A Linguist's Alternative History of 'Redskin'

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By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 3, 2005

For many Americans, both Indian and otherwise, the term "redskin" is a grotesque pejorative, a word that for centuries has been used to disparage and humiliate an entire people, but an exhaustive new study released today makes the case that it did not begin as an insult.

Smithsonian Institution senior linguist Ives Goddard spent seven months researching its history and concluded that "redskin" was first used by Native Americans in the 18th century to distinguish themselves from the white "other" encroaching on their lands and culture.

When it first appeared as an English expression in the early 1800s, "it came in the most respectful context and at the highest level," Goddard said in an interview. "These are white people and Indians talking together, with the white people trying to ingratiate themselves."

It was not until July 22, 1815, that "red skin" first appeared in print, he found -- in a news story in the Missouri Gazette on talks between Midwestern Indian tribes and envoys sent by President James Madison to negotiate treaties after the War of 1812.

The envoys had rebuked the tribes for their reluctance to yield territory claimed by the United States, but the Gazette report suggested that Meskwaki chief Black Thunder was unimpressed: "Restrain your feelings and hear calmly what I say," he told the envoys. "I have never injured you, and innocence can feel no fear. I turn to all red skins and white skins, and challenge an accusation against me."

Goddard's view, however, does not impress Cheyenne-Muscogee writer Suzan Shown Harjo, lead plaintiff for Native American activists who, for the past 13 years, have sought to cancel trademarks covering the name and logo of the Washington Redskins.

"I'm very familiar with white men who uphold the judicious speech of white men," Harjo said in a telephone interview. "Europeans were not using high-minded language. [To them] we were only human when it came to territory, land cessions and whose side you were on."

Goddard, aware of the lawsuit and Harjo's arguments, said that "you could believe everything in my article" and still oppose current public usage of "redskin."

Evidence cited by Harjo and others has pointed to a much harsher origin for "redskin," but Goddard, a linguist who studies the Algonquian language of northeastern North America, casts doubt on much of it. "While people seem to be happier with the agonistic interpretation of past events," he said, "when you get on the ground, the real story is much more complicated and much more interesting."

Reporting his findings in the European Review of Native American Studies, Goddard noted that the first appearance of the word was long thought to have occurred in a 1699 letter written by "Samuel Smith," quoted in a 1900 memoir by his descendant, Helen Evertson Smith, titled "Colonial Days & Ways."

"My father ever declardt there would not be so much to feare iff ye Red Skins was treated with suche mixture of Justice & Authority as they cld understand," the purported letter said. Another part of the letter is quoted in the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary as the etymological origin of "redskin."

When Goddard studied the letter, however, he concluded it was a fake: "The language was Hollywood. . . . It didn't look like the way people really wrote."


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