Dirty word games
Only a few wounding words carry pain so severe that they are not dulled by
time. "Redskins" is such a word for most Native people. Once you've been
stung by that word, you never, ever forget it or the venom of each
modifier, most commonly "dirty," "lazy" and "stupid."
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."
Begay, Hill and Means went on to run Indian education programs and schools,
and to sue the Washington professional football team regarding its dreadful
Their statements are evidence in the lawsuit, Harjo et al v. Pro Football,
Inc., now in its 13th year of litigation.
We won the case in 1999, when three trademark judges unanimously canceled
the federal licenses for the Washington football club's name "on the
grounds that the subject marks may disparage Native Americans and may bring
them into contempt or disrepute."
A federal district court judge, without so much as a hearing, overturned
their decision in 2003, opining that the trademark judges got it wrong. We
appealed the 2003 ruling and expect a decision any day from the U.S. Court
of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Our other co-plaintiffs are Vine Deloria Jr., Standing Rock Sioux author,
lawyer and retired educator; Raymond D. Apodaca, a former tribal leader of
his Tigua Tribe in Texas and now a federal Indian program official; and
Mateo Romero, a Cochiti Pueblo artist in New Mexico.
Deloria testified that in Marine boot camp "they would just blast the hell
out of everybody, using 'nigger' and 'spic' and 'slope' and 'redskin.'"
Apodaca recalled remarks about the "noisy and obnoxious redskins." Romero
stated that "the term 'nigger,' like 'redskin,' is racial."
It's hard to understand how the federal district court judge could
substitute her opinion for the judgment of the three trademark judges - and
for our actual experience - and say we aren't disparaged.
The judge also thought we waited too long to bring the suit, saying we
should have filed in 1967 when the Washington football club first applied
for federal trademark protection. At that time, only one of the seven of us
was 21 years old and Romero wasn't even a toddler.
The judge said nothing about the fact that the football owners waited more
than 30 years before seeking a federal license. In all likelihood, they
were prompted to file for federal protection in the 1960s by protesters on
campuses nationwide who wanted to end "Native" sports references and cited
the Washington "Redskins" as the worst of all.
Among the mountain of evidence considered by the trademark judges over the
first seven years of litigation were examples of the way the R-word was
used in newspaper headlines, showing no difference between 20th century
sports headlines and 19th century news headlines.
"Redskins Start Bloodletting Today," "More Cuts Likely to Follow Full-Scale
Redskin Warfare," "Redskins Ambushed," "Redskins Back on the Warpath" and
"Giants Massacre Redskins: General Custer Avenged" were sports headlines in
the 20th century.
Nineteenth-century news headlines were "Custer's Men Lured Into Trap by
Wily Redskins," "On the Warpath ... Redskins Attack," "Redskins Sent to the
Happy Hunting Ground" and "Ready for Battle ... The Rebellious Redskins."
Opponents of the majority Native American position say the R-word isn't
used against Native people today. They're wrong on this count, too.
Stanford linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, an expert witness in our case, wrote to
me on June 13 that "Ron Butters posted a message to the American Dialect
Society list a while ago claiming that 'redskin' was rarely used and was
not disparaging." Butters is an expert witness for the Washington football
club, but did not identify himself as such in his posting.
"I did a search in Google Groups," wrote Nunberg, "and found a number of
citations that demonstrate that the word is still widely used in its
pejorative sense. I attach these; the names of the relevant discussion
groups are in parens. These are all from the last ten years or so:"
"Hey Redskin: Go back to the Indian Reservation and make some illegal
"These redskin c***sucks up at the reservation are now claiming that THEY
own the portion of Nebraska that pertains to Whiteclay....Times like this
make me wish Custer had access to air support and a couple of tactical
"Hop down to Any Boat store. Don't you know how to read? I bet your one of
the redskin, indian whoop de do's who object to seeing sports teams
demeaning native americans and bitch about everything." (alt.scooter)
"I am getting f***ing tired of these damn redskins belly aching about how
the paleface came and stole their land. Why don't they get off their lazy,
reservation living-asses and start working?" (alt.discrimination)
"As I said the white Europeans had 'firesticks' for CENTURIES before the
redskin savages even HEARD about them! The redskin savages didn't even have
the incredibly complex machine known as 'the wheel' until CENTURIES after
other races had it! They were a VERY backwards people!" (alt.atheism)
"Those indian savages instead opted for much more equisite forms of torture
and methods of creating intense pain in their redskin neighbor victims."
(Thread, "Indians Are Sleaze Merchants," alt.fan.rush-limbaugh)
"I stopped into a New York club and found an American Indian bar-tending. I
ordered a Manhattan and the redskin f***er charged me twenty-four dollars!"
The R-word for public school athletic programs is being challenged
legislatively in California and Oklahoma, and both laws deserve to pass.
Opponents say the word is an honorific, which is has never been and is not
No Native person who has been called the R-word has ever said: "Wow, they
must think I'm a football player or a sport mascot or a person covered in
red paint for war." It has always been a fighting word and has never been a
People of ill will and poor taste need to stop playing their dirty word
games, and good people must stop enabling them. They must have better
things to do with their time than to hang on to racial-based stereotypes
and anti-Indian vulgarities.
Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the
Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian