In June the U.S. Patent and Trademark canceled six of the team’s trademarks, registered between 1967 and 1990, citing federal trademark law that “prohibits registration of marks that may disparage persons or bring them into contempt or disrepute.”

In its official opinion, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board wrote, “We decide, based on the evidence properly before us, that these registrations must be cancelled because they were disparaging to Native Americans at the respective times they were registered.”

The ruling does not, however, pertain to the logo of an American Indian head in profile.

Instead of challenging the ruling in appellate court, the team sued the five Native Americans who filed the complaint and claimed that canceling its trademarks would violate its right of free speech. Losing trademark protection could cost the team tens of millions of dollars per year.

The legal battle could take years. Until then, the team’s trademark protection remains in effect. So, too, do the tensions between avid fans and Native Americans.

Sticks and stones

Many fans averted their eyes or turned their heads as they scurried past the group hoisting signs and singing the AIM song to a Native drumbeat.

Some mocked and taunted the protestors. Once he was safely past the protestors, one passing Colts fan called over his shoulder, “Change your name to the Thin Skins.”

A few, like Rodney Johnson, a Chesapeake, Va., Redskins fan who carried a “Keep the name” sign, stopped to exchange hostile remarks. “It’s just a name. Get over it.”

But it’s not just a name. The term promotes a stereotypical image of Native Americans that has an historical context unknown to many non-Natives.

“There’s a misperception of the word,” Running Wolf said. “Plain and simple, the word ‘redskin’ comes from a bounty in 1875 that advertised $200 per dead Indian. People think the name Redskins is from something that the first settlers said because we painted our faces red. But what it actually goes back to is that they would kill our people, and they would actually skin us. When those skins would be let out to dry in the sun, they would be stained red with blood, and that was where they got the term redskins from. The Bureau of Indian Affairs sold body tags to settlers to put on our skins.”

“You don’t see a sports team called the Fighting Whities,” pointed out John Hubbard, Lakota. “It’s insulting. We’re not mascots.”

It’s de-humanizing, emphasized Carolina Castoreno, enrolled member of the Lipan Apache Nation of Texas, AIM co-chair/Indiana contact, and president of Native American Student Alliance at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. “How can we get people to care about our problems if they don’t respect us as human beings?”

click to enlarge Redskins fan Rodney Johnson of Virginia was among a few who taunted the AIM group insisting the team keep the name. - LORI LOVELY
  • Redskins fan Rodney Johnson of Virginia was among a few who taunted the AIM group insisting the team keep the name.
  • Lori Lovely

Ultimately, Castoreno said, it’s not about a shouting match with fans; it’s about conveying how harmful racial slurs are. “A redskin references the bloody scalps of our ancestors, collected for bounties during centuries of colonialism. The word is intrinsically linked to racism. There’s no honor in racism. Dan Snyder is on the wrong side of history.”

Progress to understanding

AIM has had a presence at every Washington away-game this season. The largest protest occurred outside the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium in a plaza built as a tribute to 11 of the state’s tribes, with 4,000- 5,000 showing up to voice their displeasure about the name.

Despite many of the nation’s 5.2 million Native Americans questioning the methodology of many of the polls, explaining that the ethnicity of responders was not verified, the team continues to validate its stance by referencing a 10-year-old Annenberg Public Policy Center poll reportedly indicating that 9 out of 10 Native Americans are not offended by the name.

Castoreno insists that Native Americans have been protesting the name since 1933, when it was changed from the Washington Braves to avoid confusion after the team relocated from Braves Field in Boston to Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox. “If you’re tired of hearing about it, imagine how tired we are dealing with it.”

For the majority of the century, she said, Indians have been seen as a thing of the past. It’s only now that social media has allowed their voices to grow louder. “We are here, within the culture. We want respect, not special treatment.”

“Our ancestors are calling to us,” Running Wolf said by way of explaining the recent groundswell of support for the protests. “It’s time for us to make our voices heard. It’s our turn to rise up and show this America that we’re here; we live in this society. The wind of change will blow, and those who don’t understand are going to get blown away.”

Some fans did stop to listen, ask questions or offer words of support. Hubbard said he heard as many positive comments as negative. Nevertheless, it was still disheartening, especially when one fan was seen wearing a faux headdress. “It’s so disrespectful,” he said.

Recognizing that “not everyone evolves at the same pace,” Castoreno said the protest is a means to continue the conversation. “It’s a way to talk with people – not with hate, but to educate them.”

click to enlarge Johnson and Running Wolf discuss the pros and cons of the Washington Redskins name. - LORI LOVELY
  • Johnson and Running Wolf discuss the pros and cons of the Washington Redskins name.
  • Lori Lovely

Hoping for some understanding from the crowd, Running Wolf agreed that the purpose of the day was to educate the public. Names matter. “People need to understand it’s like using the ‘N’ word.”

“My biggest question is for Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III,” Running Wolf concluded. “How much is your skin worth?”

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About The Author

Lori Lovely

Lori Lovely is a contributing freelance writer. Her passions include animal rights, Native American affairs and the Indianapolis 500.

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