The Washington Professional Football Team Name Problem

As the Green Bay Packers wrap up their week of preparation for their matchup with the Washington Redskins, I want to bring up an important issue. It’s no secret that the usage of the word “Redskin” as the team’s nickname is shrouded in controversy. After all, anytime you identify an entire race of people solely by the perceived color of their skin, you’re bound to run into some opposition.

Since 1933, the National Football League has fielded a team known as the Redskins. From 1932-1936, they played in Boston, and in their first ever season, they were known as the Boston Braves. Since 1937, the Washington Redskins Football Club has laid claim to being one of the oldest continuously operated franchises in the league. Why has a team name with such obvious racial implications survived for so long?

Human beings, especially human beings who are sports fans, don’t generally adjust well to change. That is part of the reason. With all the controversy surrounding the team name, the organization has felt it would just be easier to stick with the status quo instead of forcing change onto its loyal fanbase. The team has (almost) always been known as the Redskins, so why change it now? For those not offended by the name, there is comfort in keeping it around.

Supporters of the word “redskin” have long cited a Smithsonian Institution senior linguist by the name of Ives Goddard, who asserted that the term was a direct translation of words used by Native Americans to refer to themselves. However, Goddard himself has also stated it is impossible to verify if the native words in question were translated correctly.

It has also been claimed that the term originated from the practice of bounty hunting Native Americans by way of scalping them, with the scalps being the “redskins.” Official documents have not been found to use the term in such a way, however there is evidence of such a connection in the following announcement published in an 1863 edition of the Daily Republican, a Winona, Minnesota newspaper:

“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.”

In 1885, another story published by the Atchison Daily Champion in Atchison, Kansas told local settlers to “hunt for redskins, with a view of obtaining their scalps…”

While the term today is almost never associated with scalping or bounty hunting, knowing the history behind the word is imperative.

You could argue that it’s just a word. It’s just a word for a football team. You have to wonder, though, just how the term “Brownskins” would be perceived if a team were to form its identity around a historical African-American warrior mascot. Of course that would never, ever be allowed by the NFL. So, why are the Redskins still the Redskins? This scenario reminds us the discrimination that Native Americans have always faced, and how that discrimination (and even genocide) has been swept under the rug by history. I won’t go into it here, but please do yourself a favor and research the Trail of Tears and then contact your public school administration and urge them to include it, in detail, in their curriculum.

Washington fans often mimic traditional Native attire and even paint their faces.

So, what is the point I’m trying to make here? The point is simple. It’s inappropriate, offensive, and outright wrong that the Washington Redskins keep their name. When done tastefully, I really don’t see a problem with a sports team having a Native American-themed mascot (then again, I’m a white man so my opinion on the subject is not worth much). I think the terms Braves, Chiefs, and Seminoles are all okay to use if used respectfully. I even don’t have a problem with the Redskins’ logo – I think it’s a tasteful representation of a proud Native warrior. But the name. The name has to change. Make it the Washington Pamunkeys, Washington Natives, Washington Braves, or even the Washington Americans.

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