Redskin (slang)

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"Redskin" is a slang term referring to Native Americans in the United States. In modern dictionaries of American English it is defined with the additional meanings "usually offensive",[1] "disparaging",[2][3] "insulting",[4] and "taboo".[5]

The origin of the term 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 through 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 remains as the name of many sports teams, most prominently the Washington Redskins, and the term's meaning has been a significant point of controversy.

Origin and meaning[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) had 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." 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]

However, in an interview Goddard admits that it is impossible to verify if the native words were accurately translated.[11] Johnathan Buffalo, historic preservation director of the Meskwaki Nation, also known as the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa, said tribal members in the 1800s used "redskins" as a simple term of identifying themselves — just as they identified others as "whiteskins" or "blackskins" — without any derogatory intent.[13]

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."[14]

The term appeared in an August 22, 1812, meeting between President James 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."[15]

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.[16]

  • 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.[17] 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.[18] 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.[19][20] 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.[19] 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."[21] 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.[22] 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."[23]

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.)[24]

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.[25] 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.[26]

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,[27] neutral by some people,[28] including some Native Americans.[29] 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.[30][31][32]

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,[33] while others urge writers to use the term only in a historical context.[34] 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".[35] 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.[36]

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.[37] 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".[38]

High schools[edit]

As of early 2013 the Capitol News Service in Maryland listed twenty-eight high schools in 18 states that had dropped the "redskins" name during the prior 25 years as a result of a combination of state legal action, protests from Native American groups, or voluntarily; while 62 continued using the redskins name, three having a majority of Native American students: Red Mesa High School (Arizona), Wellpinit High School Wellpinit, Washington and Kingston High School Kingston, Oklahoma.[39]

Since that list was compiled, an additional six high school teams have changed their name:

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.[47] 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.[24][48][49]

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.[50] 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.[51]

In August, 2015, the Glushko-Samuelson Law Clinic at American University published the text of a memo written by Chintan Turakhia, Sr. and Courtney Kennedy, both vice-presidents and senior researches at Abt SRBI, the survey organization responsible for collecting the data for the 2004 survey. The memo had been prepared at the request of Ken Winneg, Annenberg’s Managing Director of Survey Research. The memo made it clear that the survey should not be taken as an accurate reflection of Native American attitudes at the time:

…the goal of the study was never to generate nationally representative estimates specifically for the Native American population. The design and implementation of the 2004 NAES was appropriate for the main research goal of the study, which was to generate a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults. Even very large probability‐based samples, like the 2004 NAES, are not al ways effective for generating representative samples for all possible subgroups that may be of interest. Some subgroups, including Native Americans, have unique characteristics (e.g., multiple languages, unusual residential patterns) that require specialized survey designs if they are to be measured rigorously.

Native Americans are well known to be a relatively small and difficult to survey population. …landline telephone penetration rates on reservations are significantly lower than they are elsewhere in the U.S. The experiences and attitudes of Native Americans living on reservations may very well be different from those living elsewhere. A survey designed specifically for Native Americans would therefore need to have a special protocol for reaching those living on reservations. Given that our goal was never to generate nationally representative estimates for Native Americans, these initiatives were not built into the design. Due to the above reasons, it is not appropriate to use NAES data to study this population.…We feel it would be more appropriate for those engaged in this discussion to consider more recent research from studies designed specifically for the Native American population.[52]

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.[53][54]

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."[55][56] 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,[57] and passages from movies made from the 1940s to the 1960s using "redskin" to refer to Native Americans as a savage enemy.[58] 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.[59] 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.[26] On July 8, 2015, District Court Judge Lee affirmed the decision of the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, [60] denying the team's summary judgment motions challenging the constitutionality of the Lanham Act and granted the Blackhorse Defendants' summary judgment motions, finding that "the evidence before the Court supports the legal conclusion that...the Redskin Marks consisted of matter that 'may disparage' a substantial composite of Native Americans."

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Definition of REDSKIN". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved November 7, 2014. Definition of REDSKIN (offensive): american indian 
  2. ^ The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. 2011. Retrieved November 7, 2014. n. Offensive Slang Used as a disparaging term for a Native American. 
  3. ^ "Redskin". Retrieved November 7, 2014. noun, Slang: Disparaging and Offensive. 1. a North American Indian. 
  4. ^ "definition of redskin". RANDOM HOUSE KERNERMAN WEBSTER'S College Dictionary. Retrieved November 7, 2014. 
  5. ^ "Definition of redskin". Collins English Dictionary. 
  6. ^ Allen, Irving Lewis (August 27, 1990). Unkind Words: Ethnic Labeling from Redskin to WASP. Praeger. p. 18. ISBN 0897892208. 
  7. ^
  8. ^ a b c "Definition of redskin". Oxford Dictionaries. 
  9. ^ a b c d Goddard, Ives (2005). "I AM A RED-SKIN: The Adoption of a Native American Expression (1769-1826)" (PDF). Native American Studies (19:2): 1. Retrieved July 1, 2014. 
  10. ^ David Skinner (December 18, 2013). "The Real History of the Word Redskin. It's Not What You Think.". Slate. Retrieved November 7, 2014. 
  11. ^ a b c Guy Gugliotta (October 3, 2005). "A Linguist's Alternative History of 'Redskin'". The Washington Post. Retrieved August 21, 2011. 
  12. ^
  13. ^ J. Taylor Rushing (August 11, 2014). "‘Redskins’ name has complicated history for Meskwaki, other tribes". The Gazette. 
  14. ^ Vaughan, Alden T. (1982-10-01). "From White Man to Redskin: Changing Anglo-American Perceptions of the American Indian". The American Historical Review 87 (4): 918. doi:10.2307/1857900. ISSN 0002-8762. Retrieved 2013-06-03. 
  15. ^ "Events of the War". The Weekly Register (Baltimore: H. Niles) 5 (6): 98. 1813-10-09. Retrieved 2014-06-14. 
  16. ^ "Why the ‘Redskins’ is a Racist Name". Retrieved August 29, 2014. 
  17. ^ "'Redskin': A fun team name or racial epithet?". May 7, 2014. 
  18. ^ "People & Events Indian removal 1814 – 1858". PBS. 
  19. ^ a b Courey Toensing, Gale (March 4, 2011). "Mascot Racism Returns? Maine School Board May Keep Redskins Name". Indian Country Today Media Network. Retrieved February 6, 2013. 
  20. ^ "Phips Proclamation 1755". Abbe Museum. Retrieved February 3, 2013. 
  21. ^ "Winona State University Newspaper Archives". The Daily Republican (Winona, MN: Winona Daily Republican). 1863-09-25. Retrieved November 6, 2013. 
  22. ^ Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne (2014). An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Beacon Press. 
  23. ^ "Meet the Navajo Activist Who Got the Washington Redskins’ Trademark Revoked: Amanda Blackhorse". Democracy Now!. June 19, 2014. Retrieved June 19, 2014. 
  24. ^ a b Bruce Stapleton (March 6, 2001). Redskins: Racial Slur or Symbol of Success?. iUniverse. ISBN 0-595-17167-2. 
  25. ^ J. Gordon Hylton (2010). "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 86: 879–903. 
  26. ^ a b Geoffrey Nunberg (June 23, 2014). "When Slang Becomes a Slur". The Atlantic Monthly. 
  27. ^ "Slang epithet … Redskin is regarded as highly offensive," to native Americans Herbst, Philip (1997). Color of Words: An Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Ethnic Bias in the United States. Intercultural Press. p. 197. ISBN 1877864978. 
  28. ^ "Redskins and War Paint: Red Was the Color of War". April 27, 2005. Retrieved Jan 13, 2013. 
  29. ^
  30. ^
  31. ^
  32. ^ "Wellpinit High School Alumni". Retrieved May 22, 2014. 
  33. ^ The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2005. p. 399. 
  34. ^ Yopp, Jan Johnson; Katherine C. McAdams (2003). Reaching Audiences: A Guide to Media Writing. Allyn and Bacon. p. 198. ISBN 9780205359226. 
  36. ^ Theresa Vargas (January 6, 2014). "Agency rejects trademark of ‘Redskins Hog Rinds,’ calling term ‘derogatory’". The Washington Post. 
  37. ^ "Legislative efforts to eliminate native-themed mascots, nicknames, and logos: Slow but steady progress post-APA resolution". American Psychological Association. August 2010. Retrieved 2013-01-23. 
  38. ^ Jason Hoppin (December 4, 2014). "Assemblyman seeks ban on offensive mascots in California public schools". San Jose Mercury News. 
  39. ^ "The Other Redskins". Capitol News Service. Retrieved June 16, 2013. 
  40. ^ "Oneida Indian Nation Congratulates Cooperstown Central School Board for Voting to Remove Redskins Mascot". March 7, 2013. Retrieved March 14, 2013. 
  41. ^ Charlie Bermant (June 25, 2013). "'Redskins' dropped as team name and mascot for Port Townsend High School". Peninsula Daily News. 
  42. ^ Troy Blevins. "Houston ISD votes to change school mascots". KPRC. 
  43. ^ Heide Brandes (December 10, 2014). "Oklahoma City high school drops the name 'Redskins' for its team". Reuters. 
  44. ^ Karen Robinson (January 21, 2015). "Redskins nickname is debated in Lancaster". Buffalo News. 
  45. ^ "Redskins Nickname Is Dropped by School District in Upstate New York". New York Times (Lancaster, New York). Associated Press. 16 March 2015. Retrieved 17 March 2015. 
  46. ^ Jacob Zinkula (July 28, 2015). "Redskins mascot no more in Goshen". South Bend Tribune. 
  47. ^ Rosier, Paul C. (2003-01-01). Native American issues. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 4. ISBN 0313320020. 
  48. ^ "Redskin". The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Retrieved July 20, 2012. n. Offensive Slang Used as a disparaging term for a Native American. 
  49. ^ Masters, Brooke A. (3 April 1999). "Redskins are denied trademark". Washington Post. p. A1. Retrieved 20 July 2012. 
  50. ^ Kathleen Hall Jamieson Ph.D. (September 24, 2004). "Most Indians Say Name of Washington "Redskins" Is Acceptable While 9 Percent Call It Offensive". The Annenberg Public Policy Center. Archived from the original on October 14, 2013. Retrieved September 27, 2014. 
  51. ^ D. Anthony Tyeeme Clark (2005). "Indigenous Voice and Vision as Commodity in a Mass-Consumption Society: The Colonial Politics of Public Opinion Polling". American Indian Quarterly (University of Nebraska Press) 29 (1/2 (Winter - Spring)): 228–238. 
  52. ^ "Designers of that 2004 Annenberg survey on the Redskins name: The sample was unrepresentative". Glushko-Samuelson Intellectual Property Law Clinic. August 3, 2015. 
  53. ^ "New Study Finds 67% Of Native Americans Find Redskins Name Offensive". June 4, 2014. 
  54. ^ "Survey on Redskins team name found most American Indians believe it to be offensive and racist." (PDF). Retrieved June 22, 2014. 
  55. ^ KEN BELSON; EDWARD WYATT (June 18, 2014). "U.S. Patent Office Cancels Redskins Trademark Registration". The New York Times. 
  56. ^ "USPTO TTABVUE. Proceeding Number 92046185". United States Patent and Trademark Office. June 18, 2014. Retrieved June 18, 2014. 
  57. ^ Lindsey Adler (June 18, 2014). "60 Years Of Shocking Redskins Headlines:A sampling of violent wordplay.". BuzzFeed. 
  58. ^ Dan Steinberg (June 18, 2014). "Here are some of the movie clips cited in the Redskins trademark case". The Washington Post. 
  59. ^ Jay Caspian Kang (June 18, 2014). "Dan Snyder and the Redskins Take a Loss". The New Yorker. 
  60. ^ "Memorandum Opinion and Order, Pro-Football, Inc. v. Blackhorse, et al." (PDF). Retrieved July 8, 2015. 

Further reading[edit]

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