Last week on June 18, a department of the federal government announced an important ruling concerning the National Football League's Washington Redskins. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office declared that the name "Redskins," a designation based on skin color, was disparaging to Native Americans. The team was then stripped of federal protections for six of its trademarks. The team had been using this name since the 1930s and had announced that, despite this ruling, it plans to continue doing so.
The term "redskins" has had an interesting history. The indigenous peoples on our continent had no common identity, referring to themselves by using individual tribal names. The name "redskins" came into common use in the 1800s when the Native American population was being hunted, killed, and forcibly removed from their lands by bounty hunters and European settlers.
Two early examples in print describe this context. In an article in The Weekly Register published in Baltimore on October 9. 1813, a writer from St. Louis described an expedition being formed and to be led by Gen. Benjamin Howard to "route the savages from the Illinois and Mississippi territories."
"The expedition will be 40 days out, and there is no doubt but we shall have to contend with powerful hordes of red skins, as our frontiers have been lined with them last summer, and have had frequent skirmishes with our regulars and rangers."
The second example comes from an announcement in the September 25, 1863, Daily Republican of Winona, MN: "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." Similar archival examples include flyers urging people to go out and kill Indians and bring back the red skin. The highest payment was for a man, next for a woman, and the lowest for a child.
A linguistic analysis of 42 books published between 1875 and 1930 shows that the term "redskin" had been used in significantly more negative contexts than it had been in more positive ones. Public protests concerning the name began in 1968 with a resolution by the National Congress of American Indians. At the high school level during the last 25 years, 28 teams in 18 states dropped the "Redskins" name.
Dan Graziano had s pertinent comment to share in a June 27, 2013, ESPN program: "On an issue like this, public opinion is just a distraction. The reason the Redskins should change their name has nothing to do with what anyone thinks now, in the second decade of the 21st century. The reason the Redskins should change their name is the same reason they should have changed it decades ago—the same reason they never should have picked the name in the first place. The word 'Redskin' has a well-established history as a racist epithet, and such words have no business being sung and chanted in support of a professional sports team. Simple as that, and it has nothing to do with tradition or fan pride or whether anyone is still offended by the name today. If the word has ever been used to ridicule or belittle human beings on the grounds of race, what's the good reason to keep it alive in a glorifying context? Changing it would harm literally no one. It would be an act with no motive but basic human courtesy."
And David Plotz, in an August 8, 2013, Slate article, had an important comment to make: "Changing the way we talk is not political correctness run amok. It reflects an admirable willingness to acknowledge others who once were barely visible to the dominant culture, and to recognize that something that may seem innocent to you may be painful to others. In public discourse we no longer talk about groups based on their physical traits: No one would ever refer to Asians as yellow-skinned. This is why the majority of teams with Indian nicknames have dropped them over the past 40 years."
There's a new kind of world to discover under the skin.