Racism in Sports: It's Time To Change Your Team Name Washington

Jody WagnerContributor ISeptember 17, 2009

MIAMI - DECEMBER 03:  Washington Redskins 'unofficial' mascot Zema Williams known as Chief Zee wipes his face as he arrives for the funeral of Redskins football player, Sean Taylor, at the Pharmed Arena at Florida International University December 3, 2007 in Miami, Florida. Taylor died November 27, one day after being shot at his home in Miami.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Our nations capital, Washington DC, has an NFL team that uses a racial slur as its team name, Redskins. 

First let's look at the dictionary's definition of the term.

The Merriam-Webster's Dictionary says:
Redskin - Usually offensive: American Indian

It says, "usually offensive."  Our nations capital's football team has a team name that is "usually offensive" according to one of our own very popular dictionaries.

Where did "Redskin" originate?

The term Redskin began hundreds of years ago, long before a football was even invented. Bounties were placed on Native people.  Bounty hunters would go out and kill as many Native American people as they could find.  They had to be able to prove that they killed as many Natives as they claimed.  They did this by cutting off scalps of Native people.  They called these, "redskins."

Why did the Washington football team decide to use it?

The team claims that the Redskins name was chosen to honor their head coach William Henry "Lone Star" Dietz.  With Dietz running the team in 1933, the team was 5-5-2.  In Dietz' last year (yes, he was only the head coach for 2 years with the team) the team went 6-6.  They really named their team after a non-winning head coach? Ok. Dietz was fired after two unsuccessful years but the name remained.

Is "Redskins" used as a racial slur today?

It is a fact that it was used in a bad way (proof of killing Native people) years ago.  Is it used in a bad way today? 

From 'Suzan Harjo: Dirty Word Games'

Manley A. Begay Jr. was ''about seven or eight years'' when he was hit with the R-word by a non-Indian in his own Navajo land in Arizona: '''You dirty redskin, you stinky redskin, you dirty Indian, go back to your hogan.'

''And he kept on repeating that, you know, and yelling and screaming at me and making these racist and insulting and degrading remarks: you stinky redskin ... you stupid redskin.''

Norbert S. Hill Jr., who is Oneida from Wisconsin, was called the R-word during a high school football game. ''I remember tackling ... a conference top player for a two-yard loss, and he called me a 'dirty f***ing redskin.''

William A. Means Jr. was ''applying for a job to make hay'' when a ''white rancher'' referred to him ''as a redskin.'' Means, who is Oglala Lakota from South Dakota, then ''felt prejudice, intimidation, so I left.''

Can you think of a racial slur for another race?  Would you use that for a sports team? Would we call a sports team the Nashville N*****s?  I would hope not.


All Native mascots are wrong and disrespectful.  Stereotyping all Native people into one limited view is wrong.  It's disrespectful to each great Native culture.  Using sacred items (even pretend) at a sporting event is wrong.  What if someone ran around with a cross and threw it at another mascot?  Would Christians object?  Sure they would.  So why don't they object when another peoples sacred items are disrespected?  They/we should.

The Redskins unofficial mascot, Chief Zee is a prime example of the disrespectful actions brought on by using a race of people as a mascot.  This mascot's disrespect of sacred Native items is wrong and shouldn't be allowed. 

In many Native cultures the eagle is a sacred bird.  Chief Zee wears fake eagle feathers.  When one wears eagle feathers, they cannot touch the ground.  If they do, there is a ceremony that must be done to pick them back up again.  During one Cowboys vs Redskins game I saw Chief Zee wrestling on the ground with one of the Cowboys mascots, Crazy Ray.  That's disrespectful.

How does this affect the children?

Portland State University Professor Dr. Cornel Pewewardy wrote, "Children's self images are very pliable and susceptible to external forces, especially if they are steeped in violent and negative images. Unfortunately, for Indigenous Peoples many false images of ethnicity still dominate the consciousness of the American psyche."

For Native children, the mascots that are supposed to be "honoring" the Native cultures, act like clowns.  They make fun of the Native cultures when they do silly dances and put on silly costumes that are supposed to represent Native people.  It certainly takes a shot at the pride of a Native child when your belief system and ways are belittled in such a way.

For non-Native children, they are desensitized to the discrimination against Native peoples.  They read fans carrying signs such as "Scalp the Redskins!" and "Kill the Indians!" They see fans wearing sacred (even though most are fake) Native items and then those same items being disrespected. This becomes the norm for them.

What if we were raised with a team called the "Fighting Priests" with fans that threw bibles around? It would certainly create a disrespect for Christianity and their religious items.

Any time that you have a race of people as a team name, it stereotypes those people.  The children see these stereotypes and that's all they learn of these people.  There are actually college students out there that believe:

1. All Indian people had horses.
2. All Indian people wore headdresses.
3. Indian people put their hands to their mouths and go "woooo woooo woooo."
4. Indian people were all warriors and did nothing else.

They grew up with teams like the "Redskins", using what they learned from the team that is supposedly "honoring Indians," by using the people as a team name and mascot.

Why hasn't there been more disgust over the use of "Redskin?"

Polls have been done that say many aren't bothered by the team name.  People that support the team keeping the name, usually Washington fans, claim it's not a bad thing because it doesn't bother that many people.  These people fail to take into account the hundreds of years of racial hatred towards Native people and the desensitizing of that hatred, racism, and discrimination by our society. 

A few years ago, around the time Rush Limbaugh was fired for saying Donovan McNabb is only popular because he's black.  We as a society are very sensitive to any discrimination towards African American people.  That's a good thing.  It isn't the same with Native American people.

An ESPN analyst said, "Hawaiian women are a dime a dozen" and about a month later, said that anyone carrying their baby around in a papoose (he meant a cradleboard), should be shot.  A cradleboard is a traditional Native (Ojibwe) way of carrying a baby.  Nothing happened to him (at least publicly).  What if he had said that black women are a dime a dozen?

The fact is, we've been desensitized to racism and ethnocentrism directed towards Native people. 

We've had racist and ethnocentric movies about Native people thrust upon us time after time.  The hero's in movies with Native people have almost always been white people while the bad guys have almost always been Native.

Most Americans are brought up celebrating Columbus Day and Christopher Columbus as a hero.  The truth is that Christopher Columbus and his men killed, raped and enslaved Native American People.

When describing Native American beliefs, teachers tell us the about the "myths" of Indians.  "Myth" has the connotation of being a made up story.  Would a teacher call the Bible a "myth?"  No s/he would not.  Christians would be up in arms.  We were brought up through our education being taught the "Indians" only had "myths."

When talking about history in the Americas before Christopher Columbus, teachers have taught us using the term "pre-history."  When one says "pre-history", one is saying that anything that happened then, isn't as important.  It has that connotation of being less-than.  When in fact, Native people have had a history just as long and just as important as Europe.  For example, Native agriculturalists and scientists developed such food crops as corn and potatoes.  Europe would have suffered many more famines if not for these Native crops.  Our children aren't taught about the rich cultures and history of the various Native nations.

The discrimination against Native people is all around us.  If you are wondering why you didn't notice it before, it's because of being desensitized to it.

There have been polls that have come out with opposite results from the polls mentioned earlier.  These polls were done with a more Native audience whereas the previous polls were done with a more sports fans audience.


So what we have is: 

1. A term that the dictionary calls offensive. 
2. A term that was historically used in attempted genocide, and a disgusting, racist, and offensive way. 
3. A term that is used as a racial slur today. 
4. A term that brings out disrespect of a peoples beliefs by the teams fans and mascot.
5. A term that is harmful towards children.

Given all of that, how can politicians not call for the removal of the team name?  We need to demand it of them.

We need to write letters to our representatives.

We need to send email to the Redskins front office and their owner Dan Snyder.

When talking about football and Washington's football team, we have to avoid using "Redskins."

When reporting that the case to get rid of the name is going to the Supreme Court, Jim Iovino at NBCWashington.com writes, "Chief Zee is free to scalp as many Cowboys as he wants—for now."

What they said:

LA Times sports columnist Bill Plaschke said, "It's a horrible derogatory name towards Native Americans!" and "I can't believe it's been allowed to go on this long."

Writer Suzan Shown Harjo said, "The r-word is the most derogatory thing Native Peoples can be called in the English language."

Artist Charlene Teters said, "American Indians are human beings, not mascots."

Xavier University Professor David Rider said, "Negative images and attitudes toward American Indians have served precisely the same function: To protect the historical oppressors from a sense of guilt over the atrocities committed agianst Indians and to justify further exploitation."

Groups calling for the end of "Redskins."

The American Psychological Association
The American Indian Movement
The American Jewish Committee
The American Counseling Association

Videos on Redskins:
Savage Country: American Indian Mascots

Pensmoke on Washington Redskins


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