Redskin (slang)

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"Red-skin" redirects here. For other uses, see Redskin (disambiguation).
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"Redskin" is a slang term for Native Americans defined in current dictionaries of American English as offensive,[1] disparaging,[2][3] insulting,[4] and taboo.[5]

The origin of the term however is debated, in particular whether the use of "red" referred to skin color or the use of pigments by certain tribes, and also whether the term was applied to natives by Europeans or came from language natives used to refer to themselves. Whatever its origins in the colonial period, many argue that "redskin" underwent a process of pejoration due to the increasingly disparaging use of the term though the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including an association with the practice of paying bounties for killing Native Americans.

Although the term has almost disappeared from common use, it remain as the name of many sports teams, most prominently the Washington NFL franchise, and the term's meaning has been the main point of controversy. Public defense of the team's name has come mainly from the team's owner, the NFL commissioner, and fans of the team including some Native Americans. Opponents state that it is inappropriate to have a dictionary-defined racial slur as the name of a sports team in the nation's capital.

Etymology and history[edit]

It is argued by sociologist Irving Lewis Allen that slang identifiers for ethnic groups based upon physical characteristics, including "redskin", are by nature derogatory, emphasizing the difference between the speaker and the target.[6] However, Professor Luvell Anderson of the University of Memphis, in his paper "Slurring Words", argues that for a word to be a slur, the word must communicate ideas beyond identifying a target group, and that, slurs are offensive because the additional data contained in those words differentiates those individuals from otherwise accepted groups.[7] However, in the same sense that nigger originated as meaning nothing more than "black-skinned", redskin also took on an increasingly negative meaning.[8]

The origin of the term "redskin" in English is debated. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) previously cited its earliest use in a 1699 letter from an English colonialist, Samuel Smith, living in Hadley, Massachusetts, which supposedly contains the following passage: "Ye firste Meetinge House was solid mayde to withstande ye wicked onsaults of ye Red Skins." Perhaps based on this source, the OED suggests the term was specifically applied to the Delaware Indians, and "referred not to the natural skin color of the Delaware, but to their use of vermilion face paint and body paint."[8] Smithsonian liguistics scholar Ives Goddard concluded the letter was a "work of fiction", saying that the "language was Hollywood...It didn't look like the way people really wrote." The OED agreed with Goddard's findings, stating that the quotation was "subsequently found to be misattributed; the actual text was written in 1900 by an author claiming, for purposes of historical fiction, to be quoting an earlier letter."[9][10][11]

Goddard proposes as an alternative the emergence of the term from the speech of Native Americans themselves and that the origin and use of the term in the late 18th and early 19th century was benign: "When it first appeared as an English expression in the early 1800s, it came in the most respectful context and at the highest level. … These are white people and Indians talking together, with the white people trying to ingratiate themselves".[12] The word later underwent a process of pejoration, by which it gained a negative connotation.[8] Goddard suggests that "redskin" emerged from French translations of Native American speech in Illinois and Missouri territories in the 18th and 19th centuries. He cites as the earliest example a 1769 set of "talks" or letters from three chiefs of the Piankeshaw to an English officer at Fort de Chartres. The letter from Chief "Mosquito" (French: Maringouin) had the following passage in French: “I shall be pleased to have you come to speak to me yourself if you pity our women and our children; and, if any redskins do you harm, I shall be able to look out for you even at the peril of my life.” ("je serai flatté que tu Vienne parler toimeme pour avoir pitie De nos femmes et De nos enfans, et si quelques peaux Rouges te font Du mal je Scaurai soutenir tes Interests au peril De ma Vie") Another letter in the set, this from a "Chief Hannanas," contained the following passage: “… You think that I am an orphan; but all the people of these rivers and all the redskins will learn of my death.” ("...tu Crois que je suis Orphelin, mes tous les Gens De ces rivieres et tout les peaux rouges apprenderot ma mort").[9]

One of the many linguistic discrepancies is that initial explorers and later Anglo-Americans termed Native Americans light-skinned, brown, tawny, or russet, according to historian Alden T. Vaughan, "Not until the middle of the eighteenth century did most Anglo-Americans view Indians as significantly different in color from themselves, and not until the nineteenth century did red become the universally accepted color label for American Indians."[13]

The term appeared in an August 22, 1812, meeting between President Madison and a delegation of chiefs from western tribes. There, the response of Osage chief "No Ears" (Osage: Tetobasi) to Madison's speech included the statement "I know the manners of the whites and the red skins," while the principal chief of the Wahpekute band of Santee Sioux—French Crow—is recorded to have said "I am a red-skin, but what I say is the truth, and notwithstanding I came a long way I am content, but wish to return from here."[9]

The earliest known appearance of the term in print occurred on October 9, 1813 in an article quoting a letter dated August 27, 1813 from a "gentleman at St. Louis" concerning 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."[14]

However, while these usages may have been earlier, they may not have been disseminated widely. (For instance, while the 1812 meeting with President Madison was contemporaneously recorded, it was not published until 2004. Goddard suggests that a key usage was in a 20 July 1815 speech by Meskwaki chief Black Thunder at the treaty council at Portage des Sioux, in which he is recorded as stating, "My Father—Restrain your feelings, and hear ca[l]mly what I shall say. I shall tell it to you plainly, I shall not speak with fear and trembling. I feel no fear. I have no cause to fear. I have never injured you, and innocence can feel no fear. I turn to all, red skins and white skins, and challenge an accusation against me." This speech was published widely, and Goddard speculates that it reached James Fenimore Cooper. In Cooper's novels The Pioneers (published in 1823) and Last of the Mohicans (1826) both Native American and white characters use the term. These novels were widely distributed, and can be credited with bringing the term to "universal notice" and notes that the first time the term appears in Bartlett's "Dictionary of Americanisms" (in 1858) the illustrative reference is to Last of the Mohicans.[9]

In a lecture on the origins and meaning of "redskin", Dr. Darren R. Reid of Coventry University presents a number of reasons why he argues the term is racist.[15]

  • To begin with, it is difficult for historians to document anything with certainty since Native Americans, as a non-literate society, did not produce the written sources upon which historians rely. What is cited as Native American usage was generally attributed to them by European writers.
  • The division of human beings into different races with essentially different, immutable characteristics was evolving during the period of European colonization; thus there were some that did not think of "Indians" as a race at all, but people who could become members of colonial society though re-education. The marker of racial difference became skin color, but many colonials thought of Indians as essentially the same color as Europeans who became "red" through the use of pigments. The use of "Redskin" rather than "Indian" thus marked the speaker as believing that Native Americans are a different race than Europeans in the same way that African people are "black".
  • The use of "red" in its various forms, including redskin, by Native Americans to refer to themselves was not original, but reflected their need to use the language of the times in order to be understood by Europeans.
  • The team logo works together with the name to reinforce an unrealistic stereotype: "It is not up to non-Indians to define an idealized image of what it is to a Native American."
  • The "positive" stereotypes allow fans and supporters to honestly state that they are honoring Native Americans, but this is "...forcing your idea of what it is to honour those people onto them and that, fundamentally, is disrespectful."

A third controversial etymological claim is that the term emerged from the practice of paying a bounty for Indians, and that "redskin" refers to the bloody, red scalp of a Native American. During the entire history of America until the turn of the twentieth century, Indigenous Americans were hunted, killed, and forcibly removed from their lands by European settlers.[16] This includes the paying of bounties beginning in the colonial period with, for example, a proclamation against the Penobscot Indians in 1755 issued by King George II of Great Britain, known commonly as the Phips Proclamation.[17][18] The proclamation orders, “His Majesty’s subjects to Embrace all opportunities of pursuing, captivating, killing and Destroying all and every of the aforesaid Indians.” The colonial government paid 50 pounds for scalps of males over 12 years, 25 pounds for scalps of women over 12, and 20 pounds for scalps of boys and girls under 12. Twenty-five British pounds sterling in 1755, worth around $9,000 today —a small fortune in those days when an English teacher earned 60 pounds a year.[17] Though the proclamation itself does not use the word, at least one historical association between the use of "redskin" and the paying of bounties can be made. In 1863, a Winona, MN newspaper, the Daily Republican, printed an announcement: "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." [19] In An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, 'redskin' is said not to refer to scalps, but to the bloody bodies left behind by scalp-hunters.[20] This association can evoke strongly negative sentiments. In a 2014 interview after the Trademark decision, Amanda Blackhorse the lead petitioner expressed her opinion: "The name itself actually dates back [to] the time when the Native American population was being exterminated, and bounty hunters were hired to kill Native American people... So, in order to show that they made their kill, they had to bring back a scalp or their skin."[21]

Later use[edit]

Goddard's study is specific to the period 1769–1826, and says nothing about the subsequent use and meaning of the term.[11] "Redskin" was used throughout the English-speaking world (and in equivalent transliterations in Europe) throughout the mid-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a common term of reference for indigenous Americans. However, the more commonly used term from early colonization through the twentieth century was "Indian", perpetuating Columbus' belief that he had found the Indies. A linguistic analysis of 42 books published between 1875 and 1930 found that negative contexts in the use of redskin were significantly more frequent than positive usage. (However, the use of the word Indian in a similarly selected set of books was nearly the same with more frequent negative than positive contexts.) [22]

The term was in common use in movies during the most popular period for Hollywood westerns (approximately 1920–1970), with "redskins" usually being used to refer to Native Americans when war was imminent or in progress.[23] In the Washington Redskins trademark litigation, the main issue was the meaning of the term during the period when the trademark registrations were issued, 1967–1990. The linguistic expert for the petitioner, Dr. Geoffrey Nunberg, successfully argued that whatever its origins, "redskins" was a slur at that time based upon the passages from books and newspapers and the movie clips in which the word is inevitably associated with contempt, derision, condescension, or sentimental paeans to the noble savage.[24]

Current use[edit]

The Redskin Theater in Anadarko, Oklahoma. The town proclaims itself to be the "Indian Capital of the Nation" and its population is 41% Native American.

In the United States, "redskin" is regarded as a racial epithet by some,[25] neutral by some people,[26] including some Native Americans.[27] Three predominately Native American schools use the name for their athletic teams, most notably the 98% Native American enrollment of the Red Mesa High School in Teec Nos Pos, Arizona.[28][29][30]

The American Heritage style guide advises that "the term redskin evokes an even more objectionable stereotype" than the use of red as a racial adjective by outsiders,[31] while others urge writers to use the term only in a historical context.[32] The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) rejected an application to register "Redskins Hog Rinds" because it "consists of or includes matter which may disparage or bring into contempt or disrepute persons, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols".[33] A decision by the USPTO to cancel the registration of some trademarks of the Washington NFL team for the same reason was handed down on June 18, 2014.[34]

Sports teams[edit]

Numerous civil rights, educational, athletic, and academic organizations consider any use of native names/symbols by non-native sports teams to be a harmful form of ethnic stereotyping which should be eliminated.[35] Several college teams that formerly used the name have changed voluntarily:

In 2014 a bill has been introduced to ban the name currently used by four high schools in the state of California. Assemblyman Luis Alejo stated that there is ""no reason why we can't ... phase out that particular derogatory term from our public high schools".[36]

High schools[edit]

At the high school level, 28 teams in 18 states have dropped the "Redskins" name during the past 25 years as a result of a combination of state legal action, protests from Native American groups, or voluntarily. However, there remain 62 high schools in the United States that continue to use the redskins name. Three of these have a majority of Native American students: Red Mesa High School (Arizona), Wellpinit High School Wellpinit, Washington and Kingston High School Kingston, Oklahoma.[37] In 2000 James S. Rickards High School changed its name from the Rickards Redskins to Rickards Raiders due to perceived racial implications of the word. The following year, under threats of litigation from the Native American Bar Association, Consolidated School District 158 in Huntley, Illinois changed the team name "Huntley Redskins" to "Huntley Red Raiders."[38] Edmondson-Westside High School in Baltimore, Maryland, changed from the Redskins to the Redstorm in 2002.

In 2011 the Red Lodge High School in Montana changed to the Rams after 50 years of being the Redskins.[39][40] In June 2013, administrators of a high school in Driggs, Idaho, announced that it will drop its longtime "Redskins" nickname, logo and mascot to show respect for Native Americans.[41] In July, Members of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes met with Teton School District to express their support for this decision.[42] However a similar decision by the Canisteo-Greenwood School Board in New York prompted public protest resulting in a statement that the issue would be studied further.[43] Other High Schools in the process of making a name change include Lancaster, New York,[44] and Port Townsend, Washington.[45] However some highly visible schools such as Union HS in Tulsa retain the name in spite of opposition by Native Americans.

In December 2013, the Houston Independent School District (HISD), in a preliminary vote, approved a new policy against any ethnic mascots which would require a change for several schools including the Lamar High School Redskins.[46][47] In April 2014 Lamar High School announced the new name for its sports teams was the Texans.[48] "The moral cost to our reputation as a diverse district—where we care about the sensitivities of every single individual—would be incalculable if we were not to do this," HISD superintendent Terry Grier said.[49]

On December 8, 2014 the Oklahoma City School Board voted unanimously to remove Redskins as the nickname for Capitol Hill High School. The vote came in response to pleas from students and teachers who found the term offensive.[50] The following day some students of the high school upset by the change protested the school board decision.[51]

Washington Redskins[edit]

The term is most prominent in the name of the Washington Redskins, a National Football League football team. Public protest of the name began in 1968, with a resolution by the National Congress of American Indians.[52] Native American groups and their supporters argue that since they view the word "redskin" as offensive, that it is inappropriate for an NFL team to continue to use it, regardless of whether any offense is intended.[22][53][54]

In 2004, a poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania 90% of those who identified themselves as American Indians answered that they were "not bothered" by the name "Redskins" being used for the Washington football team.[55] However in a commentary published soon after that poll, fifteen Native American scholars collaborated on a critique that stated that there were so many flaws in the Annenberg study that rather than being a measure of Native American opinion, it was an expression of white privilege and colonialism.[56] The flaw in random and anonymous polls of Native Americans' opinion is that they must rely upon self-identification to select the target group. In an editorial in the Bloomington Herald Times, Steve Russell (an enrolled Cherokee citizen and associate professor of criminal justice at Indiana University), states that both the Sports Illustrated and Annenberg's samples of "self-identified Native Americans... includes plenty of people who have nothing to do with Indians".[57] The problem of individuals claiming to be Native American when they are not is well known in academic research, and is a particular problem when non-natives claim Indian identity specifically to gain authority in the debate over sports mascots.[58] In the Annenberg Poll, respondents were asked their race however, before being questioned about the teams' name.[55]

In July 2013 The Washington Post conducted a phone survey of people living in the D.C. metro area. No questions about ethnicity were asked, only whether respondents supported the continued use of the Redskins name and if they were sports fans in general and fans of the team in particular. 66 percent of the respondents supported retention of the name, while 82 percent said that if the name did change, they would continue to support the team. A small majority (56 percent) of those that would keep the name also thought that the word "redskin" was not an appropriate way to describe a Native American Indian.[59] A poll of residents of the D.C. metro area commissioned by the Oneida Indian Nation of New York and conducted in October 2013 found that although sports fans want to keep the name, 59% also say Native Americans have a right to feel offended by the term redskins and 44% say that when they learn the term is defined as 'offensive' by the dictionary, they are more likely to support changing the team name. Additionally, most people (66%) say that if Snyder meets with Native American leaders, he should not refer to them as "redskins" because the term is inappropriate.[60]

At the Center for Indigenous Peoples Studies at California State University, San Bernardino a survey was conducted of 400 individuals whose identity as Native American was verified, finding that 67% agreed with the statement that "Redskins" is offensive and racist. The response from non-natives was almost the opposite, with 68% responding that the name is not offensive.[61][62]

A small number of media outlets have independently taken the position that they will not use the name Redskins, but instead refer to the team as "Washington", with the exception of the Washington City Paper, which refers to the team as the "Pigskins".[63] David Plotz of Slate in an article announcing the decision to stop using the name stated, "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."[64] One day later, Mother Jones and The New Republic concurred, making the same decision.[65][66] Sports writer Peter King has also decided that he will no longer use the name in his reporting, but will substitute "Washington" when referring to the team. "I can just tell you how I feel: I’ve been increasingly bothered by using the word, and I don’t want to be a part of using a name that a cross-section of our society feels is insulting." [67]

On June 18, 2014, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) cancelled the six trademarks held by the team in a two to one decision that held that the term "redskins" is disparaging to a "substantial composite of Native Americans", and this is demonstrated "by the near complete drop-off in usage of 'redskins' as a reference to Native Americans beginning in the 1960s." [68][69] Evidence of disparagement submitted by the petitioners in the TTAB case include the frequent references to "scalping" made by sportswriters for sixty years when reporting the Redskins loss of a game,[70] and passages from movies made from the 1940s to the 1960s using "redskin" to refer to Native Americans as a savage enemy.[71] A linguistics expert for the team unsuccessfully argued that the name is merely a descriptive term no different than other uses of color to differentiate people by race.[72] The linguistic expert for the petitioners, Dr. Geoffrey Nunberg, argued that whatever its origins, "redskins" was a slur at the time of the trademark registrations, based upon the passages from books and newspapers and the movie clips in which the word is inevitably associated with contempt, derision, condescension, or sentimental paeans to the noble savage.[24]


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  72. ^ Jay Caspian Kang (June 18, 2014). "Dan Snyder and the Redskins Take a Loss". The New Yorker. 

Further reading[edit]

See Also[edit]

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