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Redskins vs. Bears Today: What's in a Name?

Crystal Willcuts Cole
10/20/13

Perhaps all of the recent anger and unrest in the world means humanity is moving towards something better. Perhaps these are birth pains pushing us towards light. The abolition of slavery, the defeat of Hitler, the Civil Rights Movement, while painful in process, brought humanity to a better place.

African-American men, women, and children struggled in the mid-century fight for civil rights here in the United States. It was a long and brutal fight fought with sticks, stones, laws, words, and names like the N-word and all the brutality it still conjures today. Some died so that future generations, this generation included, could be equal and respected. The Two-Spirit community struggled for rights of recognition and is inching away from hateful names and acts, and towards equality and the freedoms found therein. A brighter dawn breaks for them. The political world is crashing in on itself and people are seeing dysfunction. Wanting to be heard, they are raising their voices and calling for change.

Yet for Native people, the harsh reality of deep-seated racism continues to smack us in the face. Dan Snyder and the onerous name of his football team are under scrutiny. The public is questioning whether the term “redskin” is racist or not. The Native community is reminded that we are still at war, a perpetual fight to establish ourselves in this society as people deserving of respect and dignity afforded everyone else.

Every time a racist mascot (usually a white guy in red face dressed in an Indian “costume”) rears its ugly head, Natives are reminded that we are not equal; we are not respected. We will be told if something should offend us. It is arrogance in its purist form for a non-Native to tell a Native whether an image of a dancing, whooping, cartoony Indian is offensive or not. It is arrogance for a non-Native to tell a Native the word “redskin” is a great honor from the Great White Father and we should all be so pleased with their generous mercy and wisdom.

Honor doesn’t come from a football team owner. This type of “honor” we don’t want or need. Honor begins with respect. You don’t respect us because you don’t even listen to us. Having to cite polls to assert and justify racism is self-revelatory of a heart not considering the full impact of words and actions, but a heart led by a desire to entertain and exploit. So if you really wanted to honor Native people, start by respecting us. Start by educating yourself on history from our perspective. Consider our traditions, our struggles, and where WE came from and who WE are. Stop shoving the white perspective down our throats then expecting us to swallow with gratitude. How much more demeaning than to use an entire heritage of people as a sports mascot? Dan Snyder has likened all Native people, grandfathers and grandmothers, children and babies, to Pirates, Devils and Bulldogs. Maybe in hopes that we should become a footnote in history like the Vikings or 49ers.

He and the fans of his football team have 80 years of warm memories, but the last 80 years and the 200 before that have not been so kind to Native people. Consider the name Custer. White people visit Custer, South Dakota or Custer State Park and the name evokes a certain image for them. But for Native people, the name honors a cold-blooded murderer of innocent men, women and children.

Things like mascots, which may seem inconsequential to some and not worth the fight, reveal larger societal values. These are the things that stand in the way of real community, equality and respect. The societal values that declare, “We can do, say, and treat others any way we want. We can assign names however we see fit. A culture is merely something we can mock. And if anyone doesn’t like it, well there are more of us than there are of you. Get over it. We won this war!” How many times have we all heard that?

There are pejoratives to disparage any group of people, “redskin” being one of them. Insurmountable evidence exists of culture clash, large and small. Stolen lands, burning crosses, ethnic cleansings. The war Hitler fought in Europe was lost, but it was won here. Americans pride themselves on being just that, Americans. Made in America, born in the U.S.A. They fight to keep their identity, rights, language, and religion from being altered by any outsider. And yet identity is a double-edged sword that while it can instill hope and pride it can also provoke war. Identity is a solemn thing only foolish men take lightly.

We all know by now that what underlies racism is fear. It is a difficult thing to separate people from their fears. It took a civil war to end slavery. This isn’t just about a team name. This is about an ongoing act of racism, an acceptable act of racism. Not just on a national stage, but also underneath the very noses of this country’s leaders. It’s another battle in a very long war. Behind the layers of racism and fear rests the America that does not include us. Until you can recognize our sovereignty as a nation and our inalienable right to brotherhood within humanity, the very things a young America fought for, its own right to be sovereign, to be treated as an equal in humanity, to not be tread upon, until that moment you choose to be brought into the light of that better place, you limit yourselves to the position of foreigner and enemy occupier, squatting on stolen lands. This is what the Washington Redskins, and all Indian mascots, stand for.

Crystal Willcuts Cole, Mnicoujou Lakota and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe member, was born in Rapid City, South Dakota and is an artist, writer, and poet currently residing in Big Stone Gap, Virginia with her husband and two children.
 

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Anonymous's picture
If their only retort is for us to "get over it", then why stop there? We should get over 9/11, Pearl Harbor and even further the holocaust.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Thank you so much for posting. Proud and Sad, Ella Morin-Ingram, Turtle Mountains
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
"Any man who thinks he can be happy and prosperous by letting the Government take care of him; better take a closer look at the American Indian." ...If you think immigration is not a problem...... ask a Native American....
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
very well posted sister, maybe its because they don't want to be name the custer's; thats all I have too say about that.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
I'm a member of the Northern Cheyenne and Acoma Pueblo tribes. I Know there is a fine line of racism in every community in the USA. growing up on the reservation. I watched western TV shows where cowboys and Indians would fight to death, and I heard the term them redskins, or those Indians, back when censorship was much more strict than it is now. We see a remnant of that era when we see the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins play. This form of entertainment is a battle of Cowboys and Indians, and people are willing to pay to see this type of entertainment. I think if you take away the Redskin name than the ticket sales will drop, sponsorships will dropout. If a company knows that there profit margin will possibly fall for any reason they will hold on tight to that name. This Redskin name change battle has been on going for years, there has to be someone to change the way the American Culture thinks as well as understanding Native culture.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
I remember a conference a few years back, a bunch of us natives were discussing issues similar to this with an elected state official who remains nameless because he is still in office (a different office). After hearing several young natives speak, his response was along the lines "I don't see what there is to be offended by." But what I really remember was the heartbroke look on their faces, realizing they had failed to gain an understanding with him about what it was to be Native and see this crap. Its not an uncommon problem, the inability to understand what we can find derogatory and offensive. It takes effort to step out of our own cloistered culture and try to understand from a different perspective, and most are unable or unwilling to try.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
if stanford can change nfl can do it, too
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Life is a continuing learning process, and over the last few years," and now with the issue making the headlines again", I've given much thought to the issue of the naming of NFL's Washington Redskin's. Although it's my belief that when the team was named and ever since then, the name," like most team names " was meant as an honor and chosen to reflect an image of strength, power, courage and other respected attributes. Few," if any " pro, collegiate or school teams name their mascot something that is considered to be weak, despicable or is otherwise looked down on," you don't see names like Raliegh Rats, Pittsburgh Pigs, St. Louis Scumbags, etc ". After seeing much written and broadcasted about how many Native people view the the word," despite the intentions of the original team owners ", my feelings on that team name have evolved from viewing it as honor to seeing how the name can be viewed as disrespectful and/or offensive. I am not Native so I have no standing to tell them what to believe, but I do have many friends who are Native and whose friendship I value VERY MUCH and out of my UTMOST RESPECT for them, their heritage, their culture, I will now support the call to have the name changed. To me, it's NOT about ( political correctness ), it's about RESPECT, RESPECT that ALL OF US demand and deserve-!!! Kelly Ammerman Webster, South Dakota, 11:20 PM, 10-22-2013
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
THANK YOU,very well said!
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
I am not Native American. I'm German/Irish but I agree the name for Washington is racist. They would never be called the Blackskins or Whiteskins so why the Redskins. It's wrong and needs to be changed.
Anonymous

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