My connection with the Redskins / The Native American Mascot Issue
Edit: 2016.4.14 – Opinions evolve over time, and at the time this article was written, I believed it would have been appropriate to keep the logo the same but remove the racist name. My logic behind that is below, however I now think that if you’re serious about eliminating racist imagery in sport, it’s best to just make a clean break rather than a solution that some might view as half-baked. It’s time to change.
This post is going to be somewhat serious. I have to start out by saying that I am indeed a Washington Redskins fan. I’ve been a fan since as early as I can remember. Actually, scratch that… I do remember my Baltimoron grandparents buying me some Colts memorabilia before I really knew what football even was. (I think if I were able to search through old photographs, I’d be able to find a picture of me in a Baltimore Colts stocking cap…) It probably looked something like this. However, the Baltimore Colts absolutely sucked in the 1980’s, and the beginning of the Redskins’ heyday coincided with my older brother starting school in a suburb of DC. He tells me that he remembers the bus driver making all the kids chant “REDSKINS! REDSKINS! REDSKINS!” before driving away from the bus stop. This, compounded with the fact that the Baltimore Colts became the Indianapolis Colts in 1984, made it so that I was well on my way to indoctrination as a Redskins fan. Even when I went to church, all people seemed to do was talk about the Redskins. Then I myself entered school. I specifically remember that my 1st grade teacher, Ms. Goldstein, tried many times to be a Redskinette (Those are the team’s cheerleaders.) The team went to back-to-back Super Bowls in 1982 and 1983, and they were reasonably good after that. (Admittedly the first Super Bowl I actually saw was in 1986, where the ’85 Bears crushed the Patriots… I think that’s when I first really started to like watching football.)
Anyway all throughout elementary school, it seems everyone was talking about the Redskins.
Oh, Riggins is retiring! Oh no! LT broke Theismann’s leg! Hey! Jay Schroeder is pretty good. Wow! Jay Schroeder sucks! Cool! The Posse! The Hogs! Doug Williams is Awesome! Who the heck is Timmy Smith?
I remember one time back then, my Colt-less grandparents bought me some Dallas Cowboys pajamas for my birthday. I almost cried, and was really embarrased to wear them. I think they might have been the first set of clothes that I conveniently “lost” during one of my sleepovers at a friend’s house.
The constant chatter about the ‘skins continued into middle school, when the team last won the Super Bowl in the 1991 season.
Who’s this Mark Rypien guy? Butterfingers Byner? Mark Rypien is not a winner! OMG Mark Rypien is AWESOME! OMG Mark Rypien was only awesome last year.
And unfortunately the team declined into sucktitude during my high school years…. and the hated Cowboys rose to prominence. This is when you could tell the true fans from the people who only liked the team when it was good. People who I had grown up with who had been talking about the Redskins as if they truly loved the team were now talking about Troy Aikman, Emmit Smith, and Michael Irvin. But the faithful still were talking about the Redskins in this dark time.
We got Desmond HOWARD, REPEAT!!! Gary Clark’s a Cardinal? We got Heath Shuler!!! Things are looking up. OMG Shuler’s hurt again? Wait a minute, who are these guys? Gus Frerrote gave himself a concussion after celebrating a Touchdown? Why do we suck? WHYYYYYY?!??!?! Norv can’t win!!!!!
All right.. the point of all that is simply to illustrate that this team is very much a part of my identity. I grew up in an era where the football team was in Washington, and the baseball team was in Baltimore. I still like those two teams, even though now DC also has a baseball team and Baltimore also has a football team. Sure, it was great when the Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2000, and I was hoping they would, but this wasn’t the team I grew up with. I’m probably of a dying breed, as future generations of Baltimorons and Washingtonians won’t connect with the Redskins and Orioles. They’ll either be Redskins-Nationals fans or Ravens-Orioles fans.
Why are you bothering to tell us how you love some frickin’ sports teams that only people who grew up in your area would even care about?
Fair question. This blog post has probably been very interesting for any Baltimore/Washington area readers or football fans, but my readership at large is probably bored out of their wits at this point. There’s a second issue I’d like to talk about though. That is the issue of Native American mascots.
What are they?
Well, in America, there are a lot of teams (not just at the professional level) which have names or mascots based on Native Americans, or stereotypes of Native Americans. Some examples include the Cleveland Indians, the Atlanta Braves, the Florida State University Seminoles, the University of Illinois Illini, the Northwood High School Savages, and of course, my beloved Washington Redskins.
So what’s the issue?
Well, it appears that some Native American groups object to these mascots, as they are either downright offensive, don’t portray them in a good light, don’t portray them accurately, or simply, they don’t like them. I mean, come to think of it, would we feel good about a team called the Chicago Chinky Chinamen? The New York Niggers? The Philadelphia Faggots? The San Jose Fighting Jews? The Wisconsin Wetbacks? No, we wouldn’t. So why is it that Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, and Washington Redskins are okay? They are not.
I’ve heard that argument over and over before. It’s necessary to look at INTENT. None of these teams means to offend Native Americans. Furthermore, Redskins, Braves, and Indians aren’t even pejoratives!
I’ll address the second part first. Racial minority groups in the U.S. have preferred ways of being referred to. This can be changed over time, and unless you are part of that particular group, it’s not your right to say what is offensive and what is not.
African-American is the most acceptable term to refer to those of African descent. Black still seems to be okay. Negro was once acceptable, and still is to some, but it’s best avoided, especially when two other perfectly good words exist. Someone once told me that nigger was acceptable at one time, even when uttered by non-black people, but I’m not going to touch that one except for when talking about the word itself, not other people. Sure, some black people themselves use it… I’m not black, so I don’t get to decide whether I can say that or not.
To Asian-Americans, it’s now offensive to call us Oriental, Yellow, or Chinaman (Even though in East Asia, in East Asian languages, we still call ourselves the Yellow-race, or a term that translates as Oriental). The Chinaman one I’m not so sure about. Certainly if one were not Chinese, it is hurtful to be lumped together with Chinese, as if China were the only country in East Asia. But if one IS Chinese, then what’s wrong with Chinaman. The only logical argument I’ve ever heard about this is that no other country’s people are referred to in this way (i.e. there are no Canadamen, Francemen, Iranmen and the like), but I still don’t see why that in itself is offensive. But, I’m also not Chinese, so I guess I’ll just have to go along with it. I’ve never use the word anyway so it’s not like I have to readjust myself or anything.
I can go on and on with each group, but I’ll stop here and talk about Redskin and Indian.
Indian – India is in South Asia. The Native Americans are from North America. Don’t you see how it can be offensive for Christopher Columbus to mistakenly call these people Indians, based on nothing than the color of their skins, when he nor they had even ever been to India? That’s even worse than calling all Asians as Chinese. Some Native Americans actually don’t mind use of the term, so this one is in kind of a grey area.
Redskin – Yellow is not okay for Asians anymore. Yellowskin probably never was. Redskin is just.. wrong. I’ve heard various arguments against it, some suggesting that the name comes from a time when the British government paid English settlers to kill Natives. They were paid a bounty for proof of kill, usually a specific patch of skin. That’s where the term comes from. Others have simply suggested that it doesn’t refer to the color of the Native’s skin, but the blood on top of it after one has killed him. I don’t know which is more accurate, but I’ve only ever used this word to talk about a football team, not a race of people.
On the intent issue, I have to say this. Whatever your intent is in this regard doesn’t matter. What matters is how the affected people feel about it. Many people say that the mascots are meant to honor the Native American people, and they very may well have, but how deeply did those who named the teams know or connect with Native American culture? My guess is that they watched a few Hollywood films or other kinds of media which depicted terrible stereotypical images of the people. Good intent is better than bad intent, but intent doesn’t trump the fact that people object to what you are doing.
Look, I grew up in such an ironic era where we were taught to respect African Americans as equals every February, yet we made Injun costumes out of paper bags and feathers and did rain dances to learn about Native Americans, and teachers read to us about the Chinese kid with a very long name who got stuck in the bottom of a well, and his brother had to run around the town looking to find help. The boy almost drowned because it took his brother like 10 minutes to say his name as he ran from person to person asking for help. (I think his name was Tiki Tiki Tembo No Sa Rembo Chari Bari Buchi Pip Perry Pembo, but I’m not totally sure.) Now, I am not at all complaining about Black History Month. In fact, I think it’s wonderful. But it seems super silly to me that we are supposed to learn in that month about the struggles that African Americans have gone through, and how racism is inherently wrong, yet we don’t hammer this same message into the minds of children in respect to other minorities. Certainly I hope by now that nobody is reading this book in school anymore, and that kindergarteners are not encouraged to act out Native stereotypes in the name of diversity.
I highlight the previous example to show that the intent argument is bogus, especially when the intending group is SOOO disconnected with the group their intent is directed at.
What about the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, the Minnesota Vikings, and the USC Spartans? Are they not also stereotypical mascots of living people?
Yes. They are. However there is a difference. These mascots are white.
So that makes it okay? Isn’t it a double standard?
Yes. It is. But this double standard makes sense. See, when white people see these mascots, the image that they portray does very little in formulating peoples’ views of Scandanavian-Americans, Irish-Americans, or Greek-Americans (translation, other white Americans). Furthermore, America has no history of colonization and genocide of Scandinavia, Ireland, or Greece…. well at least not forceful anyway. Even if these are stereotypical, they are at the very least societies that we Americans are much more familiar with academically.
In contrast, the Native-American mascots, and other imagery does formulate peoples’ views on Native-Americans, and America did colonize and nearly eradicate the native population. And for the most part, the majority of Americans know about these people only by what they see in the movies.
You just spent all that time in the beginning of this article talking about how you love the Redskins. Now you’re saying it’s wrong to have Native American mascots. Why do you still like the Redskins then?
Look, it’s the team I grew up with. I can’t change that, and I’ll always have a sense of connection with that team. I actually don’t think the logo itself should change much.
Huh? Why wouldn’t you change the logo?
Well, why do all human mascots have to be White? My High School’s mascot was the Cavaliers. I never even knew what a Cavalier was, but we had this one guy who dressed up in a green 3 musketeers suit at football games. That was pretty cool. Later some of those artsy fartsy people took it upon themselves to paint a huge picture of the mascot on some of the walls in the hallway. One was a really thin Barbie doll looking woman in a 3 Musketeers suit. The other was a jovial large bodied black man, also in a 3 musketeers suit. When I saw that mascot on the wall, I was surprised. It certainly didn’t bother me in the slightest. To the best of my knowledge, none of my black classmates were bothered by it either. The picture on your left was made sometime after I graduated, and in my opinion, he is unmistakably black, but I think some would say that he’s merely racially ambiguous. Who knows? See, the point is that it’s high time we had more human mascots of color.
And with the Redskins logo, I have to say… at least on the intent side, we know it’s not meant to make a mockery of Native Americans. As we discussed earlier, intent is moot, but consider this…
Clearly, one is a mockery, and the other is not. Now, I have no emotional ties to the Cleveland Indians, so I admit that it’s very easy for me to say that they are in the wrong, and the Redskins are not. But also, consider this…
The Redskins logo is based upon the image seen on the buffalo nickel. LOOK AT IT! 2 feathers in the back, braded hair to the side, large nose, unsmiling expression… this coin is credited as being a very realistic portrayal of Native Americans, and many different Native Americans have claimed to have been the model that the likeness is based upon. I haven’t ever heard of any Native Americans who have problems with the buffalo nickel, and if there are, I apologize, but putting a likeness on our money…that’s as realistic and tributary as one can get.
That said, I think it is high time that the name is changed.
Something other than Redskins. But something unrelated to Native Americans… Perhaps “Washington Americans” or “Washington Heroes” or simply calling it “Washington Football Club”. I really don’t think it matters as long as the overall look of the team isn’t changed. If they were to change the team to something totally different, say the Washington Bombers, with an airplane mascot.. I’d probably not have any connection for the team. Afterall, there are still Baltimore Colts fans who haven’t yet warmed up to the Ravens. The name has to go though.
Has any pro sports team ever changed its Native American Mascot?
In America, I have only ever heard of one minor league baseball team doing that.. the Syracuse Chiefs became the Syracuse Skychiefs, switching from a Native American mascot to an aviator one. At the top level of sports, there have not been any changes that I am aware of.
The Cleveland Indians made
a very half-assed effort to show that they were trying to be sensitive to the concerns of Native People. They stopped having someone dressed in a Chief Wahoo costume at their home games and instead replaced him with Slider the fuzzy pink alien. The team is still called the Indians, and they still have Wahoo on their cap, but by golly, their official mascot is a purple monster. I.. don’t get it.
The ONLY case that I have ever heard of real change happening in a top level pro sports team is in Japan of all places.
Japanese baseball teams are somewhat plucky in that many teams have pretty much
stolen borrowed the look of American baseball teams. For a while, the Chunichi Dragons had uniforms that looked EXACTLY like the Dodgers uniforms. Well except their jersey said Dragons, and their hat said C instead of LA. Other teams even stole borrowed team names. The Yomiuri Giants look exactly like the New York (now San Francisco) Giants did. The Hanshin Tigers took the name of the Detroit Tigers, and the look of the New York Yankees. The Hiroshima Carp look similar to the Cincinnati Reds… they even have the exact same hat!
For a while, there was a team owned by Hankyu called the Braves. They were based on… the Braves… (I’m not really sure if they were going for the Milwaukee or Atlanta look, cuz I don’t know how long the team had been around.) Well they took the name, but I don’t think they truly understood what a brave is.. because their mascot wasn’t even a Native American.
It’s.. a cute yellow bird? Huh? This is so far away from any image of bravery that I could possibly ever think of. But whatever. Finally someone in Orix got word that the team name was offensive to Native-Americans, and Orix came up with a very very clever solution. You see, in Japanese, the team name “Braves” would be written as “ブレイブス” (Bureibusu). They simply added an extra sylable to make it “ブルーウェイブ” (Buruuweibu).
Still confused? They changed the team from Braves to Blue Wave, which in Japanese sounds very very similar. Their mascot is…
Orix ended up acquiring another team, the Kintetsu Buffaloes, and merging the teams together to form the Orix Buffaloes, and now this old Native-American name is entirely gone.
Anyway I think I’ll stop writing here. I hope I at least got you to understand the issue a little bit better than just people complaining about political correctness.