A Redskin by Any Other Name…

In my little ant lifetime, I’ve never heard the term “redskin” used as a slur. Neither have you. Is anyone telling stories of being slurred as a “redskin”? I haven’t heard one. For several generations it seems the only use of the term has a capital R and has referred to the likes of Joe Theismann, John Riggins, Art Monk, and Darrell Green. Hail to the Redskins, three-time Super Bowl champs!

How I missed the fact that “Redskin” referred to Native Americans despite the fact that there’s an image of a Native American on the side of each Redskin helmet has a lot more to do with how uninterested I am in symbols than some question of semantics. The Redskin mascot is a Native American; the only question is whether that fact is racist and therefore should be changed.

There is an honest dispute regarding whether the term “redskin” is racist in origin—a fact that those who want the NFL’s team’s name changed have not generally been honest to acknowledge. According to a 2005 Washington Post article, for example, Smithsonian Institution linguist Ives Godard reported that his seven-month investigation of the term led him to conclude that the term was coined by Native Americans themselves in order “to distinguish themselves from the white ‘other’ encroaching on their lands and culture”; and that even early uses of the term by those of European extraction were not derogatory.

But as Ludwig Wittgenstein helped teach us, language is use, and no-one even claims that “redskin” has never been used as a slur. Then there’s the term as referent for the scalp of a Native American, an unconscionable trophy that fetched a pretty penny during the height of the genocide perpetrated against the indigenous peoples of North America.

All that—along with the fact that many, many, many Native Americans, et al., find the name offensive—recently proved good enough for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which has cancelled the team’s trademark of the name “Redskins,” on the grounds that the term was “disparaging to Native Americans when registered.” 

That past-tense rationale—that the term was racist when the trademark was filed—is worthy of note. Ants don’t know dick about trademark law, but the team was founded in 1932. Framing the issue in that context effectively means that it doesn’t much matter whether the term had died out as a slur by the time someone like me began watching football (no, I’m not a Giants fan). Justifiably the U.S. government doesn’t want to be in the business of officially sanctioning slurs—never mind helping a company to profit from the usage thereof—so ta-ta to the trademark.

That doesn’t mean the Redskins have to stop using the name. The First Amendment exists to protect all speech, particularly unpopular speech—which is, of course, the speech that actually needs protection—and so it would be a mini Constitutional crisis if the government got seriously involved with compelling the Redskins to change the name. 

But the National Football League is not the government. If the National Basketball Association could legally force a guy to sell his team because in private conversation he asked his sugarbaby not to post pictures of herself with Black people, one has to imagine it would be comparatively easy for the NFL to force a guy to give up a name offensive to Red people that he can’t even trademark.

Should the NFL do that? Admittedly, my feelings on the subject haven’t been all that strong. While I’ve got some Choctaw in my ant blood, I don’t self-identify as a Native Antmerican; and as I mentioned, to me a Redskin was never anything but a footballer. 

But I can’t help appreciating a recent point made by Robin Quivers (a.k.a. Howard Stern’s radio sidekick). Isn’t it ironic, she mused, that the football team with the name “Redskins” is based in Washington, D.C., the seat of the American government, the very body responsible for the Native American genocide and a string of broken treaties since?

Too ironic, I think. Make room for me on the bandwagon. Change the name—or at least the mascot. I just came across a joking proposal to keep the name but change the mascot to red potatoes, which are delicious, healthy, and politically correct. Hail to the Redskins, because going into a rebuilding year isn’t small potatoes even when you’re not in the eye of a controversy. Some traditions aren’t worth the trouble.

Love and formic acid,
G.I.ant

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