September 29, 2014

JARA | The Redskins and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Name

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The battle over the name of the notoriously unapologetic Washington Redskins reignited last week after the season premiere of South Park and a controversial segment of The Daily Show (both taking shots at the team’s defenders) aired within a day of one another. Throw in a poor start to the season, and you have one hell of a week for the Redskins’ PR team.  But please, don’t feel bad for them.

The fact that in 2014 we can still be watching professional sports teams fly banners that are nothing more than racial caricatures, or use names that are dictionary-defined racial slurs, seems so obviously wrong. The fact that I am writing something explaining why it is wrong seems so obviously wrong. And yet the merit of the Redskins’ name remains a highly contentious issue, as if both sides had equal claim to some degree of validity.

Surprise! They don’t.

The word “Redskin” does not imply “honor,” or “respect,” as team owner Dan Snyder would like to suggest.  It does not pay tribute to the “warrior spirit” of Native Americans. It is an archaic, pejorative term used to disparagingly refer to a group of people that has been systematically removed from American society and that has suffered countless slaughters at the expense of American conquest. Suggesting otherwise requires a willfully ignorant interpretation of history at best.

In an interview with ESPN back in August, Snyder also mentioned William Henry “Lone Star” Dietz, the team’s first coach back when it was founded in 1932, and its namesake, as the team’s name was changed from the “Boston Braves” to the “Redskins” (prior to their move to Washington) in honor of Dietz’s Sioux heritage.

Except that Dietz wasn’t actually Sioux — he even served jail time after an FBI investigation brought him to court for trying to register as a Native American in order to avoid the draft. Not to mention that his parents were white.

What about the original owner, George Preston Marshall, who renamed the team in Dietz’s honor? He was still a good guy with good intentions, right?

Nah. Marshall was a huge racist. He refused to sign black players until the federal government threatened to end his lease on the stadium in 1962. The kicker was the creation of the Redskins Foundation in his will, on the condition that it never support “the principle of racial integration in any form.”

There are American sports teams that genuinely do mean to honor their namesakes, like the Chicago Blackhawks. There are Native American tribes that fully support the use of their name and history by sports teams, like the Seminole tribe and its relationship with Florida State. There are also Native Americans who simply don’t care about the issue, and that’s fine as well.  I would never claim to speak for everybody, and this is not a call to eradicate the use of Native American imagery in sports.

It’s a call for the need to recognize and respect the dignity of a people that has been denied that right for centuries. It’s a call for basic human decency. The fundamental problem is that whether it’s in American media or American politics, Native Americans simply don’t have a voice. If we were talking about any other minority and any other archaic slur, be it “chinaman” or “negro” or what have you, this piece would be about an important change that happened 50 years ago and not one that needs to happen now.  It’s not our call; it’s theirs. And if people are willing to listen, they can certainly speak for themselves.