On the Naming of Sports Teams IV: Native American Team Names & What to Do About the Redskins

I have left the teams named for Native American warriors and tribes for this separate post, instead of including them in the earlier one on warriors and local groups, to which the names logically belong, because there are special questions raised about the propriety of such names. The three previous posts in this series are On the Naming of Sports Teams I: Animals & Birds; II: Non-Indian Warriors & Groups with Local Associations; and III: Colors, Abstractions, & Inanimate Objects.

Except for the rare collegiate self-mocking name, it should be evident that, despite the evidence of some bad choices, no one deliberately chooses a sports team’s name to bring scorn and contempt on the team, rather the opposite. So the question is not of a deliberate attempt to disrespect or ridicule Native Americans, even for the worst of the lasix names, Redskins.

There are not as many team names falling into the Native American category as there used to be. Stanford, Dartmouth, and U of Massachusetts are among those having made name changes. Others have kept names but eliminated Native American images and sideline performers. Wikipedia has a good article (at least as I write, it does) “Native American mascot controversy” on the topic.

There was no denying the valor of Native American warriors. So, even as Native Americans were pushed out of their homelands by force of arms, with great suffering and loss of life, they gained respect, even admiration, for their “savage” bravery and warcraft. Thus the many teams that chose Native American names in the past. I understand the argument against these names, but I can’t help feeling that eliminating them would contribute to our forgetting the heroism of the Native American resistance.

Here is the breakdown for this final team name category, with an example of each.

10. Native American warriors and tribes

(A) general: Chiefs
(B) tribal / local: Seminoles
(C) racial: Redskins

To 10A belong the Golden State Warriors, Atlanta and Bradley Braves, Kansas City Chiefs, William & Mary Tribe, and Cleveland Indians. Personally, I think these names are as acceptable as Spartans or Minutemen, though I have to admit they may invite some fans to don unfortunate Indian costumes. But must we outlaw Indian costumes at Mardi Gras and Halloween? I think football game face-painting etc. (which is not confined to teams with Native American names) is something we can tolerate, just as we tolerate identifying teams with fierce animals. There’s something a little primeval about it, but perhaps better not suppressed.

Tribal or local names (10B) include Florida State Seminoles, Central Michigan Chippewas, Utah Utes, Chicago Black Hawks, and San Diego State Aztecs. The Fighting Illini of Illinois used to be counted in this category, since Illinois was named for the Illiniwek tribal group and the school used an Indian chief with full headdress as its symbol for many years, as well as having an Indian-garbed mascot at games. Those images have been banished, and the claim is made that Fighting Illini referred to Civil War soldiers from Illinois originally, anyway, which would belong in 4B. Most of these remaining names are probably in danger. Although the opinion that they are insulting or, at the very least unacceptably insensitive, is not the majority one, it is strongly held. Florida State would seem to be in a pretty strong position for defending its name since the Seminole tribe of Florida likes ambien it. The same can be said about the Utes and the Chippewas.

The Aztecs aren’t exactly around to weigh in of the San Diego State name, but it almost escapes the Native American category by not belonging to a group within the USA. It’s more like Trojans or Spartans in belonging to a distant past. The strong association of the Aztecs with human sacrifice and cannibalism, however, makes the name problematic for me.

The Chicago Black Hawks (NHL) name might sound like it belongs to 1A with the birds of prey, but the team logo depicts a Native American in profile, and the team is evidently named for an Indian chief called Black Hawk. Having everybody called by one man’s name doesn’t make sense to me. It’s like calling a Memphis team the Elvises. Well, maybe when Black Hawks is taken to mean everyone on the team has adopted Black Hawk’s totem animal it’s marginally OK.

There is really only one team name in the category that explicitly points to race, 10C—the Washington Redskins. Whatever its problems, the Redskins name clearly would fit into one of the fierce historical fighter categories, as would all the other Indian-derived names would. Going only by the name, I’d have assumed Redskins would have gone into the ruthless raider subcategory 3B. Based on the reference to scalping in the original version of the team’s fight song, I think this was the intent. However, the team logo is similar to the dignified face in profile that was seen on the Indian-head nickel. It doesn’t promote a blood-thirsty image at all. I take the team owner at his word that he views the name in a positive light that honors the valor of the Native American warrior. Unless one takes the position that Native American images cannot be considered for sports team logos period, the logo seems fine. But what about the name? It’s different from all the other existing names with a Native American zithromax theme, in its reference to skin color.

It should be acknowledged that red has traditionally been used to designate the skin color of Native Americans, just as yellow has been for that of the Chinese. When Jesse Jackson spoke of creating a Rainbow Coalition he said “Our flag is red, white, and blue, but our nation is a rainbow—red, yellow, brown, black, and white.” He was certainly not meaning to offend anyone, on the contrary. I don’t recall anyone objecting. The point I’m making is that, however inaccurate using red for skin color is and how unnecessary it is to even use a color, it has been the standard, unthinking shorthand way of identifying Native Americans. Given that, I think the Redmen (U of Massachusetts and St. John’s) name was almost as defensible for a team name as Indians, when it was first used, but it’s just as well that it is gone. Incidentally, the Cleveland Indians logo, which is the red-as-a-lobster cartoon face of “Chief Wahoo,” really needs to be discarded, and that minimal act of respect wouldn’t require renaming the team.

But back to the Redskins name. It’s not enough to sincerely say you don’t mean the name in an offensive way. The historical usage and racial emphasis cannot be wished away. Forty years ago, before there was any controversy that I was aware of, an Austin poet pointed out to me, with a poet’s concision, that the name Washington Redskins was like Birmingham Niggers. This was shocking and, I realized upon reflection, basically true, though I hadn’t thought of it that way before then.

Redskins was a term of racial contempt applied by Whites to the native peoples of North America within the shameful historical context of getting them out of the way. The term emphasized the otherness, and implicitly the inferiority, of the Native Americans, and surely played its part in maintaining the mind-set that could justify their cruel prednisone treatment. We can’t forget the genocidal phrase: “The only good Injun is a dead Injun.”

The word Redskins, although it may have been used without thought or conscious prejudice in the past, is not uttered by any halfway sensitive person these days except in the context of NFL football. The name Redskins has to go, and it will go sooner or later. I want to propose a compromise solution, which means it will not satisfy anyone who has a strong position for keeping things just as they are or for eliminating all Native American associations with the team. It is meant as a compromise with a certain naturalness to it, given the team’s location in our nation’s capital. Who knows, maybe it will remind the politicians there what compromise for the common good is.

One step away from Redskins would be Indians, but that would not be far enough for the most adamant objectors to the current name, and there is a baseball team with the name already. Native Americans? That has become the political correct term, even though a considerable number of the persons to whom it applies still prefer to go by American Indian. Some who oppose the current name would strongly object, and defenders of the current name might feel moved to make a death struggle against political correctness and save the name Redskins. In any case, Native Americans can be thrown out as a name for having too many syllables, without considering it further. I don’t think anyone would suggest Senators or Congressmen, speaking of not wanting a name that’s widely held in contempt.

Here is my two-part proposal. First, keep the current logo (hopefully making the skin color a bit more realistic). Second, change the name to Washington Americans.

Keeping the logo (and the team should get rights to that as a trademark, which has been called into question recently, as a way of pressuring the team to change the name) would minimize damage to the value of the franchise and to the psyche of fans who see the logo as representing a team they support and have supported, some of them, for their whole conscious lives. Yes, many would persist in calling the team the Redskins, singing Hail to the Redskins, and bringing signs to games with the word Redskins on them, but so what? The official name, the name used in accounts and discussions of the team on national tv and press would be Americans. Over time, no one would be using the name Redskins. Those who believe no team should have a Native American image to represent it could continue that battle and perhaps try to confiscate all the Indian-head nickels while they’re at it. Sticklers for Native American usage could call the team the Washington Native Americans if they wanted to, though I don’t think that would be very widespread.

I see the combination of the name Americans with the Native American image for the team logo as a way of honoring the first Americans. Would Native Americans be offended instead of feeling honored? My guess is that most would not, but that could be part of the debate before the new name was adopted. As a name for a team in Washington DC, I think Americans is better than Nationals, using an actual noun to express more of less the same thing. The name Americans is proud, tough, and patriotic. Problem solved.

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