How did their skin get so red?


By Drew Hayden Taylor

Original published in October 2014

Just recently, several sportscasters in the United States have voluntarily opted to stop using the name of the National Football League’s Washington team in their broadcasts.

Of all the Aboriginally-named teams that populate the American sports pantheon—the Braves, the Indians, Blackhawks etc. —few have been more problematic than the Redskins. It seems only the team owner still thinks it’s a great and fabulous name.

Instead, broadcasters Phil Simms from CBS and NBC’s Tony Dungy will probably just refer to it as Washington, rather than its more problematic nickname.  This is a good thing, for those not versed in institutionalized racism. Other announcers however say it’s not their job to take a stance.

This is an old argument. For years now there have been numerous complaints about the name of the Washington Redskins. In June, the U.S. Trademark and Patent office cancelled the team’s trademark, which signalled the beginning of the end. 

Last October, during a game’s halftime, NBC sports personality Bob Costas said in an essay: “Think for a moment about the term ‘Redskins’ and how it truly differs from all the others. Ask yourself what the equivalent would be, if directed toward African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, or members of any other ethnic group.

When considered that way, ‘Redskins’ can’t possibly honor a heritage, or noble character trait, nor can it possibly be considered a neutral term. It’s an insult, a slur, no matter how benign the present-day intent.”

But still, its billionaire owner, Daniel Snyder, refuses to budge on the issue. The man believes in tradition. But there’s tradition and there’s tradition. For example, it seems to be a tradition in America for white billionaire owners of sports teams to get into trouble regarding racist issues.

Donald Stirling was the owner of the basketball team, the L.A. Clippers, who told his then girlfriend, who was black, that she should stop associating with black men. The following outcry resulted in him being banned from participating in the sport and being forced to sell his team.

And some time back there was Marge Shott, the one-time owner of the Cincinnati Reds baseball franchise who once ran into trouble for comments about the Japanese, Jews and African Americans. Canadian sports, by comparison, almost seems boring.

However, here in Canada we do have our own fights to deal with. The Edmonton Eskimos still seem perfectly happy being called ‘eaters of raw meat,’ which is the literal Cree translation of the now considered pejorative word.

Perhaps the CFL players are big fans of sushi or tartar. Or maybe it’s those Eskimo pies. Don Cherry probably doesn’t even know there’s a nation of people once called the Eskimos, or more likely, they were probably named after the football team.

In the town near my reserve, there is a junior C hockey team called the Lakefield Chiefs, which I don’t think was a conscious decision to honour local Police or Fire Chiefs, seeing as their logo is that of an Indian head wearing a feathered war bonnet. 

Let’s not forget the plethora of Braves, Warriors, Indians and other such team names that populate arenas and rinks across the country. I remember the controversy over the famous Atlanta Braves tomahawk chop, which should not to be confused with an old fashion First Nations kick to the crotch.

Perhaps this is one of those issues that if it doesn’t affect you personally, the average citizen might not care. After all, how many redskins could there possibly be in Washington anyways? 

I’ve been there a couple times. Didn’t really see many, outside the National Museum of the American Indian, of course.  And I don’t know how many Canadian fans there are of American football. Again, we have our own problems with derogatory names up here. 

In these politically correct times, there has been an effective movement to rename the surprisingly popular geographic name of Squaw, as in Squaw River or Squaw Creek. Coincidently, I don’t remember seeing any White Bitch Mountain or White Slut Valley on Google maps.

The usual refrain you hear from people on the other side of this issue is “it’s just a name.” It only hurts if you let it hurt. True, I suppose. It’s just a sport where big men dress up in funny outfits and spend several hours chasing an oddly shaped ball around a massive field where lots of people pay obscene amounts of money to watch. 

A fellow playwright named Shakespeare once wrote “A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet.” So these two broadcasters won’t call the team Redskins any more, but the team will still probably smell the same.

It should also be noted that some descriptive words are frequently viewed as being passé, obsolete and rightfully have gone the way of the dodo. Obscure and forgotten terms like mongoloid, mulatto, crippled or progressive conservative.

There is one theory of thought that says the term ‘redskins’ came from Newfoundland’s Beothuks. They used to cover their bodies with a red pigment, giving rise to the name. Pretty soon the name spread to mean all Native people across the continent. And in 1932, it was chosen as the name of an American football team. 

For a nation mired in the concept of Manifest Destiny towards the Indigenous population, it seems like an odd choice for a team that wanted to be victorious and supreme.

Still, things could be worse. They could have been called the Senators. These days, who’d want to be called that?