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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hesutu's picture
I have enjoyed Ms. Robertson's fine contributions here. And there is merit to much of what is said here. However, I do not see what possible gain can there be for banning the use of ordinary nouns such as tipi and wigwam, nor do I see the argument that white people using them are racists, nor that the words have any racist connotation in typical use. When such an argument is made without coherent and reasonable explanation it detracts from the rest of the argument. Comparing the use of the word tipi, which is certainly a Lakota word, to slavery and lynching, is a massive overstatement that diminishes the seriousness of the evils of slavery and lynching. Even if it is shown that there is some argument for these nouns being considered by someone to be racist in some context I have yet to see, the ordinary use of these words is certainly not racist. I am uncomfortable with attempts in recent years to censor even the very mention of aspects of our culture by labeling ordinary words and references as racist or appropriation. How far should this go? Should it be taboo to even speak of us? Shall we become people that do not exist? It's easy to be offended and does not take much courage. How much more brave it would be to insist on full and true national sovereignty, including valid passports and seats at the UN, and all of our land and property back that is manageable. In my opinion these are goals we should have rather than attempt to erase every mention of us from the discourse of the colonialists and illegal occupiers.
dwanna's picture
Mvto (thank you) for your encouragement. I would respectfully disagree that tipi and wigwam are ordinary nouns. Those words belong to specific Native Nations. I did not say using them was "racist." I said that those terms are often used in ways that do disservice to the different Native Nations from which they originate. Tipi and wigwam was brought up because of the letter I wrote to Amherst College about their misuse of it. I do apologize for the lack of clarity. I am disappointed that you accuse me of calling people racists. I did not call anyone a racist. I said that I (not everybody else, just me) consider "redskins" a racist term: "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." There's a system of inherent racism at play here--one that uses its power to "name" groups and convince them to believe what's said about them. It underlies the ease by which other people keep us in the historical past, which is what makes us invisible today. We are ALREADY invisible in the mainstream--media, policy, etc. Obviously, as Native peoples, we all set our own boundaries. I have no issue with my Native cousins using whatever terms they find acceptable to describe themselves and others. I, on the other hand, find these terms, and other Native words used to denigrate Native cultures, harmful to Native people--Native children, particularly. Thus, this is not about being offended. My goodness, in that case I'd been a very unhappy person. This is about justice. This is about standing up for those who come after me and honoring those who went before me. This is about giving voice to Natives. And that takes immense courage. Furthermore, requiring mutual respect is as traditional as it comes among my people. Hoccictos Eyasket (humbly I write), Dwanna
dwanna's picture
Mvto. Yes, I am.
dwanna's picture
Mvto! Let us both hope that many will read and many will understand.
dwanna's picture
Mvto for your encouragement and support!
dwanna's picture
Mvto! I did not find you to be off topic. :) I always appreciate examples of how my work applies to other situations.
dwanna's picture
Mvto! Mvto! I appreciate your input here so much.
notnek's picture
dwanna; I was always under the impression that in my old age I would have gained wisdom and tolerance to the flagrant disrespect and contempt for any socially accepted decorum. However that has not happened, as I am still as offended today as years ago. The flagrant disregard by the political system in North Dakota comes to mind concerning the mascot at the Grand Forks University. Your story is so timely today, but I must say there has been a vast leap in the 70 plus years since my childhood. Thanks to you and the many others that are speaking up and standing up to those racist that actually believe they have the right insult and demean.
lindagonzalez's picture
As native american on my mother side but Norwegian,Latin and everything else on my father side. I have never stopped to considered this issue. Maybe an other reason I look more latin, it doesn't matter I am Native American and it is an issue that should and does afect me and my children. For racism in any form affects us all. Germans descendants wouldn't want to be call Nazi's,(example) African American don't like the N word. Latin descendant don't like to be call names. Yet, it's ok to use "Redskin" and other just names? The worse is part is what people say "Get OVER IT" If you are called names. If you personally are called a dirty name and someone tells you to get over it. It makes the insult worse, for it only mean they have no respect for you or your people.
dwanna's picture
Mvto for your years of giving voice against injustice! We only follow the example of Elders like you.