"Redskins": A Native's Guide To Debating An Inglorious Word

Nigga say nigga we cool but/Cracker say nigga, nigga knocked the fuck up ... —NWA, "Niggaz 4 Life"

Three days ago, in his halftime essay for Sunday Night Football, Bob Costas called the "Redskins" nickname an "insult" and a "slur," joining a chorus of people—from the Washington Post to Slate to Keith Olbermann to even President Obama—suggesting or demanding that the team change its name. That's cool, and you tend to believe that they're bringing this up as a matter of social justice. Still, as a Native American writer and lawyer who 1) speaks, through various media, to educated/scholarly Native Americans, but also 2) lives on a reservation and was born and raised on various reservations where there are decidedly different interests from those of the Native intelligentsia, I find the recent mainstream attention to the Washington Redskins both encouraging and suspicious.

FYI: It's not a new topic among Native people; there have been those who have been encouraging this discussion literally for decades.

I wanted to give a quick primer on that discussion for those who are interested, separating some of the mythology of the Washington Redskins mascot controversy from the reality. It's not quite as clear as it seems, in either direction. And like many social justice movements historically, the allegedly aggrieved—Native Americans—haven't come to anything resembling a consensus on this topic. (Don't believe the hype.) That doesn't mean that it's not a social justice issue, though. Confusing, right?

Exactly.

The vast majority of Native people do not sit around wishing the Redskins would change their name. Most don't care about this topic. Some do. Some actually like the name. Either way, there's no consensus at all. A quick story: My first foray into illicit gambling came when I was in third grade and living on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana. The Blackfeet Reservation is large and beautiful, struggles economically and has health indicators pointing in the wrong direction. There is 70 percent unemployment there, and about 26 percent of the population earns less than the poverty guideline. Despite these numbers and despite growing up with a single mom, I conjured up five bucks to make a bet on Super Bowl XVIII with my good buddy Alan Spoon. I didn't know anything about football, but I had a particular interest in the game—there were some Indians playing.

Right? That's what their helmets said.

Anyway, here we were, two Indian boys: We literally fought to see who got the Redskins.

He won the fight. He got the Redskins. I got his five bucks.

I never really thought about that fateful moment until this year. A couple of weeks ago, I was watching the Redskins get their asses handed to them by the Eagles. I have Alfred Morris on my fantasy football team and wanted him to get the ball back, so I was cheering for the Eagles to score quickly. My son was screaming, "Stop them, Redskins!" I didn't even know he was watching the game. When he started cheering for them, I figured that he was simply antagonizing me, as he is wont to do.

I asked him, "Why do you always cheer against the team that I'm cheering for?"

He told me, quite matter-of-factly: "I want the Redskins to win. I like the Redskins. They have an Indian on the helmet."

Obviously, this is totally anecdotal, and not all Native people feel this way. Not remotely. However, it is safe to say that the Washington Redskins logo is realistic and handsome (unlike the coonish Cleveland Indians mascot) and there is an intuitive pull for many Native people who see that logo. Further, Native people are among the poorest people in this nation, despite the casino stereotype that many non-Natives hold. We also have, as most impoverished groups do, serious issues with fatherlessness, substance abuse, and suicide. As a result, most Native people have pretty serious things to worry about other than a football team's mascot. Still, there is a legitimate and valid minority of Native people who are very concerned about the Redskins. The Oneida Nation, for example, recently paid for some radio ads to work to take down the Washington Redskins name. There is no unanimity of thought here. Which leads me to point No. 2:

The anti-Redskins movement is driven by a small percentage of Native people. As a result of the "very serious other concerns" enumerated above, most Native people simply don't really have the bandwidth to push the anti-Redskins agenda, even if they wanted to. A lot of us simply cannot afford to have this in our lists of things to do today. Thus, the topic has been championed by a very small group of Natives who do not have to worry about the lower tiers in Maslow's hierarchy. Many of us, even those who agree with that stance, are simply too busy keeping the lights on to worry too much about mascots. Anecdotally, there is plenty of support for other Native mascots. Indeed, if a person were to take a poll of reservation/Indian schools, that person would find that a whole bunch the school mascots were Indian in nature: Browning Indians, Haskell Indians, Flandreau Indians, Plenty Coups Warriors, the Hoonah Braves, etc. No such poll exists, of course, but the continued existence of tribal schools with "Indian"-themed mascots is instructive. The point: Most Native people have no inherent problem with Indian mascots; what matters is the presentation of that mascot and name. The presentation of the name "Redskins" is problematic for many Native Americans because it identifies Natives in a way that the vast majority of Natives simply don't identity ourselves.

Every other ethnic group gets the opportunity to self-identify in the way they choose. Native people do not.

The NFL and fans of the NFL treat Native people qualitatively differently from how they treat members of any other ethnic group. Whether or not the term "Redskin" is inherently racist is the wrong question. The more appropriate question is, "Would it be acceptable to name a professional sports team according to the color of someone else's skin?" Would it ever be cool to have a sports team called the Washington Blackskins? It seems appropriate; D.C. is Chocolate City. But, um, hell no. San Francisco Yellowskins? Naw, cousin. Won't work.

None of the above would be cool.

OK, how about a high school team called the Paducah Negroes? "Negroes" is a term that is not necessarily racist, yet black folks choose not to identify themselves as such. People respect black folks' choice not to call themselves Negro and so people don't call them by that name. Yet, it's different with Native people. Somehow non-racist black folks, white folks, and Latinos feel that it's OK to identify Natives in a way that we simply do not—and do not want to—identify ourselves.

If that is not racist, it is at the very least incredibly racially insensitive.

There is some internal value to the Redskins name, just as there is some internal value to the word "nigger." Like "redskin," "nigger" has a fairly innocuous origin (it derives from the Spanish word for "black"), but picked up barbed and offensive connotations as it passed through history. As hurtful as the word "nigger" is, though, it has value to a certain percentage of African-Americans, as evidenced by the usage of the word as a term of affection (or sometimes simply as an identifier, even absent affection). People can, and do, argue passionately about whether or not the word should be used, whether it is appropriate or foul. Still, however one concludes, the word's still there. It has significance and currency to at least some percentage of black folks.

Similarly, for centuries, some Native people have used the word "Redskin" (and its variations) as an identifier. Still do. The word unquestionably predates the current conversation and even the supposed genesis of the term in the very real scalping policies of the 19th century, when white bounty hunters were paid for scalps only when they proved their Indian origin by showing the red skin. (Here's the Los Angeles Herald in 1897: "VALUE OF AN INDIAN SCALP: Minnesota Paid Its Pioneers a Bounty for Every Redskin Killed.")

Those scalpings were a tragic and ugly episode in American history, and at the very least a certain solemnity of tone is called for in making even oblique reference to them. But they are not tied to the origin of the word. Indeed, the word goes back quite a bit further than that era, and has been used as a self-identifier since at least the mid-1700s, when the Piankashaws referred to themselves and other Natives as "redskins." More anecdotally, many modern-day Natives refer to themselves and other Natives as "Skins" as a term of self-association. (It's a derivative, with the same relation to the original that "nigga" bears to "nigger.")

The column that I typically write for Indian Country Today Media Network is called "The Thing About Skins," and "red" is an accepted term of affinity and familiarity among Native peoples. Terms such as "red road," "red pride," and "red man" have been used for some time within our communities. Recently a group called A Tribe Called Red (!) remixed a popular pow-wow song called "Redskin Girl" as a further show of that affection and familiarity.

Not all Natives use these terms, just like not all black folks use the term "nigger" (or "nigga"). Some do. But everyone recognizes that the word carries a certain potency. (Little known fact: New York City actually symbolically banned the word "nigger" in 2007 because of this potency. That action triggered a highly spirited internal debate about the merits of the word among academics and activists.)

Even words with value internally can be racist when used externally. The "redskins" topic, as you may begin to notice, is similar to the "nigger" debate, which has launched an entire cottage industry devoted to debating the use of the word in pop culture—books, album names, television specials, academic discussions. That there is still a lively debate on the subject tells you that the words still retain their value, their power.

Yet, there is a crucial difference: It is black folks who debate the merits and demerits of the word "nigger." White folks understand that, as a matter of propriety, it would be the ultimate in tastelessness and disrespect to take the lead in the discussion of the word "nigger." Yet, here are outsiders—black, white, Asian, Latino—telling Native people how we should feel about the word "redskins" and what we should be offended by. If white people tried to pull the "we're going to tell you what words you should be offended by" shit with the word "nigger," there would, as NWA eloquently put it above, be serious problems. Apparently, though, while it's racist and condescending to tell some people what should offend them, it's somehow OK to do the same with Native people.

I actually appreciate Rick Reilly's perspective when he says he wants to keep non-Native liberals from driving this discussion. It's a fair point, and it shows at least some awareness of who has a real stake in the outcome. There is certainly a decent amount of liberal absolution at work here, too, even if it's bound up with a creditable forbearance on the part of white liberals regarding the use of freighted language that doesn't belong to them. Still, it's not Rick Reilly's job to discern who is talking for whom. If he sees a Native person talking, he should probably assume that the Native person is talking for himself or herself. Would Reilly argue that white people are free to use the word "nigger" because white liberals largely led the movement that pushed white people to stop using it in everyday conversation?

Notice the disconnect?

Which leads me to my final point:

The "Redskins" debate is similar to the "nigger" debate, yet unlike with the "nigger" debate, outsiders feel perfectly comfortable telling Native people how they should feel. I suppose that's the most frustrating part of the debate—that we Native people, the folks who are the only meaningful stakeholders in this debate—are not allowed to have a voice in the matter. Correct that: We can have an opinion so long as it is pro-Redskin. Otherwise, we're being "too sensitive."

No non-black person has ever, EVER called a black person a "nigger" in recent times and then told that black person that he was being "too sensitive" if/when he got upset. NO non-black person uses the internal value of the word "nigger" as a justification for a non-black person to keep using the word. NO non-black person says, "The word 'nigger' was pretty harmless at one time, therefore I'm going to just throw it around a bit. Try it out. See if it works for me." NO non-black person has ever gone rummaging through American cities in search of a black person who's not offended by the word "nigger," and then held them up as proof that the word isn't so bad. ("See? There are some black folks that aren't offended by the word, therefore it CAN'T BE racist.")

Doesn't happen.

Why not? Because black folks decided that they wouldn't stand for the word anymore, and it's now understood that "nigger" belongs to black folks. It's theirs to do with as they wish, and it's simply racist when other groups use it. If black people choose to use it, that's their business—they've paid a heavy price to own that word. Similarly, "redskins" is Native people's word. If it's unfortunate and sad that we use it, hey, that's our choice. We paid the price for this racist and loaded term.

Instead, we have a bunch of white men telling us that it's not racist, and a bunch of black folks who continue to think that it can't be racist because it's black men wearing the jerseys and, hey, it's just a football team.

That's the frustration—the voicelessness and inequality in treatment, and the people who don't see how this is like non-black folks using the word "nigger," who don't even think that it might be racist. Hell, many Natives are just like me—not particularly concerned about the whole affair. It's not the biggest deal in the world. Yet even those of us who are indifferent have to look and notice the disparity in treatment. Every other racial group can—and should be able to—say what is offensive to them without being called "too sensitive." We cannot.

That prompts the question: Why not?

So I pass that question on to you: At one point, many white people openly called black people "niggers." Those racists stopped, eventually, because many (not all) black people said that word was hurtful and offensive. That was a positive step—progress. In light of that racial progress, why wouldn't folks also stop calling another group of people, Native Americans, a word that many (not all) Native Americans likewise say is hurtful, racist, and offensive? Or, to put it another way: Shouldn't we have gotten to the point where non-racists feel uncomfortable using a word that a contingent of people find hurtful, racist, and offensive?

Peace.


Gyasi Ross is a member of the Blackfeet Indian Nation and also comes from the Suquamish Nation. Both are his homelands. He continues to live on the lovely Suquamish Reservation—contrary to Rick Reilly's assertion, no white liberals influenced his writing of this article. He is a father, an author, a lawyer, and a warrior. He has a new book, How To Say I Love You in Indian, available for pre-order. (Pre-order today!!). His Twitter handle is @BigIndianGyasi. He is a Seahawks fan and sees the Redskins as an inferior team, but readily acknowledges RGIII's potential greatness (and hopes Alfred Morris does well because Morris is on his fantasy football team).