“On the inaugural Redskins team in 1933, four players and then-head coach William Henry ‘Lone Star’ Dietz identified themselves as Native Americans.”
–from “History of our Name,” on RedskinsFacts.com
The Washington Redskins have been paying for ads promoting a new Web site, RedskinsFacts.com, which supposedly sprung up organically from frustrated former players who wanted to defend the team’s embattled name, which many find offensive. (Slate turned up evidence that the Web site is tied to image-makers Burson-Marsteller, which was later confirmed by the team.)
“We believe the Redskins name deserves to stay,” the Web site says on its “facts” landing page. “It epitomizes all the noble qualities we admire about Native Americans — the same intangibles we expect from Washington’s gridiron heroes on game day. Honor. Loyalty. Unity. Respect. Courage. And more. On this page, you can read more about the storied history of the Redskins identity.”
Anytime an organization sets up a “facts” Web site, it calls out for fact checking. So how does this stack up — and what’s missing? (The Fact Checker obviously does not take a position on whether the name should be changed.)
The key section concerns the “history of the name,” which makes three points designed to carry the term through history:
- A Smithsonian Institution linguist concluded that the actual origin of the word is “entirely benign,” created by Native Americans, and was used as “an inclusive expression of solidarity.”
- Prominent Indian leaders of the 19th century—such as Sitting Bull, French Crow and Tecumseh–referred to themselves as “Red men” or “Red-skins.”
- “On the inaugural Redskins team in 1933, four players and then-head coach William Henry ‘Lone Star’ Dietz identified themselves as Native Americans.”
Let’s examine these points in order.
Ives Goddard, now an emeritus senior linguist, did write a prominent study tracing the origins of the name: “I Am A Red-Skin: The Adoption of a Native American Expression (1769-1826).” His research was the subject of a lengthy article in The Washington Post in 2005.
Goddard concluded that native Americans first used the term to distinguish themselves from the Europeans suddenly appearing in their midst. French negotiators translated the phrasing as peaux Rouges, or “red skins.”
Eventually, the phrase appeared in English, of which the first known occurrence was in 1812 during a meeting between President James Madison and an Indian delegation, Goddard writes. Madison referred to “red people,” “red tribes” and “my red children;” the chiefs replied and called themselves “red skins.” For instance, Little Osage chief Sans Oreilles (No Ears) said, “I know the manners of the whites and of the red skins;” Sioux chief French Crow declared, “I am a red-skin.”
But note that Goddard’s research ends in 1826. It was after that point that use of the term became much darker.
Goddard adamantly rejects the contention of some that “redskins” referred in that period to the taking of scalps in order to earn a bounty. “There is no evidence for this,” he says, though scalp bounties were publicized, most famously in the 1755 Phips Proclamation, in which prices were listed for “captivating, killing and Destroying all and every of the aforesaid Indians.”
But there is no mention of the term “redskins” for scalps in that or other early documents; the earliest reference we could find tying “red-skin” to scalp bounties was in an announcement in 1863 in the Winona (Minnesota) Daily Republican, which noted that the reward had been increased to $200 for “every red-skin sent to Purgatory.”
Note that this notice appeared in the late 19th century. The RedskinsFacts Web site thus artfully tries to skate past the change in how “redskins” was used and perceived. While the earliest references may have been benign, and Indian leaders at one point may have referred to themselves as “red,” “red men,” or “red-skins,” the phrase increasingly acquired unfavorable meanings by the late 19th century.
NPR in 2013 documented this transition to “a negative, increasingly violent connotation.” For instance, L. Frank Baum, the author of “The Wizard of Oz,” celebrated the death of Sitting Bull—who the Web site claims called himself a “red man”—by calling for the “annihilation” of all native Americans in an 1890 editorial for the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer:
The proud spirit of the original owners of these vast prairies inherited through centuries of fierce and bloody wars for their possession, lingered last in the bosom of Sitting Bull. With his fall the nobility of the Redskin is extinguished, and what few are left are a pack of whining curs who lick the hand that smites them. The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are.
Finally, RedskinFacts says that “on the inaugural Redskins team in 1933, four players and then-head coach William Henry ‘Lone Star’ Dietz identified themselves as Native Americans.”
Notably, the Web site does not try to restate the team’s long-standing claim that the name was changed from “Braves” to “Redskins” in honor of Dietz.
Recently, the discovery of a July 6, 1933 news article in the Hartford Courant cast doubt on that claim. In the article, an Associated Press dispatch, then-owner George Preston Marshall is quoted as saying that he changed the name from “Braves” because he did not want it to be confused with Boston’s baseball team. He added: “The fact that we have in our head coach, Lone Star Dietz, an Indian, together with several Indian players, has not, as may be suspected, inspired me to select the name Redskins.”
(Others have noted that Marshall gave contradictory answers at the time. He also told sports writer Damon Runyon that he wanted to use the Native American character of the team as some sort of marketing gimmick: “Besides my coach, Lone Star Deitz [sic], I’ve got half a dozen Indian players signed up, and I’m going to have them wearing Indian war bonnets, and blankets, and everything,” he said in an article published in the July 18, 1933, edition of the Chester (Penn.) Times.)
The other problem with Dietz is that, it turns out, he was likely an imposter—who even went to prison for trying to dodge military service by falsely registering as an Indian. So the Web site neatly sidesteps that messy problem by simply saying that he “identified” himself as a Native American.
Moreover, within the context of the age, was “redskin” a type of honorific or something to be exploited?
NPR’s research showed how the word at that time evolved into a “derogatory slur,” in everything from poetry (the highly offensive “Redskin-Rimes” by Earl Emmons) to movies and cartoons.
Just one year before the name change of the football team, a Tom and Jerry cartoon called “Redskin Blues” depicted the characters being chased by Indians—with the final “gag” being that the chief is revealed to be Jewish (in a stereotypical caricature).
Indeed, the original 1938 version of the Redskins fight song, written after the team moved to Washington in 1937, had lyrics like “scalp ‘em, swamp ‘em, we will take ‘em big score.”
We reached out to the Redskins, seeking a representative of the Web site, but did not get a response.
The Pinocchio Test
For a Web site that claims to be devoted to “the facts,” the history section leaves out a lot of them, in particular the highly negative connotations — instead of “noble qualities” — that the phrase “redskin” had acquired in the decades before the name was adopted by the football team. Instead, the Web site dwells on the pre-19th century usage, and skips over the fact that one of the team’s longtime assertions — that the name was chosen in honor of the “Indian” coach — now appears to be wrong.
This is one of those cases where individual assertions might have a factual basis, but so much information is missing that a false impression is left in the mind of the reader. We wavered between Two and Three Pinocchios, but ultimately tipped toward Three. If you are going to have a Web site supposedly devoted to the facts, you can’t leave out the inconvenient ones.
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