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Questionable Naming Rights

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:

"When they started paying bounties for Indian bodies and Indian skulls as proof of an Indian kill, the trappers and mercenaries would come in with wagons full of men, women and children's bodies and with gunny sacks of heads. It became a transportation and storage problem, so bounty payers began to pay for scalps in lieu of skulls and bloody red skins in lieu of bodies."

I recently asked some of the Redskin players how they felt about the name. "It's hard for me to understand because our people weren't treated like that," said Joe Salave'a, whose ethnicity is Samoan. "But if that's how [American Indians] feel, it's something that needs to be dealt with."

"I understand the people who may have those complaints," said Ray Brown, the team's 42-year-old offensive lineman, who is black. "If I can assist them in any way, I would."

In an authentic, modest act of sensitivity, Brown tries not to refer to the team name in conversation. "I don't tell people I play for the Redskins," he said. "I just tell them I play for the 'Skins. When I sign autograph items, I do the same thing. I put 'Skins. It's my thing. I'm not saying everyone else should do it, but that's what I do."

Chad Morton, the former Washington kick returner who signed with the New York Giants this month, remembered seeing all the anti-nickname protesters before a team banquet in Virginia.

"I use to look at them and think, 'Why don't you guys do something else with your time?' " he said last year. "Now I look at them and think they're right. I mean, if you look at that logo and you really think about the name, it is racist."

In July, Native American groups won another chance to challenge trademarks encompassing the name and logo of the team. Last month, the team and the NFL filed a motion to rehear that decision.

You know how Snyder feels about the controversy? Ask his spokesman, Karl Swanson. "I know a guy who wants to paint the Redskins logo on the bottom of his swimming pool," Swanson said on a recent voice mail. "So he clearly has no problem there."

Don't they realize some folks feel the same way about the Confederate flag, the way others used to feel about Amos and Andy, about putting on black face? Until time told them they were wrong, that they should have known better.

I asked Swanson again to clarify the team's position over the phone on Monday. He said the team researched it, that neither he nor Snyder is responsible for the meanings and usage that came afterward. So, Swanson was asked, if the team were called the Washington Negroes or the D.C. Rabbis, there would be no public outrage.

"I don't know," he said.

I understand the logo is undeniably a cultural symbol to thousands.

When parents buy their children bedspreads and rain ponchos with the team's insignia on it -- as Snyder's parents did for him -- it becomes part of your life experience, a piece of personal history.

But it's not your history. It's not your cultural symbol. It never was. You co-opted it, seized someone else's identity and made it part of your own. When Native people try to explain that, you should listen -- just as you would listen when a black person tells you they don't appreciate the term "colored," just as you would listen when a well-educated person from Morgantown tells you it's no longer funny -- it never was -- to paint West Virginians as toothless, moonshine-sipping hayseeds.

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