A Request to Everyone in Academia and Anyone Who Isn't an American Indian as the Fall Season Approaches

Dwanna L. Robertson

With football and the fall season—which is always tough for Native folks because of the U.S.’s insistence on honoring Columbus, the awful Pocahontas Halloween costumes, and the ever-present Thanksgiving mythology of the goodness of the pilgrims and the simple-mindedness of Indigenous people—fast approaching us, I must make a request publicly. I've struggled over this decision, knowing many of you might judge me and say "this type of thing just isn't done" or "that's not how things are done around here." I also understand my statement will have both social and political consequences for me.

The request: Think of the worst word any person could call you, whether regarding your racial, ethnic, or national heritage, your gender or sexuality, or your religion, or any other identity that you hold dear. Now, imagine hearing that word used daily all around you. Imagine seeing distorted, ugly images of that word everywhere you go. Imagine that you can't turn on the TV, go shopping, watch movies, or even read a book without hearing or seeing what this terrible word implies because it's that pervasive in the public discourse. Now imagine people telling you to "get over it" and that you're being "too sensitive" when you protest its usage.

Can you empathize?

I'm a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. I don't say that to produce eye-rolling (just as I wouldn't roll my eyes at your heritage). I want you to understand this is more than a social justice issue. It's very, very personal. The 90 to 95 percen of the population of Indigenous folk who died after the arrival of the Europeans and the mere 1 percent of the current U.S. population that remains (which includes me) deserves better than to have racialized, pejorative terms spoken about or around them/me—even if others believe it's still socially acceptable.

Specifically, I'm referring to these terms: redskins, skins, chief(s), braves, red Indian, injun. More broadly, I'm speaking about terms used in ways that do disservice to different Native Nations: tipi, wigwam, squaw (which means whore or c**t to many tribes), tomahawk, etc. You get the drift. If you research a topic with these words, by all means, use them, but please contextualize the terms.

Many of you may not know how offensive these particular words and others are to Indigenous people. Then again, some just don't care. Whichever the case, this is an official notice that I consider the term "redskin(s)" a racist term. I'm not calling you a racist just because you use that term. But I am saying if you continue using it after knowing what it means, then you are choosing to consciously participate in the maintenance of white privilege and systemic racism.

I'm not being overly sensitive (which is often the claim of the dominant and those who have internalized the narrative of the dominant), and it doesn't matter if you know one or more "Native" people who don't find it to be a bad term (that's called internalized oppression or racism).

Better yet, join us in our fight against racist mascots, name brands, products, entertainers using sacred headdresses as costumes, and other harmful stereotypical practices. Help us change the public discourse about Native peoples. Support us in our efforts to speak truth to power and bring about social change. We’ll support you, too!

Here’s some text from Cheryl Head’s blog that conveys this issue concisely. "There is some debate about where the name “Redskins” came from. To my mind, its origins don’t matter … Native American activists have engaged in a 13-year legal battle to get rid of the offensive name. These activists claim the name is disparaging and violates a federal trademark law. Three trademark judges agreed (1999); but were overturned by a federal district court judge (2003); and an appeal (Harjo, et. al vs. Pro Football, Inc.) was denied by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009. These activists posit the R-word is on par with the use of the N-word. I’m African American and offended by the latter so if my Indian brothers and sisters say the R-word has deeply disparaging connotations for their people, I believe them and support their efforts to discontinue the use of this name."

Remember, the Supreme Court also ruled that there was such a thing as "separate but equal." And less than 100 years ago, women could not vote.

In closing, socially acceptable doesn't mean ethical, decent, or right. Slavery, lynching, and the right to refuse service to people of color used to be socially acceptable. Social acceptance cannot be the benchmark for social justice. History bears out its incompetence. We're a long way from social parity, but we can do our part by respecting each other.

Dwanna L. Robertson is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, a PhD candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, a writer for Indian Country Today Media Network, and a public sociologist.

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notnek's picture
Thank you for this well written story Dwanna. The saddest part is very few will actually read your words, and many will not care to understand it"s meaning. Salute
theartistt's picture
The R-word is as bad as the N-word. This is simple fact for those who have been bullied and oppressed with the help of that word over the generations. Please don't use it. If you need to, research the word yourself rather than taking the word of indigenous peoples if it makes you feel better. The information is out there. Oh, and the S-word is as bad as the C-word as well. Driving through the midwest is always a trial with so many creeks, ridges, peaks and such that have that name. At least there has been real effort to eradicate that particular word. Now when it comes to sports names and mascots, well, I do believe there is a compromise available. Chiefs is easy. The word is Old World in origin. Middle English or Old French. Simply change the mascot to a battle ready Scott. Braves is harder. The term can go either way as admirable or pejorative. I personally think is should be replaced. Redskins has to be replaced. My suggestion for the Washington Redskins football team is to change the name to the Washington Brave, as in, "The home of the brave." And make the mascot a modern day soldier. I mean if naming a football team after a group of people is really considered a high honor and of high praise, then why not? I think it would be great if the soldier were of Native American descent, even. And the Washington pro football team would be America's Team in undebatable fact, then, wouldn't it?
msteadt's picture
Dwanna, You say "Better yet, join us in our fight against racist mascots, name brands, products, entertainers using sacred headdresses as costumes, and other harmful stereotypical practices." While I am very sympathetic and want desperately to conform to your cause, I admit I have trouble with some of it. The term "Redskins" is an easy one...even though it was named as a tribute to an early Native American head coach of the football team while it resided in Boston (it replaced "Braves" as the mascot). And Chief Wahoo has to go for sure! But are all mascots, name brands, products, and costumes that use Native American terms and names racist??? Is it racist to name a model of car or a tire or a sail boat after a tribe? Why is the term "Brave" or "Warrior" racist when it is used in positive terms (as opposed to Redskins, which can't be used as anything but derogatory), or can be applied to nearly any group of people? And if so....why are Native Americans the only group to be offended by so many of these things, and of such general terms? Believe me, you don't to teach me the deplorable history whites have on this continent when it comes to Native Americans (and others), but it seems that many groups of people have been represented in many of the same ways.....mascots, brands, products, etc..... and few if any of them are offended by them. I don't see the Irish getting ticked at the term Fighting Irish, or the locomotive makers angry that Purdue calls themselves the Boilermakers. Is the Grecian-American population upset that Michigan State calls themselves the Spartans? This issue has always been a tough one for me because on the one hand, I cringe at the history my ancestors have left for us, and I am fascinated by the things Native Americans have done for us, have contributed to our culture, and continue to be a positive element in our modern society. But on the other, I see some of this (not all of it) as being, as you say, over-sensitive. That said, I have always maintained that I have no right to tell another group of people what should or should not offend them. So I defer to your wishes. But still.....I would like to understand.
msteadt's picture
PS..... if someone starts a movement to end Columbus Day and replace it with Native American Day, I will sign up immediately and help out in any way I can!! If this is already being done, I'd like to know where I can learn more.
gsevalikova's picture
Msteadt, I'd say that the best way nowadays to handle this issue is to do as Theartistt here has suggested- like Washington Braves represented by a soldier, for one. decades ago the connotations that offends Afro- Americans were permitted until Jim Crow was resisted. Ditto for mascots,etc. It's a kind of Jim Crow, a holdover, so it's out, as Columbus Day should be. An ultraconservative Supreme Court in 2003 set these corrections back-which is WHY the subject keeps returning. It really is not "over reacting" to want a solution for this.
danwalter1's picture
I confess I was not aware of the meaning of the word "Redskins" and asked a friend why it was offensive since I saw the term being used on a reservation at the local school there as their team name. I was appalled when he told me what it meant and felt terrible that anyone would want to use such a term. In fact, it is repulsive as is the "N" word which I hear young black kids use all the time. I agree it isn't right and indeed I remind them what the fights were about in the Civil Rights movement of the 60's were about and how people died because of that term to rid society of thinking in those terms. I understand your concern about Columbus Day as well. In fact, it would be as the rest of America celebrating an "Osama Bin Laden" Day. A terrible reminder. We cannot change what has happened historically, but we can vanquish the negative ongoing terms from our minds and manners and solicit more understanding between us. I for one am grateful for my Native American friends and have been blessed to learn history - their rich history - and even hospitality and kindness and friendship from them. I hope this article receives the viewing and understanding it deserves to help foster a better relationship with all members of humanity here in the US.
rthomasflores's picture
Hola Dwanna- Thank you for writing these words, they needed to be said and I for one am glad you said them. Are you still at Umass in Amherst?
tselimaya84's picture
Thank you for writing this! These subjects have weighed on my mind, as well as the minds of other Natives. I am also annoyed when people say those phrases "get over it" or "too sensitive". I have seen many Native stereotypes being portrayed out there, that's really annoying and just wrong. I don't mean to get off topic, but using this article for a reference, I seen those phrases used on a Star Trek site. I like Trek...and what its "supposed" to represent, but I dont care for an Original Series episode called "The Paradise Syndrome", its very stereotypical!!! Anyhow, a Native posted on the episode discussion about being displeased with it and its portrayal of Native Peoples. Then, a bunch of Trekkies, as well as the person who reviewed the episode, ganged up on him and used the "get over it" and "too sensitive" phrases against him. That just goes to show.... Again, I didn't mean to get off topic, but this article is very true. The general public, tv, film, books, and other media continue to be "insensitive" toward Native Peoples. There needs to be a change. Very good article!
macmcfarland's picture
This should not be an issue in 2012. But sadly it is. Thank you for writing this.
macmcfarland's picture
Also, The offender doesn't have the right to say "get over it." And as for other so called mascot names such as "Spartans" or the "Fighting Irish", those names honor people from other lands who's relatives or ancestors came to the shores of this continent. And they were names given by the dominant culture. I'm pretty sure native peoples were not asked their opinions. And it was the same people who approriated "native" names or symbols for their sports team or product without again asking natives what they thought about it. It is the complete disregard for a people and their culture and heritage that is the issue. It doesn't matter id non natives aren't offended. Most natives people in touch with their heritage and culture are! And again as far as names like "Boilermakers" as a mascot..its an occupation not a race or culture. Pretty sure no one would be offended by "The Fighting Bakers!"