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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
How can they have respect for us, when they have no respect for them selves or the land? Chicksaw
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
just change the name to the Brownskins. they play tougher ball anyhow.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Yep, these words should be spoken from the mountain tops Crystal. People are stubborn and fight like hell not to be the person in the wrong. And then some folks just don't have a clue one way or the other. And they never will until they become educated in all sides of a matter. Key word "educated" to be made aware. As for me, if I were walking in your moccasins I'd be giving it my best shot too. Good luck with that. I'll be raising this very important issue in all my discussions.BTW I wonder if any native people are on any of these teams? I'd bet there aren't.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
How would people feel about a team named the Chicago Fascist Pigs, with an overweight obviously drunken white cop caricature as a mascot?
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Hmmm . . . I guess I should be mad at Notre Dame and their fighting Irish mascot with his silly little green outfit and weird beard (seeing how I'm Irish)? People need to get a life. When I see a mascot labeled "Redskins," "Indians," Warriors," etc. I don't think of Native Americans when I hear the word . . . . I see a fricking mascot and don't associate it with a race, religion, etc. . . . nothing more, nothing less. Maybe those of you that get upset should consider it great that "way back when" people thought of your race as being powerful, etc. . . . you never see a team called the wusses. People get their panties in a wad too fast nowadays.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Hmmm . . . I guess I should be mad at Notre Dame and their fighting Irish mascot with his silly little green outfit and weird beard (seeing how I'm Irish)? People need to get a life. When I see a mascot labeled "Redskins," "Indians," Warriors," etc. I don't think of Native Americans when I hear the word . . . . I see a fricking mascot and don't associate it with a race, religion, etc. . . . nothing more, nothing less. Maybe those of you that get upset should consider it great that "way back when" people thought of your race as being powerful, etc. . . . you never see a team called the wusses. People get their panties in a wad too fast nowadays.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Couldn't have said it better. Thank you!
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
We teach the students in the DC area that this area was originally the land of the Eastern Woodland Indians. I like the name Washington Woodlands.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
We tend to look at things sometimes,moreso, as they are presented. the media has never favored an honest, thourough coverage of Native affairs.It misleads our life priorities by focusing more on marketing demographics, rather than any moral obligation to speak the truth. Featured all too often are the "seller" stories about the battling between political parties and their controversial figure-heads, while the real issues at hand are almost completely lost and deliberately kept from our collective thinking. While I believe this Redskins issue is important and I will speak out and stand against it with the rest, my greater concern is that a main majority of people will have no idea of the full scope of issues that must be addressed.That casinos have not exactly "saved" Native Americans, that children are being removed from their families and communities at an alarming rate under the guise of fostercare, that women are being subjected to high levels of abuses, that treaties are still being broken, lands taken or poisoned and that in some places, deaths from drugs, malnutrition, lack of healthcare and exposure continue to be a harsh reality. This name issue is a good and valid fight and I will readily support it, but I do so with the knowledge that it is but one step among many to be taken in our futures. We are here to heal a deep and fatal wound. We cannot accomplish that with one band-aid.
Anonymous

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