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Why Historians Should Demand the Redskins Change Their Name

Related Link  OAH Business Meeting Approves Resolution on Redskins

"The Organization of American Historians hereby adds its voice to the growing demands by Native American organizations, our sister disciplines, and conscientious people of all ethnic backgrounds, to change the name and logo of the Washington "Redskins."

As the nation’s leading organization of scholars of U.S. history, we know that history is often relevant to the present. We suggest that the following reasons, among others, show that this change is overdue.

● According to historian Alden Vaughan, “the first reported use of [“redskins”] appears in a [1699] passage about Indian assaults on frontier settlements.” From the early eighteenth century on, as violence between Native and European Americans increased, Vaughan shows that white Americans increasingly believed American Indians to be inferior and increasingly emphasized their skin as “red” rather than “white.” “[N]ot until the nineteenth century did red become the universally accepted color label for American Indians," he writes; thereafter “redskin” became increasingly pejorative and all Natives were increasingly lumped together as unassimilable.1

● The Sept. 24, 1863, Winona Daily Republican, in the polarized aftermath of the Dakota War of 1862 in Minnesota, provides an example of the relationship of “redskin” to periods of conflict and to the infamous practice of paying bounties for bodies or pieces of Native people: “The state reward for dead Indians has been increased to $200 for every red-skin sent to Purgatory.”

● History shows that most sports teams that use Native American mascots, symbols, and names today chose to do so during the Nadir of race relations (1890-c.1940). This era was marked by the nadir of Native Americans (in terms of demography, cultural survivals, etc.); the apex of the "Improved Order of Red Men" (a fraternal organization that did not allow American Indians to be members);2 and the rise of eugenics (a “science” that rationalized Native defeat as genetically ordained and appropriate). The appropriation of Native mascots and names reflects the intense racism of that era.

● The predecessor of the Washington NFL franchise, then in Boston, adopted "Redskins" as its name and logo during the Nadir. It did not select the name to honor Native Americans or a specific Native individual (as they have sometimes claimed). On the contrary, that man was German American, not Native at all,and that team was owned by George Marshall, the most racist owner in the entire NFL, a man who had to be coerced by the federal government to accept a black player after all other teams had desegregated. Marshall then created the “Indian-garbed” Redskins Marching Band, which like the "Improved Order of Red Men" featured no Indian members. He also commissioned “Hail to the Redskins,” which included verses “sung in mock Indian dialect,” according to historian J. Gordon Hylton.3

● Historians know that during the Nadir “redskins” acquired international usage, again negatively; Hitler, for example, said, about Russians, “There's only one duty: to Germanize this country by the immigration of Germans, and to look upon the natives as Redskins."4

● Historians recognize that the Native as mascot imperfectly depicts a Plains Indian, a culture that arose around 1680 and was ended two centuries later as the Nadir set in. This implies to non-Indians that Natives no longer exist. Of course, Natives did persevere, but no twentieth or twenty-first century Indian has ever served as a mascot, because such a person might wear a business suit or hard hat or clerical collar, depending upon his/her job. As historian Richard White writes, "[White Americans] … don't take [Indian peoples] seriously; we don't credit them with the capacity to make changes”; using 19th century Indian images as mascots exemplifies this problem. Legal scholar Naomi Mezey calls using Native Americans as sports mascots “the most recent manifestation of a long tradition of whites playing Indian, a form of play that tells us much more about whites than Indians. Indian mascots are generally invented by whites.”5

● Even if the NFL team attempted to control their own fans and imagery so as to be historically accurate and culturally appropriate, which they don't, they could have no impact on opponents' fans, leading to absurd images, chants like "scalp the Redskins," etc.6

● Historians know that the fact that other ethnic groups also get used as mascots does not legitimize “Redskins,” because the situations are not parallel. Irish Americans are a sizable portion of the students and staff at Notre Dame and could end "Fighting Irish" at will. So are Norwegian Americans in Minnesota, vis-à-vis the “Vikings.” Not so with Redskins. Native Americans form no significant part of the constituency of the Washington NFL franchise and have no influence over its name.

● Social science research shows consistent negative impacts on Native children from the appropriation of Natives as mascots. Such historical documents as the video "In Whose Honor" show the negative impact on Native families from much less odious uses of Natives as mascots than “Redskins.” As a result, various state agencies such as the Michigan and Oregon State Boards of Education, have banned Native mascots and names, including “Redskins.”7

● It is true that some Native Americans do not feel offended by the name, symbol, or use of Natives as mascots. However, as historians we recognize that rank-and-file persons often lag their leaders.8 The National Congress of American Indians first came out against “Redskins” in 1968. More than 50 other Native organizations have expressed opposition since. For at least twenty years, Native American newspapers have run an illustration of sports pennants as a “centerfold”: “Atlanta Niggers,” “NYC Kikes,” “Chicago Polacks,” and “Washington Redskins.” Entire tribes/nations, especially in the East, have come out against the name, including the Penobscots, Oneidas, Saginaw Chippewas, and others. As 50 members of the U.S. Senate, from both parties, wrote a year ago in a letter to NFL Commissioner Goodell, “Indian Country has spoken clearly on this issue.”9

● Standard dictionaries have for years recognized "redskin" as pejorative.10 No one uses it as a term of respect or even a neutral noun. We do not say, for example, that there are two "redskins" in Congress; we say "American Indians" or "Native Americans." Various news media, including The New RepublicSlatePortland Oregonian, and Seattle Times, have stopped using “Redskins” for the Washington team, viewing the term as pejorative.

● Historians know that all colleges that used the term “Redskins” have given it up, some decades ago, many owing to Native American protest. So have most high schools. In 2005, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which represents almost all major American universities, banned the general appropriation of Natives as mascots without the specific agreement of the tribe or nation involved; “Redskins" could never be defended in such a manner.11

● Sister disciplines, such as the American Anthropological Association, American Sociological Association, Linguistic Society of America, and American Psychological Association, have taken similar stands against “Redskins” and other use of American Indians as mascots, often by margins approaching 95%. So have various departments of history and related disciplines at schools that have discussed the matter, such as the University of Illinois (Urbana/Champaign).12

On Feb. 7, 2013, the National Museum of the American Indian held a daylong symposium on the history and current use of Native people, names, and images as sports mascots. Above is the illustration they used for the conference. Said Kevin Gover, head of the museum, speaking first at the conference, “We need to bring out the history.”

Indeed, we, the Organization of American Historians, do. This resolution is a start.

1 Vaughan, Alden T., "From White Man to Redskin: Changing Anglo-American Perceptions of the American Indian," American Historical Review 87 #4,:918-19, 938-39, 941-42, 944. See also historian Darren R. Reid: “Why the ‘Redskins’ is a Racist Name,” darrenreidhistory.co.uk/why-the-redskins-is-a-racist-name/. 

2 Charles F. Springwood and C. Richard King, "'Playing Indian': Why Native American Mascots Must End," Chronicle of Higher Education 11/9/2001, B13, search.proquest.com.proxycu.wrlc.org/docview/214715095?pq-origsite=summon; James W. Loewen, “Red Men Only – No Indians Allowed,” in Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong (NY: Simon & Schuster Touchstone, 1999), 130-33.

3 Linda M. Waggoner, “’Lone Star’ Dietz, Pro Football’s Notorious Mascot,” presentation at National Museum of the American Indian Symposium, Racist Stereotypes and Cultural Appropriation in American Sports (DC: NMAI, 2013); cf. Waggoner, “Playing Indian, Dreaming Indian: The Trial of William ‘Lone Star’ Dietz” The History Magazine (Montana: Spring 2013); Thomas G. Smith, Showdown: JFK And The Integration Of The Washington Redskins (Boston: Beacon, 2011) 1-17 ; J. Gordon Hylton, “Before The Redskins Were The Redskins: The Use Of Native American Team Names In The Formative Era Of American Sports, 1857-1933,” North Dakota Law Review #879 (2010, published 2012), 902.

4 James Pool, Hitler and His Secret Partners (NY: Simon & Schuster Atria, 1997), 254-55. 

5 Richard White quoted in Springwood and King, "'Playing Indian'”; Naomi Mezey, “The Paradoxes of Cultural Property,”107 Columbia. Law Review (2007), 2005; cf. historian Philip Deloria, Playing Indian (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998); Cornel D. Pewewardy, “The Deculturalization of Indigenous Mascots in U.S. Sports Culture,” Educational Forum63 (1999), 342-47. 

6 See, inter alia, Dahkota Kicking Bear Brown, quoted in Erik Stegman and Victoria Phillips, “Missing the Point: The Real Impact of Native Mascots and Team Names on American Indian and Alaska Native Youth” (DC: Center for American Progress, 2014), 1; “Charlene Teters on Native American Symbols as Mascots,” NEA Higher Education Journal 16 #1 (2000), 121-30; Jay Rosenberg, "In Whose Honor" (New Day Films 1997), pbs.org/pov/inwhosehonor/. 

7 Stephanie Fryberg, et al., “Of Warrior Chiefs and Indian Princesses,” Basic and Applied Social Psychology 30 #3 (2008), 208-18; cf. Stegman and Phillips, “Missing the Point,” Jay Rosenberg, "In Whose Honor"; Lori Higgins, “Michigan Department of Civil Rights: End American Indian Mascots in Schools,” Detroit Free Press, 8/2/2013; 

8 Thus “black,” for example, was initially preferred primarily by opinion leaders; see James W. Loewen and Charles Sallis, eds., Mississippi: Conflict and Change (NY: Pantheon, 1974), 311.

9 Hylton, “Before The Redskins Were The Redskins,” 879-80; Robert McCartney, "Indians vs. 'Redskins' Trademark," Washington Post, 3/10/2013; cf. historian Paul C. Rosier, Native American Issues (CT: Greenwood, 2003), 4; Maria Cantwell, et al., “Dear Commissioner Goodell,” 5/21/2014; Nate Scott, “50 Senators Sign Letter Urging Redskins to Change Team Name,” USA Today, 5/22/2014, ftw.usatoday.com/2014/05/senators-washington-redskins-team-name-letter.

10 “Slang, often disparaging and offensive,” Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition (NY: Random House, 1998 [1987], 1618; “now somewhat dated and freq. considered offensive,” Oxford English Dictionary, oed.com/view/Entry/160483?redirectedFrom=redskin#eid. 

11 “NCAA Executive Committee Issues Guidelines for Use of Native American Mascots at Championship Events, 2005” (Indianapolis: NCAA, 2005), NCAA:fs.ncaa.org/Docs/PressArchive/2005/Announcements/NCAA%2BExecutive%2Bcommittee


12 “The Mascot Issue,” “Statement by the Council of the American Sociological Association on Discontinuing the Use of Native American Nicknames, Logos and Mascots in Sport, March 6, 2007,” “LSA passes resolution opposing use of Native American-themed mascots in sports.”