Bruce Anderson played defensive end for the Washington Redskins in 1970.
Through my mother, I am a member of the Coquille Tribe, which is indigenous to southwestern Oregon. Through the sport of football, I am a former National Football League player and alumnus of the Washington Redskins.
Back in 1970, I was proud to be a Washington Redskin. To me, at that time, being a Redskin embodied the image of Native Americans as tough, brave and persevering. Sportswriters would write that we “scalped” or “tomahawked” an opponent, after we “powwowed” on the field and “beat our war drums.” It was a positive but wrong depiction of my life. My highest achievement as an athlete came at the cost of me not representing who I really was.
Back at home, we were “Coquille” or “Coos” — an acknowledgement of our connection to Coos Bay, Ore. — not “Indians,” and especially not “redskins.” My family members were among those who gathered for meetings to restore our tribe’s sovereign standing, which had been terminated by the federal government in 1954. Then there were all the gatherings at which we would eat shellfish, salmon, deer and elk, and the kids would play in the surf and climb the rocks around Sunset Bay. If those sportswriters had wanted to depict my reality and not some stereotype, they would have written things like, “We bored the competition into submission with meetings,” “we stuffed them to their gills with food” or “we caught them as the tide came in.”
As for the word “redskin” itself, it’s really more of a red herring. Some problems:
• It wrongly attributes a pan-Indian sheen to my ancestry. It makes all tribes seem like one, which is anything but the case. I am no more Oneida, Lakota, Hopi, Hualapai or Cherokee than I am Korean. I am Coquille.
• It confuses my race with a brand name. Would it be okay to have the Washington African Americans? Or the Washington Jews? There is no right word for an entire race or religion when it comes to naming a sports team. (And if there were, I would add, “redskin” would be far from it.)
• Is that guy on the helmet supposed to be me? How does that image affect indigenous kids who look nothing like that? He’s more like the stereotype of the noble savage than any real person I know.
I am proud of being a Coquille. We Coquilles have weathered genocide, disease and systematic disruption of our ways of life. We stood up for our rights, and we got some of them back. We fought for our land, and we got some of it back. My great-grandmother was the last speaker of one of our two languages, and my son is now helping to bring her language back. We have a lot to be proud of, but I don’t feel proud when I’m watching my former team with my grandchildren and see well-meaning fans misrepresent what indigenous people are like.
In our own community, we are fighting the stereotypes, so that our children, grandchildren and the generations that follow come to understand their heritage, their identity as a people and their languages, as well as the importance of continuing to fight for their rights as the ancestral people of our region. It’s hard to do that when, in school, they pretty much get one week on Native Americans during Thanksgiving, while all summer long professional baseball is full of the Atlanta Braves’ tomahawk chants. Just try to educate your family on the reality of your culture when the stereotype seems to be the reality for everyone else.
I know where Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder is coming from. He carries the same good feelings about the traditions and legacy of the Washington Redskins that I do. If the name were changed to something else, that pride would be diminished and those memories made anachronistic. I, too, would lose some of my pride in my own history if the name is changed.
But I ask Snyder to consider how the name affects my children and my grandchildren. How they struggle with their identities. How they must constantly fight to resuscitate and continue their traditions as a people. How they have to do this while dealing with classmates, friends and teachers whose only understanding of them may be drawn from the stereotypes of “Indians” depicted by some sports fans.
Is it worth it to help perpetuate a stereotype for 300 million people at the expense of the 3 million indigenous people of this country? One team’s name may not hurt a lot, but a little is more than enough.
Instead of Snyder suggesting that “Indians” have bigger problems than the name of his team, I challenge him to focus on winning, not just football games but also an opportunity for me to simply sit with my grandchildren to watch my former team without having to cut through the racial stereotypes.
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