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Team Name Belongs in A Museum

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, September 22, 2004; Page B01

Watching and reading media reports about the recent football game between Washington and New York, along with stories and photographs about the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian, I was struck by the clash of images: of real Indians and of gung-ho Redskins fans impersonating Indians.

"Redskins Lose to Giants," read one headline, while another, about the museum, quoted an Indian as saying, "We're Finally Being Recognized."

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Mind-boggling.

During a tour of the museum, which opened yesterday, I felt that many exhibits had been set up simply to introduce American Indians as human beings. In a region that is host to one of the most potent stereotypes in professional sports, that was no small order.

An electronic sign at the museum's entrance shows a sequence of 150 Indians greeting visitors in their native languages. They appear as ordinary people who are proud of their heritage and deserving of respect.

"I want people to understand the complexity of being Native rather than holding onto a very limited and one-dimensional view of the 'noble savage,' standing at the edge of the forest," W. Richard West Jr., director of the museum, told me.

By many accounts, "redskin" was a term used by bounty hunters to describe the scalps taken from Indians they had killed.

"I think in the view of most Native people, the name is simply pejorative," said West, who is a Southern Cheyenne from Oklahoma. "If you asked a majority of Natives if they would like to have life with or without that name, you'd find that they would all be better off without it."

Team owner Dan Snyder has ignored such sentiments. During a talk at the National Press Club in 2001, he said: "Number one, we're never going to change the name of the Washington Redskins. And I think, from a bottom-line perspective, what it means is tradition, what it means is competitiveness, what it means is honor. It is not meant to be derogatory."

On the other hand, never say never to a Native.

"Native people, who sat at the beginning of the cultural heritage of this hemisphere, have a saying that is a bit of counsel from the Mohawk," West said. "The saying is, 'You cannot see the future with tears in your eyes.' And I take that to mean this: We have experienced genuine tragedy from a human and cultural standpoint through the millennia. But the most important fact is that we are still here. By our patience and constant focus on the future, we have learned how to turn negatives into positives."

Truman Lowe, a Ho-Chuck from Wisconsin and curator of contemporary art at the museum, didn't really want to discuss the team's name -- at least not inside the museum, which is regarded by many as sacred space.

"This place is not about the term; the term is really about a team," he said. "There is a difference. When you come into this space, that is something one leaves outside."

That said, however, Lowe noted: "I think their season was really terrible last year and even denigrated the term, 'redskins.' Even from that point of view, it's the wrong name."

Lowe continued: "The most important thing for us is that when we identify another person, we want to do it in a manner that is respectful. The question is: Is the name really respectful?"

Suzette Brewer, a publicist for the museum and a Cherokee from Oklahoma, said an international "groundswell of goodwill" has marked the opening of the museum. "It's a global phenomenon," she said. "I've never seen anything like it."

And yet she added: "It's a bitter irony. Indians are the only group in this country subject to having a pejorative word used as the name of a sports team."

As the museum grows and matures, perhaps the team's outdated name and logo will be made part of an exhibit on cultural destruction. Meanwhile, the struggle for respect continues.

"There are 40 million Native people in this hemisphere, but there is still a cultural and physical invisibility," West said. "It's hard to honor that which you don't see. That's one of the reasons we have our First Americans Festival. It is more difficult to deny their existence if they are standing in front of you."

Assuming you don't mistake them for football fanatics.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com


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