Questionable Naming Rights

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By Mike Wise
Saturday, September 17, 2005

I wrote a throw-away line in a Navy-Maryland football column last week, using a cliched hillbilly stereotype to depict West Virginia football fans. Juvenile college friends thought it was hilarious; gauging by the deluge of e-mails, an entire state did not. In hindsight, it was a needless, insensitive characterization. And for that I apologize.

The lesson was particularly poignant for me, learning how easy it is to become attached to assumptions about cultural identity, how comfortable it is to paint people the way I see them rather than how they see themselves.

Which brings me to the Washington Redskins and every other professional franchise or school vowing to never retire their American Indian names, logos and mascots, to make things right with a culture and a people.

As you're drinking out of your Redskins mug Monday night while wearing your Redskins T-shirt -- supporting your make-believe Indians against those reviled Cowboys -- think long and hard about what a sweet way to "honor" a people that is. And, please, enough with this, "We're paying homage to the bravery and warrior mentality of the Native American." That's the same tired excuse Florida State University uses to continue the tradition of a student on horseback in full Hollywood regalia, chucking a flaming spear into the ground at midfield before football games, while thousands of people participate in the Tomahawk chop and the accompanying war chant also popular at Atlanta Braves games. The truth: The indigenous people of this continent were almost all hunters, gatherers, craftsmen and craftswomen before some of our ancestors nearly exterminated them and turned them into B-western caricatures.

I have been wanting to write about this issue since I got this job 18 months ago. The boss told me to hold out before I alienated most of the city, their pigmented Indian-face flags flopping along the Beltway on the way to FedEx Field on a September morning. All those liberal crusaders in the District and suburban Washington, working and writing for their own passionate causes but pleading ignorance on this one.

So I waited a year and observed, trying not be too judgmental, figuring I was just some knee-jerk newcomer who didn't get it.

I still don't get it.

Why, whether you're black or white, Hispanic or Asian, whether you're well off or getting by on public assistance, on the left or on the right, is most everyone okay with the term "Redskin?" Why am I still waiting for Daniel Snyder to understand that if his team's logo featured Mandingo tribesmen or orthodox Hasidics, it would be labeled racist and anti-Semitic?

The most disturbing part is, the Redskins annually present data rationalizing their callous insistence on keeping the name, putting poll numbers to support their cause in their own news releases, as if to say, "See, we have Indian friends." On Page 272 of the team's media guide, readers are even given a Reader's Digest version of where the term came from. "The term redskin . . . was inspired not by their natural complexion but by their fondness for vermillion makeup."

The team got its name in 1933 from the late owner George Preston Marshall. He wanted to pay tribute to the Indian ancestry of his coach at the time, William "Lone Star" Dietz. But a revealing story published two weeks ago in the Baltimore Sun, which focuses on new research by a California multicultural studies professor, discredits Dietz. Turns out he was a white man "who began taking on an Indian identity as a teenager and ultimately seized the past of a vanished Lakota tribesman and made it his own." The coach was convicted of misrepresenting his identity on military draft documents. So there was no American Indian for which the team was named, just a perpetuated stereotype of the time.

If the term "Redskins" was first used in the late 1580s, as the team says, it was also used when Europeans introduced commercial scalping to North America. Ask Suzan Harjo, the Cheyenne and Muskogee writer who is the lead plaintiff in a trademark lawsuit against the team dating from 1992.

In a telephone interview and a recent article, she gives a much more disturbing historical description than the one the team wants you to believe:


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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