Scalp 'em, swamp 'em
We will take 'em big score
Read 'em, weep 'em, touchdown
We want heap more -- "Hail to the Redskins," original 1937 lyric
In a few days, football will fade from view and the Redskins will lurk in the background as an autumnal hope. But the debate over the Redskins' name knows no seasons; it has been with us for more than four decades and shows no sign of abating.
With local governments now in the act, urging Dan Snyder to pull an Abe Pollin and change his team's name to something bland, the name game takes on a new urgency.
The name changers appear to have the upper hand, as they sweep the nation forcing high schools and colleges to abandon traditional mascots and scrap names such as Indians, Chiefs, Braves and Warriors.
Interestingly, most of the people who sizzle with outrage over Indian team names and mascots are not Indians. American Indians can be found vigorously arguing on both sides. Academics are split, too: Anthropologists call team names and mascots humiliating, while linguists say "redskin" describes "stalwart attributes." Even dictionaries disagree (the Oxford English says "redskin" is "generally benign," while Webster's says it is "usually offensive").
The Redskins debate -- in addition to the latest condemnation from the Metropolitan Council of Governments, a challenge to the team's trademark is tied up in federal court -- focuses on the genesis of the name (was it born as an ethnic slur?) and its use today (does it denigrate Indians?).
There are at least three versions of the name's origin. The official story, says team spokesman Karl Swanson, is that when the Boston Braves football team left Braves Field to play at Fenway Park in 1933, owner George Preston Marshall needed a new name for his squad.
He chose Redskins in honor of Lone Star Dietz, the team's coach and an Indian who often wore an eagle feather headdress, beaded deerskin jacket and buckskin moccasins. Dietz brought four to six -- accounts vary -- Indian players with him to Boston from the Haskell Indian School in Kansas, where he had coached for four years.
Another version has the team being named for the white men who dressed up as Indians to stage the Boston Tea Party at the start of the American Revolution. Yet another genesis story says the name stems from the colored clay that Plains Indians used to paint themselves for tribal ceremonies.
Whichever version is right, "the reality is more benign than people on both sides of the fence are attributing to it," says sports historian and museum consultant Frank Ceresi. "The name was meant very, very positively."
The genesis may always remain murky because Marshall never wrote a word about his choice, the Boston newspapers from the time are silent on the question (football was a minor sideshow in those days), and survivors of the period offer conflicting and vague recollections. But it is clear that the Boston Redskins, who moved to Washington in 1937, sought to capitalize on their Indian players and coach: The team played wearing red war paint. And Indian players from the time considered the name and trappings an honor.
So does Walter Wetzel, former chairman of the Blackfoot tribe and president of the National Congress of American Indians in the 1960s. By the early '60s, the Redskins had dropped any reference to Indians in their logo, uniforms and merchandise. Wetzel went to the Redskins office with photos of Indians in full headdress.
"I said, 'I'd like to see an Indian on your helmets,' " which then sported a big "R" as the team logo, remembers Wetzel, now 86 and retired in Montana. Within weeks, the Redskins had a new logo, a composite Indian taken from the features in Wetzel's pictures. "It made us all so proud to have an Indian on a big-time team. . . . It's only a small group of radicals who oppose those names. Indians are proud of Indians."
Snyder, meanwhile, intends to keep the name, no matter the protests. "Frankly, we don't hear much from fans about this," Swanson says. "Words take power from their usage. We don't use funny mascots. We don't have tomahawk chops. We've always used the word in a respectful way, to mean tradition, courage and respect."
Join the discussion at www.washingtonpost.com/fishertalk.