Even President Obama has weighed into the debate over the name of the NFL team the Washington Redskins, indicating if he owned the team, he would “think about” changing the name. But here’s the thing: I’ve heard many opinions on this issue, but very few from actual Native Americans.
Most people writing about this issue think it’s not a big deal. ESPN sports writer Rick Reilly defends his opinion (that no one cares) by saying he is qualified to pass judgement because his “father-in-law, who owns a steakhouse and is part Blackfeet Indian” is not offended. In fact, his father-in-law says: “It’s an issue that shouldn’t be an issue, not with all the problems we’ve got in this country.”
Frankly, that’s how many Native Americans feel – that the US has greater problems, especially considering we’re currently in the midst of agovernment shutdown. At one time that was my stance, too. But here’s the thing: while many of us don’t think it’s anywhere near the biggest problem in America today, we would all be offended if anyone ever referred to us as redskins.
If you want to read a thoughtful opinion on the Washington Redskins mascot debate, I recommend Joe Flood’s piece on Buzzfeed: “How The Redskins Debate Goes Over On An Actual Indian Reservation“. At least he bothered to see what people living on reservations really think of the term (Flood himself lives on my homeland, the Pine Ridge Reservation). He asked many people if the term was offensive and a majority agreed, we have other things to worry about in Indian Country. But when he turned the question around and asked if they would allow someone to call them a redskin, every single one answered no, because it was offensive.
I did my own informal survey and got a variety of answers. Yes. No. It doesn’t matter, and the ever so popular “We have more important things to worry about.” Yet, when I asked the same question Flood did: “What would you do if someone called you a redskin?” The answer was the same. Everyone thought it was offensive. That’s why this mascot debate matters.
Let me put this in perspective for Caucasians. Remember the George Zimmerman trial? Twenty-eight-year-old Zimmerman was found not guilty of shooting and killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin using the “stand your ground” law in Florida where he claimed to be in fear for his life because unarmed Trayvon was wearing a hoodie. Many in the media made fun of star witness Rachel Jeantel’s speech, but they also attacked the term she testified Trayvon used when he said to her on the phone that Zimmerman was following him: “creepy-ass cracker“. Was that racist?
I looked up the term “cracker”, which by the way, there is not one team name in America called cracker, and the definition basically is derived from this meaning:
One theory holds that the term derives from the “cracking” of whips, either by slave foremen in the antebellum South against African slaves, or by rustics to guide their cattle. Those white foremen or rural poor who cracked their whips theoretically became known as “crackers”.
I understand why many white people in America took offense to the term “cracker”. But why are Native Americans not supposed to take offense to the term “Redskins?” Especially when there is no team named whiteskins, yellowskins, blackskins? Would that be the same? I looked up the definition for redskin and although most online dictionaries agree that the term is offensive, most will give the definition as: “The original name was a European one used to describe Algonquins who painted their face with bright red ocher and bloodroot, thereby making their face red with war paint.”
However, most of us were taught by our elders, or came on our own to realize that what redskin really refers to is the scalping of Native Americans, which was introduced to Native Americans by the cavalry.
Now we live in a country that considers the term “cracker” racist in a murder trial. We also live in a country where the Declaration of Independence refers to my people as “merciless Indian Savages” and few question it. But if we question the term used by a professional football team or mascots used by other sports teams that give their fans the right to make fun of us, but not to our faces, then we’re wrong?
To all Native Americans/American Indians out there who think we have more important things to worry about: would you let someone call you a redskin to your face? It is time we stand up for everything we believe in, because it is of utmost importance to leave this place a better environment for our children.
I’ll go one step further than the president, the Redskins shouldn’t “think about” changing their name. They should have done it a long time ago.