What’s in a name? The Redskins’ bad karma

Courtland Milloy
Columnist January 8, 2013

So, Washington football fans, how’s that offensive team name and demeaning sports mascot working out? Whooping and hollering as RGIII goes on a “Redskins” warpath only to leave a trail of tears when his wounded knee gets buried at FedEx Field.

In this obscene home team sports fantasy, the gifted Robert Griffin III was reduced to a “noble savage.” Let the “Redskin” play hurt. He can take it. Hail to the young brave-hearted quarterback as he limps into battle on that injured knee. Three cheers as he fights on his one good leg for Old D.C.

And when he’s felled during Sunday’s playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks, bringing the postseason to an ugly and immensely unsatisfying end — torn ligaments no doubt shortening his own career as well — Washington gasps in horror.

Bad karma, I tell you, that team name.

Now don’t go trying to prove otherwise by digging up some ancient Washington victory from back in, say, Joe Gibbs’s early days. This is a new era. Attitudes are changing; progressive thinking is emerging on everything from guns, gays and gas guzzling to debt, deficits and doctor bills.

As the Redskins’ star rookie quarterback heads in for medical tests on his knee, critics debate whether Coach Mike Shanahan is to blame for keeping Robert Griffin III in the game too long this past Sunday. Post sports reporter Jason Reid stops by to discuss. (The Fold/The Washington Post)

Besides, Washington’s professional football team has raked up one disappointing season after another since 1992 — the year D.C. resident Suzan Harjo became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking to change the team’s disparaging name.

Although Harjo lost that legal battle on a technicality, a group of younger Native Americans have filed a similar lawsuit — Blackhor se et al v. Pro-Football, Inc. Justice may yet be served.

“The term ‘redskins’ is the most vile and offensive term used to describe Native Americans,” Harjo told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in 2011. “It is most disturbing to the overwhelming majority of Native Americans throughout the country that the professional football team in the nation’s capital uses a team name that demeans us.”

Does anyone really believe that the name “Redskins” will survive the 21st century? Other than the people who probably thought white actors in blackface would survive the 20th? The genocide of Native peoples, like America’s other original sin, slavery, cannot be forever masked with caricatures of the dead.

Next month, on Feb. 7, the National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall will hold a day-long symposium and “community conversation” about the use of racist stereotypes and cultural appropriation in American sports. In a recent news release about the event, museum Director Kevin Gover wrote: “What better place to address this issue. . . . The Smithsonian Institution is the ideal forum to bring people together to ask tough questions.”

I hope so, although I suspect that the most diehard football fans have only two ways of dealing with these kinds of disagreements: racist Internet comments — and fistfights in the stands.

For those who claim that “Redskins” is an honorific to Native peoples, as team owner Dan Snyder does, representatives from several Indian nations will be on hand to tell you what they really think about that name. By the way, while Washington was weighed down with that tired old caricature of an Indian head on their helmets, Seattle was sporting a lighthearted Seahawk based on an ancient Northwest Coast Native carved totem design. They didn’t just score more touchdowns; they won on style points, too.

Others have claimed that the “Redskins” Indian head logo is no more harmful than the image on an Indian-head nickel. But the question is: harmful to whom? The symposium addresses this question through an exploration of the psychology of stereotypes in sports, the history of ethnic “identity theft” and recent efforts to retire and revive Native American sports references at the University of Oklahoma, Stanford University, Dartmouth College and Syracuse University.

The subject of the “community conversation” will be, you guessed it, the name of Washington’s professional football team. It should be quite lively. The moderator will be Philip J. Deloria of the Standing Rock Sioux, an associate dean of undergraduate education at the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts and author of the books “Playing Indian” and “Indians in Unexpected Places.”

He will be joined by Judith Bartnoff, deputy presiding judge of the District of Columbia Superior Court’s Civil Division; the Rev. Graylan Hagler of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ and former president of Ministers for Racial, Social and Economic Justice; Robert I. Holden, deputy director of the National Congress of American Indians; Erik Brady, a sports reporter for USA Today; and my Washington Post colleague, sports columnist Mike Wise.

Take your children to the event. Then ask them if the name “Redskins” is offensive. Better still, ask yourself.

For previous columns by Milloy, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.

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