The Great Redskins Name Debate of … 1972?

Washington Evening Star cartoon, from January 1972.
Washington Evening Star cartoon, from January 1972.

Note: Don’t read this. Seriously, just don’t read it. I’m writing this (very lengthy) item for my own benefit. Despite myself, I somehow have become fascinated with the Redskins name topic — as an amateur historian, not as an advocate. I don’t care what ultimately happens, but I find the history really interesting.

But you don’t find it interesting. You find it tiresome and repetitive. So please, I’m begging you, just don’t read this.

For what it’s worth, I worked on this item late at night, on my own time, so it wouldn’t detract from my normal Post work of covering athletic facial hair and preparing sports radio transcripts. 

In the course of complaining to me about my admittedly extensive coverage of the Redskins name issue over the past 18 months, many fans have taken the same  approach one e-mailer adopted this week:

I get that you guys have to write about hot topics and especially ones that are going to draw readers’ attention….I’m just so sick of the name issue….Like your articles say in the beginning don’t continue to read if you don’t want to hear about the name issue. As a life long diehard redskins fan it’s quite annoying that after so long it’s just now becoming such an issue.

I’ve gotten the same frustrated question on Twitter, via e-mail and in our comments section again and again in recent months: how did a word that was not offensive for 75 or 80 years suddenly become offensive in 2013?

Now, I’m not saying the word is offensive or that it’s not offensive. I really have no idea. But the above exhortation is an a historical argument. And as someone who has now spent way too much time reading about this issue, that nags at me a little.

The Redskins name issue, in fact, drew quite a bit of press in 1972, when the team president, part-owner and point man on this was Edward Bennett Williams, and when many ethnic advocacy groups were in their infancy. That means the protests have been going on for at least 42 years — or longer than the team existed before the protests. The name, in other words, has been an issue for more than half the team’s existence.

I have no idea how that would or should affect any of the arguments on either side. Likely not at all. But I wanted to put this out there, because I prefer arguments be historically accurate when possible.

Many of the following articles have been shortened for length; if anyone demands full versions of anything, you know how to ask. And in the interest of full disclosure, I came across these clips while looking at the massive filing from Native Americans who are challenging the Redskins’ trademarks, since I don’t otherwise have ready access to several of these extinct publications. I found that filing on my own, and have not communicated with anyone involved in that challenge, or with the NFL’s defense.

“Redskins/Rednecks,” by Tom Quinn, Washington Daily News, November 1971

Imagine the Syracuse University Orangemen called instead the Syracuse Kikes. The football players have little cash registers painted on the sides of their helmets. When the team wins, the student body stands up and shouts in unison, “Such a Deal!”

Repugnant? Cruel anti-semitism? What, then would be the reaction if, say, for just one game Ole Miss called itself The Darkies and dressed its cheerleaders up like Aunt Jemima shuffling to a Motown version of “Old Black Joe?”

That could be a mockery, eh?

Team nicknames are one of the most casual traditions in American sports. Usually, such names are chosen to add color to competition and most are based on animals or mythical figures like Vikings, Giants, Pirates. Some of the newer names understandably identify with technology: the New York Jets, Baltimore Bullets.

Except in one case that has repeated itself as often as history itself, no one picks on an ethnic minority for his mascot. And that one exception is the American Indian. Right now, in the racially tense 1970s, it seems perfectly acceptable to have teams known as the Bucks, Braves, Chiefs, Indians, Warriors, or, ahem, the Washington Redskins.

“For a lot of Indians, the name ‘Redskin’ is roughly equivalent to ‘Darky,’ explained Richard LaCourse, a Yakima Indian from the state of Washington who is the D.C. correspondent for the American Indian Press Association. “It depends on how it’s used. The worst thing about it, it keeps the cheap stereotypes of the Indian in circulation.”

The term does not particularly bother LaCourse, who, like many Indians interviewed on the subject yesterday, prefers to believe the whiteman simply knows not what he does. John Parker, however, a Choctaw from Oklahoma who works for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was indignant. “They should change the name,” he said. “It lacks dignity, a haphazard slang word that refers to Indians in general but on a lower scale. It is the white people’s way of making a mockery, like they used to do to the blacks in the South.”

Parker would prefer to see the Washington football franchise look for a name from Indians who really lived in the area, like the Piscataways, who had a village along the Potomac approximately where today the George Washington Parkway spreads its blacktop belly.

Laura Wittstock, a Seneca from New York, recently went to the Washington Redskins ticket office at 1875 K St. NW, the walls of which are adorned with photographs of “famous Western Chiefs.” She felt like a florist in a shop of plastic flowers. “It makes me personally very angry and I would rather they not use the name Redskins,” Miss Wittstock said, “but the offense is very subtle.”

She said other minorities such as blacks, Jews and Italians have taken advantage of growing national sensitivity to…minorities to demand respect. “All is left is the Indian,” she said, “and this problem is beginning to stand out like a sore thumb.”

“Do We Defame Native Americans?” by Paul Kaplan,  Washington Star, 1972 

LaDonna Harris, a woman of Comanche descent and an active worker in the pilgrimage to bring truth and respectability to the name and legend of the American Indian, apparently has made some real progress recently.

According to her husband, Mrs. Harris has gone directly to the Washington Redskins and received the support of three big-name players who are willing to back her in the push to do away with the team name of “Redskins,” which is considered offensive by many Indians.

“One of the players, a black, told me he’s ready to join in a demonstration,” said Fred Harris, the husband of LaDonna and the senator from Oklahoma, who at one time this year was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination before withdrawing due to what he called a lack of funds…..

Not all Indians are complaining. Some think of the symbols as monuments to their strength and manhood. Others disagree, bitterly denouncing the derogation of their heritage, an ignorance of their culture and an unabashed commercialism in the sense that Indian names and heroes are exploited with no recompense whatsoever for our native Americans.

“Here’s the way to judge – no other living ethnic group is used as a symbol,” says Harris. “There’s no Washington Dagos or New York Kikes.”…

“The nickname Redskins is offensive,’ Harris says. “It won’t do any good to say ‘I’ve added them up and I have [illegible] who say it’s okay and [illegible] who say it’s offensive. The point is that it’s offensive to a large number of Indians.”

[Edward Bennett] Williams, who has been known in his profession as a champion of liberal causes, says the complaints have come mostly from the media.

“The mail I’ve received is the other way,” he said. “We’ve been urged by more Indians to keep the name than to do away with it. If the people of Washington want the name changed, it will be changed. But so far our polls have not shown this to be the case.”

“Williams’ Answer: What’s in a Name?” by Russ White, Washington Evening Star, January 1972

Edward Bennett Williams, the slick and erudite Washington barrister, may have to do some fast talking indeed if he ever finds himself up against a jury dominated by American Indians.

Williams, of course, doubles as president of the Washington Redskins. In this capacity he apparently has decided to ignore mounting protests from Indian groups that decry the use of Indian names and symbols as nicknames for sports teams.

Particularly annoying to 730,000 American Indians is the word “redskin.” To them, the word is a racist slur, no more acceptable than the word “nigger” is to a black man, and no more acceptable than the term “white trash” is among the poor in the South.

This week Williams received a letter from Hal Gross, director of the Indian Legal Information Development Service, in which Gross outlined several examples of how the Redskins are perpetuating stereotypical thinking about the American Indian.

“This is getting silly,” Williams said yesterday. “Suppose blacks get together and demanded Cleveland’s football team stopped calling itself the Browns, or ornithologists insisted that Baltimore was demeaning to birds because the name is the Orioles.”

“Siegel at Large,” by Morris Siegel, Washington Star, January 1972

Already annoyed by enough current litigation against them to keep a taxi squad of lawyers occupied almost full time, the Redskins are in no mood to be pestered with another suit. This one, if it comes to pass, might be interpreted as coming from the blind side – an attempt to halt their use of the name Redskins, by which they have been known, mostly with affection, every year since 1932, their founding year, when they were the Braves, which happened to be the name of the ballpark they used in Boston.

Now comes a crusading Sioux, Russell Means, who insists the Redskins and other teams using Indian names are demeaning his people and wants it knocked off. He has filed a $9 million suit against the Cleveland Indians and threatens the Atlanta Braves, who have a half Chippewa mascot, Noc-A-Homa, and the Redskins who once had a coach named Lone Star Dietz and a full-blooded Indian player, Jack Jacobs.

“Indians Take on Williams,” by Steve Guback, Washington Star, January 1972

The Redskins are being asked to drop their nickname, which apparently means many different things to many different people.

A group of 11 persons representing various Indian organizations conferred with club President Edward Bennett Williams yesterday, suggesting a change…..

Williams [said] the nickname was [meant] to convey not disrespect but reverence for the Indian.

Stay tuned and circle the wagons, men.

“Indians Open War on Redskins,” by Shelby Coffee III, Washington Post, March 1972

A delegation of 11 people representing a variety of Indian organizations arrived yesterday afternoon at the elegantly appointed law offices of Edward Bennett Williams, president of the Washington Redskins football team, and requested that Williams become the president of the Washington “…” football team.

Among the group requesting that “the derogatory racial epithet “Redskins” be banished from the Washington sports scene were LaDonna Harris, wife of Sen. Fred Harris (D-Okla.) and president of the Americans for Indian Opportunity and Leon Cook, president of the National Congress of American Indians, which claims a membership of 350,000 Indians, according to the protesting group’s informal leader, Harold Gross, an attorney for another Indian organization.

The group entered Williams’ conference room — after Williams said he did not want the press included in what had been scheduled as a private meeting — and emerged an hour later, some happy, some frustrated, all waiting for Williams’ next move.

Then they went to the Farragut Lounge to discuss the results of the meeting and Mrs. Harris, with a veteran campaigner’s dazzling smile, trooped the line shaking hands as she left, saying “I think we did a pretty good day’s work.”

“I listened, and that’s all,” said Williams after the group had filed out. “It was a listening session for me.”

“Williams, Indians in Showdown,” by Tom Quinn, Washington Daily News, March 1972

[After some drama, Edward Bennett] Williams closed this first meeting with the American Indians who claim his team nickname, “Redskins,” is a racial slur. It had not been an easy meeting, even for the man who once gave free legal services to the Indians who took over Alcatraz Island two years ago.

The eleven Indian representatives included LaDonna Harris, wife of Sen. Fred Harris (D-Okla.), and president of Americans for Indian Opportunity who moderated the discussions and, being of the establishment (so to speak) seemed to communicate best with Williams; Leon Cook, president of the National Congress of American Indians, which claims a membership of 300,000; Dennis J. Banks, national chairman of the American Indian Movement; and Hal Gross, attorney director of the Indian Legal Development Service in Washington.

“I just listened, and that’s all,” Williams said afterward. “It was just a listening session for me.”

Well, not exactly. Williams reportedly started off the meeting by saying, ‘It was never our intention to offend the American Indian. Our intent is and was exactly the opposite – to express reverence for the Indian.”

LaDonna Harris soon picked up the point. “And today, Mr. Bennett Williams,” she told him, “you have the chance to demonstrate the sensitivity you profess toward the Indian people. We are waiting.”

The Indians were still waiting when they left Williams’ plush offices. They had asked the Washington pro football team to:

• Change the ‘derogatory racial epithet, ‘Redskins.’

• Sponsor a campaign to get a new name.

• Get rid of the pseudo-Indian dancing girls called ‘Redskinettes,’ as well as the team song,’ Hail to the Redskins.’

• “Actively encourage other professional sports organizations to cease the use of similar stereotypes degrading America’s Indian people.”

“This is not a negotiating meeting,” Williams told them. And then he promised to report the Indians’ feelings to the team board of directors, and then report back the board’s reaction. Williams also agreed to arrange an appearance by a representative of the Indians at an NFL meeting in New York City in mid-May.

Williams reportedly asked if the nickname ‘Indian’ would be acceptable but the Indians told him no. Williams also tried to explain how a change of name would involve “thousands of dollars” in commitments to NFL Properties and NFL Films, an obviously weak attempt to overwhelm the Indians with dollar signs.

“You’ve made money off this Indian stereotype for years,” said Seneca Indian Laura Wittstock, “and we refuse to accept this kind of argument now. Any corporation that finds something wrong with its public relations or public image does not hesitate to change.”…

“We left Williams with a pure moral issue,” [Ron Aguilar, head of the National Youth Indian Council] said. “We know we are right and that we will win, but we are not sure that we can depend on Williams to act on purely moral principle.”

“Redskins Keep Names, Will Change Lyrics,” by George Solomon, Washington Post, July 1972

The American Indian groups attempting to persuade Washington’s pro football team to change its nickname because they believe it “racially demeaning” have achieved a small victory. The lyrics to the fight song “Hail to the Redskins” will be changed.

Indian representatives, however, were in no mood to celebrate yesterday after Redskins’ President Edward Bennett Williams, admitting misjudgments in the fight song, said the Washington Redskins will continue to be known as the Washington Redskins.

At least they’ll be the Redskins in 1972, or until somebody can convince Williams it should be otherwise.

“All the reaction I’ve received on the nickname question has been unsympathetic to the protesting Indian groups,” Williams said yesterday. “We would not carry a symbol offensive to any group. No one has persuaded me that the Redskins, as a symbol of our football team, is offensive.”

“Had I been persuaded,” Williams added, “we would have taken action accordingly.”

Williams stressed that he doesn’t have a “closed mind” on the subject.

Last March, Williams met with Indian representatives in his office to hear their charges that the nickname Redskins was insulting, as were the baton-twirling Redskinettes and other accompanying Indian depictions.

“They had some good points to make against the lyrics of our fight song,” Williams said. “The swamp ‘ems, scalp ‘ems and heap ‘ems is a mocking of dialect. We won’t use those lyrics anymore.”…

“The change of song lyrics is tokenism on Williams’ part,” said Laura Wittstock of the Indian Legal Information Development Services. “I don’t think he’d react favorably to our desires if 10,000 Indians wrote him. He’s unwilling simply because too much of a commercial loss would be involved.”…

Redskin halftime impresario Joel Margolis announced that henceforth the Redskinettes would no longer wear Indian-style wigs.

Noted Edward Bennett Williams: “If there was anything involved but the glorification of the American Indian, we would change our nickname.”

To this Laura Wittstock said, “Any commercial use of a race of people can’t be glorification.”

Dan Steinberg writes about all things DC sports at the DC Sports Bog.
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