The owner of the NFL's Washington, DC franchise is Daniel Snyder. He has been the principal owner of the team since 1999. The team has had a losing record during its Snyder years and has gone through eight head coaches in fourteen years. As the controversy over the team nickname has intensified, Dan Snyder told USA Today on May 9, 2013: “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.” Just minutes ago, the United States Patent and Trademark Office has canceled six Washington Redskins trademarks because the team’s name is “disparaging to Native Americans.” If this is (fair & balanced) cultural insensitivity, so be it.
A "Redskin" Is The Scalped Head Of A Native American Sold, Like A Pelt, For Cash
By Baxter Holmes
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Native Americans pass down stories to preserve their history and heritage, because we don’t have much of it left. As tribes were systemically exterminated, so too were their respective cultures. But we have our stories, and when my mother was young, her parents shared one about the term “redskins.”
It dates back to the institutionalized genocide of Native Americans, most notably when the Massachusetts colonial government placed a bounty on their heads. The grisly particulars are listed in a 1755 document called the Phips Proclamation, which zeroed in on the Penobscot Indians, a tribe today based in Maine.
Spencer Phips, a British politician and then Lieutenant Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Province, issued the call, ordering on behalf of British King George II for, “His Majesty’s subjects to Embrace all opportunities of pursuing, captivating, killing and Destroying all and every of the aforesaid Indians.” They paid well – 50 pounds for adult male scalps; 25 for adult female scalps; and 20 for scalps of boys and girls under age 12.
These bloody scalps were known as “redskins.”
The mascot of the Washington Redskins, if the team desired accuracy, would be a gory, bloodied crown from the head of a butchered Native American.
“That’s a hard lesson for a young girl to learn,” my mother says. I can’t remember when she passed it down to her four sons, only that the very mention of that word—the single-most offensive name one could ever call a Native American—has always made my blood boil.
Non-Natives will never quite understand how deep the term “redskins” cuts into ancient wounds that have never quite healed, and maybe it's not reasonable to expect them to. But every time Dan Snyder refuses to change his NFL team’s name, even with tribes paying for powerful ads in opposition like the one that recently aired during the NBA Finals, Snyder plunges a long, twisted blade into our hearts.
I feel that pain not only because I’m a proud Native American, of Cherokee and Choctaw lineage, but because my parents steeped me and my brothers in that culture so that it would live on within us.
I was in diapers when my mom began taking us to powwows and native gatherings at the Tulalip Reservation just northwest of Everett, WA, where we were born. We listened as elders sang and pounded hickory sticks against large deer-hide wrapped drums carved from cedar, their beat representing the tribe’s heartbeat, still strong, loud and deep.
For a few years, she home-schooled us, using flash cards to teach Choctaw and Cherokee words and numbers, prideful because tribal languages had long ago been beaten out of Native children forced to attend Indiana Boarding Schools.
Then, when I was 8, we moved to Oklahoma, largely to re-connect us to our past. That was where Cherokee and Choctaw tribes lived after the forced removal from their homes in the Deep South. We settled in Tuskahoma, a microscopic town in the state’s Southeastern corner that is also the Choctaw Capital of Oklahoma. Our wooded, four-acre plot sat one quarter-mile from the tribe’s red brick capitol building. We had rejoined our roots, living in Pushmataha County, named after a legendary Choctaw chief, who was also my eighth great uncle.
While my father built our permanent residence, a log cabin, we lived for six months in a canvas tipi, 24-feet in diameter, with about a dozen Lodgepole Pines about 33 feet in length arranged in the cone formation, connecting at the top. It felt like camping, but it also felt right.
My mother prepared traditional dishes, such as frybread (basically fried bread) and banaha, a protein-rich mix of cornmeal served inside of a boiled corn husk. We attended powwows and gatherings, danced, sang and beat the drums alongside elders. We learned to play a fierce, ancient Choctaw sport known as stickball, a cousin of lacrosse. And when I attended the University of Oklahoma, I took beginning, intermediate and advanced courses in Choctaw, and kept up on tribal affairs.
In my lifetime, several sports teams ditched offensive Native American mascots or logos. Marquette went from Warriors to Golden Eagles, St. John’s from Redmen to Red Storm, Miami University in Ohio from Redskins to Redhawks.
But, somehow, the Washington Redskins—the worst of all—live on.
I understand, to a degree, the complex connection between a team and its offensive mascot, because the mascot for Tuskahoma’s elementary school is “Savages.” I wore that word on my chest when I played for its basketball team, even if that word disgraced my ancestors.
But “redskins” is not just a twisted compliment, like “Savages,” “Warriors,” “Braves” or “Red Men.” It represents a trophy of war—the bloody scalp of a murdered Native American, slaughtered for money, the amount dependent on whether it was a man, woman or child.
The team has had the Redskins name since 1933, when it was based in Boston, so it’s easy to say, “We’ve always done it this way.” But if America “always did it this way,” then terms like “Wetback,” “Negro,” and its much uglier cousin would still be a part of our lexicon. We learn.
Also, consider the history of Native Americans, a race all but annihilated because of genocidal policies instituted by people like Spencer Phips. Our identity has been stripped away, lost to time, yet the most offensive word toward us still exists—where else?—but in this nation’s capital.
"He's going to change the name," my mother says. "He has to."
Snyder has called the term a “badge of honor.” He’s said, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple.” But here’s how simple it really is: If he has any decency, he will change it, because it is not and never was just a word.
While in elementary school, some white children saw how proud my brothers and I were of our heritage and occasionally called us “injuns.” Some laughed and hopped around, mimicking our dance. I never retaliated, even if I wanted to repay them with violence ancient and awful, like what their ancestors did to mine. I took the high ground then and I take it now, even as Snyder dithers.
I wouldn’t even wish on him the pain that his team’s name inflicts on us. Ω
[Baxter Holmes is a staff writer for the Boston Fishwrap; he covers the Boston Celtics for that paper. Holmes received a BA (journalism) from the University of Oklahoma.]
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