The origin of the word “redskin” has long been disputed by linguists, Native American activists who consider it a slur and those who insist that the name of Washington’s football team honors Indians rather than disparages them. The word’s roots extend back to at least the mid-18th century, as colonists and Native Americans began clashing.
1769: The first unchallenged use of the word “redskin” occurs when a British lieutenant colonel translates a letter from an Indian chief promising safe passage if the officer visited his tribe in the Upper Mississippi Valley.
“I shall be pleased to have you come to speak to me yourself if you pity our women and our children; and, if any redskins do you harm, I shall be able to look out for you even at the peril of my life,” Chief Mosquito said in his letter, according to a 2005 study by Ives Goddard, the Smithsonian Institution’s senior linguist emeritus.
Aug. 22, 1812: At a Washington reception for several Native Americans, President James Madison refers to Indians as “red people” or “my red children,” prompting Little Osage Chief Sans Oreilles (No Ears) to voice his support for the administration: “I know the manners of the whites and the red skins.” Then, Sioux Chief French Crow also pledged loyalty: “I am a red-skin,but what I say is the truth, and notwithstanding I came a long way I am content, but wish to return from here.”
July 20, 1815: After tangling with famed explorer-turned-Missouri Territory Gov. William Clark, Meskwaki Chief Black Thunder gives a speech that was printed in the Western Journal in St. Louis. “I turn to all,” the chief is reported as saying, “red skins and white skins, and challenge an accusation against me.”
Sept. 25, 1863: The Winona Daily Republican in Minnesota features an announcement that uses the term “redskin” as a pejorative: “The State reward for dead Indians has been increased to $200 for every red-skin sent to Purgatory. This sum is more than the dead bodies of all the Indians east of the Red River are worth.”
1898: Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines “redskin” as “often contemptuous.”
1933: George P. Marshall changes the name of his football team from the Boston Braves to the Boston Redskins, moving the squad from Braves Field to Fenway Park. The team has always claimed the name was switched to honor the team’s coach, William “Lone Star” Dietz, who identified himself as a Sioux (though he may have been an impostor), and some Indians on the squad. But Marshall told the Associated Press in 1933 that he discarded “Braves” for “Redskins” simply to avoid using the name of the city’s professional baseball team.
1937: Marshall moves the team to Washington, D.C., and taps his wife, Corinne Griffith, to author the lyrics of the team’s fight song, “Hail to the Redskins.” It would take more than 30 years for the Redskins to change some of the more controversial lyrics.
Hail to the Redskins
Braves on the warpath
Scalp ’um, swamp ’um — We will
Take ’um big score.
Read ’um, weep ’um, touchdown,
We want heap more.
Fight on, Fight on, ’til you have won,
Sons of Wash-ing-ton.
Rah! Rah! Rah!
Hail to the Redskins.
Braves on the warpth
Fight for old D.C.
1940: In the movie“Northwest Passage,” starring Spencer Tracy and Robert Young, one colonial urges another explorer to kill a Native American: “Get a redskin for me, won’t you?”
Dec. 4, 1961: Marshall, under pressure from the Kennedy White House, becomes the last NFL owner to integrate his team. The Redskins chose Ernie Davis, an African American Heisman Trophy recipient, in the NFL draft, but traded him 10 days later, ultimately signing another black player, Ron Hatcher.
1961 and 1962: The team uses Native American caricatures in its game-day programs, including sections entitled “On the Warpath,” with a cartoon drawing of an angry Indian, and another called “Teepee Talk,” featuring a clip-art Indian sticking his head out of a tepee.
Sept. 26, 1967: The Washington Redskins obtain the first of their six federal trademark registrations with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
March 29, 1972: A delegation of Native American leaders meets with Redskins President Edward Bennett Williams and urges him to change the team’s name. The team soon tweaks its fight song’s lyrics — most notably, replacing “Scalp ’um” with “Beat ’em” — and scraps its cheerleaders’ black-braided wigs.
Feb. 12, 1974, to Feb. 7, 1978: The Washington Redskins receive four more federal trademark registrations, including the famous logo of a two-feathered Native American warrior.
Nov. 27, 1977: In a halftime show at a Redskins-Cowboys game at RFK Stadium, hundreds of Native Americans from 80 tribes participate in the All-Indian Half-Time Marching Band and Pageant. The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs planned the event.
July 17, 1990: The team wins its sixth and final trademark registration for its cheerleading squad, originally called “The Redskinettes.”
Sept. 10, 1992: Suzan Harjo and six other Native Americans file a petition with the Patent and Trademark Office asking for the revocation of the team’s six federal trademark registrations because the name disparages Indians.
Sept. 13, 1993: John Kent Cooke Jr., a Redskins executive and grandson of owner Jack Kent Cooke, asks an advertising company working on a McDonald’s campaign for the team to tone down its portrayal of Native Americans. “As you know, the Washington Redskins are very sensitive to our image, particularly in this day and age of political correctness,” Cooke Jr. writes in a letter. “No caricatures. No Indian Costumes or Headdresses. No War Chants, Yelling, Derogatory Indian Language, i.e. ‘Scalp the Cowboys,’ etc.) . . . No Insulting Language or Humor.”
Sept. 24, 2004: A poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center shows that 9 out of 10 Native Americans are not bothered by the name of the team.
Aug. 11, 2006: Amanda Blackhorse and several other Native Americans file a petition with the Patent and Trademark Office to seek the cancellation of the team’s trademark registrations. Their case is put on hold until Harjo’s petition is resolved.
Nov. 16, 2009: The Supreme Court declines to accept the Harjo petition to review the group’s loss at a lower appeals court.
May 10, 2013: Team owner Daniel Snyder vows not to alter the name in an interview with USA Today. “We’ll never change the name,” he said. “It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”
Oct. 5, 2013: President Obama weighs in, telling the Associated Press: “If I were the owner of the team and I knew that there was a name of my team — even if it had a storied history — that was offending a sizable group of people, I’d think about changing it.”
Oct. 13, 2013: During halftime of “Sunday Night Football,” NBC sportscaster Bob Costas declares the Redskins name “an insult, a slur, no matter how benign the present-day intent.”
June 18, 2014: The Trademark and Trial Appeal Board, in a 2-to-1 ruling, orders the cancellation of the Washington Redskins’ six federal trademark registrations, handing Blackhorse and the other activists a victory.
Aug. 22, 2014: The Washington Post’s editorial board announces it will no longer use the team’s name in editorials. It continues to appear in news stories.
July 8, 2015: U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee upholds the trademark board ruling, giving Blackhorse a second win.
Oct. 30, 2015: The Redskins appeal the trademark ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, where they are waiting for oral arguments to be scheduled.
April 25, 2016: The Redskins petition the Supreme Court to hear their case alongside that of an Asian American rock band called the Slants. The Slants are also contesting the constitutionality of the 1946 Lanham Act, which bars federal trademark registrations that “may disparage persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.”
Correction:An earlier version of this story referenced a Redskins-Cowboys game on Thanksgiving 1977. The game took place on Nov. 27, 1977.