The only morally defensible argument for keeping the name of Washington’s professional football team is that people (like me) who wish to replace “Redskins” are supposedly exaggerating the problem because of political correctness run wild.
In this view, the name’s critics are just a small group of overly vocal, overly sensitive Native Americans backed by a knee-jerk chorus of guilt-ridden, non-Indian liberals.
I don’t think the case stands up, but the argument deserves to be addressed. That’s true especially given the recent surge of interest in the topic and the team’s attempt to dismiss complaints about the name as “ludicrous.”
The strongest argument for keeping the name is that Native Americans themselves aren’t unanimous in objecting to what Indian critics call the “R-word.”
“It doesn’t bother me one bit. There are other issues that we should be concerned about,” said George Blanchard, governor of the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, which counts about 3,000 members.
Some members of Blanchard’s tribe send their children to McLoud High School, whose team is also called the Redskins. The Washington team has pointed to the McLoud nickname as evidence that the word was acceptable to Native Americans.
However, other chiefs and national Indian leaders said the number of Native Americans who share Blanchard’s view has declined with time. Most Indians would prefer to see the Redskins name discarded, they said.
“If it went through a vote [of Indians], I think it would be overwhelming to drop it. I’ve always thought the word [Redskins] was very offensive,” said George Tiger, chief of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, which is also based in Oklahoma and has 75,000 members.
All major Native American organizations have formally called on sports teams to discard Indian names and mascots.
Here in the Washington region, the chief of the Piscataway Indian Nation has been staging protests against the team’s name since 1980.
“If the team had another name related to black folks, that stadium would be on fire,” Billy Redwing Tayac said. “Redskins is a racial slur for North American Indians.”
Piscataways were based at Accokeek, about 20 miles from what is now FedEx Field, when European explorers first sailed up the Potomac. Perhaps Tayac hasn’t had much success because only 108 Piscataways remain.
“We’re lucky we even survived, when you look at the [anti-Indian] policies of the colonial and federal governments,” Tayac said.
The debate over the name reignited this month, mainly because of a first-ever symposium on the topic Feb. 7 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
Initially, the team declined to comment. That quickly became impossible, so General Manager Bruce Allen spoke up Thursday and said there was no reason to change the name.
“There’s nothing that we feel is offensive,” Allen said. “It’s ludicrous to think that in any way we’re trying to upset anybody.”
The second half of that quote is fine. Many Indian advocates concede the team is not consciously “trying” to antagonize them.
The wording of the first half is damning, however. Allen doesn’t understand (or won’t acknowledge) that it’s not up to him, a white man, to decide what offends Native Americans.
“They’re saying that it’s an honor. They’re not taking our word for it, Native people’s word for it, that we don’t want this,” said Robert Holden, deputy director of the National Congress of American Indians. It is the largest, oldest and most representative organization of Native American tribes.
The team put up postings on its Web site noting that 70 high school teams, including the one at McLoud, use the name Redskins. However, the team neglected to mention that a larger number of schools at various levels have dropped such names.
In 1970, about 500 team names were in the “red slur” category, such as Redskins, Red Men or Red Raiders, according to the Morning Star Institute, an Indian advocacy group. Now the total is less than 100.
The number is about to shrink again. In New York, Cooperstown High School is preparing to drop its Redskins name after students petitioned the Board of Education to make the switch. The Oneida Indian Nation reached out to the school district to support the change.
“From the board’s perspective, and from students’ perspective, it has an offensive connotation to Native peoples,” Superintendent C.J. Hebert said.
Please heed that point, Dan Snyder. Sometimes being politically correct is just plain correct.
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.