The Redskins and Their “N-Word” Problem


The Redskins are more than just a storied franchise, rich with history and tradition (five Super Bowl appearances, three Lombardi trophies, The Hogs, The Diesel, Fun Bunch, Redskins-Cowboys rivalry, etc). The Redskins are more than the 4th most valuable sports franchise in the world (Not just the city, THE WORLD, Craig!). The Redskins are more than the team that I grew up rooting for as a child and the team I follow with an unwavering passion.

The Redskins are offensive. At least — according to some people — their name is offensive.

The decades-long backlash at the team’s name has come back to light after recent remarks from DC mayor Vincent Gray on what would have to happen if the Redskins were to move from their home stadium in Landover, MD to one within DC proper. “I think that if they get serious with the team coming back to Washington, there’s no doubt there’s going to have to be a discussion about [changing the name],” Gray said. The name, which dates back to 1933 when the team was located in Boston and was trademarked in 1967, caused enough outrage that in 1992 a group of Native Americans filed suit in federal court (Harjo et al v. Pro Football, Inc.) to have the name lose its federal trademark status. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case stating that the group had waited too long to challenge the trademark. Federal intervention be damned, the debate marches on.

Supporters tout the name as celebrating Native American pride and honor. It is said that the team was named the Redskins in honor of their head coach William Henry Dietz who claimed to be part Sioux. Ives Goddard, curator emeritus in the Department of Anthropology of the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution, published a research article in the detailing the origin of the term “redskin”. His findings show that the term was actually used first by Native Americans themselves to distinguish themselves from their white colonial visitors. Only later did the term become corrupted.

“[The] use of redskin as a Native American in-group term was entirely authentic, reflecting both the accurate perception of the Indian self-image and the evolving respect among whites for the Indians’ distinct cultural perspective, whatever its prospects. The descent of this word into obloquy is a phenomenon of more recent times.”

Detractors insist that the name only highlights the blood-soaked horrors of Manifest Destiny. Whether the word came from amicable or hostile beginnings, it cannot be denied that, for a long time, Native Americans were demeaned and the term “redskin” was no longer a honorable title. Many people compare it to the use of the word “nigger”. Suzan Shown Harjo, president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C. and one of the plaintiffs in Harjo et al v. Pro Football, Inc., wrote:

“Once you’ve been stung by that word, you never, ever forget it or the venom of each modifier, most commonly ‘dirty,’ ‘lazy’ and ‘stupid.’ […] No Native person who has been called the R-word has ever said: “Wow, they must think I’m a football player or a sport mascot or a person covered in red paint for war.” It has always been a fighting word and has never been a compliment.”

As a black man who must deal with the past (and present) crimes of the word “nigger”, it would be ignorant of me to simply brush this aside without trying to put myself in the shoes of a Native American. But what shoe is that? Native American activists, like Suzan Shown Harjo, seem to be adamant in their battle against the term. However, a Sports Illustrated poll in 2002 found the opposite to be true among the general Native American population:

“Asked if high school and college teams should stop using Indian nicknames, 81% of Native American respondents said no. As for pro sports, 83% of Native American respondents said teams should not stop using Indian nicknames, mascots, characters and symbols.”

This is an interesting issue, no doubt, and one that I feel very torn by. I’ve mainly been a supporter of keeping the name, but I can admit that it’s for purely selfish reasons. Why would I want the team that I grew up with and invested so much in to change their name? The term “Redskins” isn’t derogatory to me. I feel pride when I hear it. Joy. Honor. I am a Redskin and I want my kids to be Redskins too. It’s me. I feel ownership of that name. Wait, can I really claim that it’s my word? I want to, but I don’t think I can. Ultimately, it’s a word with a dark past that I never experienced. I don’t know what the right choice is in this debate, but I’ll never stop supporting my team. Hail to the R-words.