The First Time I Heard the Word 'Redskins'

Talisa Reeve

To Whom it may concern,

I hope this letter finds you well, and you may do with it as you please. There has been a lot of press in various news outlets about the term “Redskins” and many debates about whether the name should still be used because of its derogatory connotation.

I thought I would tell you a story about the first time I had heard that word and how it was used, but first let me give you a little background information first because I believe my experience with it is a little unique.
I grew up in a town called Oktaha, it’s population was around 200-300 at the time and in Creek Territory. We are Tsalagi.

My grandmother and grandfather bought a city block of land and had their house built, a house for my grandmothers brother and a few daughters, these homes were Indian homes.

My grandmother was a smidgen away from being fullblood Tsalagi. The setting was idyllic for young children. You could explore the countryside on endless adventures and when you were tired, you’d find some relative's house to eat at.

My grandmother married a white man but raised her family the only way she knew how, the Indian way. The young wore necklaces to keep the sickness away, these consisted of wild garlic, sage, mint and cloves. We used tobacco for bee stings and earaches and countless other things.

We learned how to forage wild foods and to use them as medicine. When a storm was too crazy we would throw a hatchet into a tree to make the storm split. She would burn the grass to improve her crops and so on. She lived her life like so many before her did.

All of this was perfect and made sense but around 4 or 5 I realized I and another cousin didn’t look like the rest of our family, we were little pale towheads living in a world of people who had dark hair and skin.

So I asked my grandmother one day why that was. She laughed, looked up while pointing at the sky and said, he just forgot to bake you. She always made it clear to us that we were Cherokee, nothing else nothing more. She was also very clear that since we were Indians we were to be proud of it. Whether it be in school, on the census, and in life, you put down and said proudly, I am an American Indian, I am a Cherokee! (Tsalagi)

There were no if, ands, or buts about it. And that was fine, we loved it, and I loved her ways of teaching us her version of life, her traditions, her unconditional love, and her firm belief in living a life of no prejudices.

But one day that all changed, one day I found out what it really meant to be a Pale Native in this New America.

It was a weekend night and me and some cousins decided to stay at grandmas house. She made corn bread in the skillet with beans and cabbage for dinner. We all ate, and played, and talked about the big exploration we were going to have in the woods the next morning. Grandma later made pallets for all of us to sleep on together in the living room and we soon drifted off to sleep. She had a rule, the men or the oldest sleep by the door, at the time I never understood why, but I soon found out.

I’m not entirely sure how long we had been asleep before the banging on the door began, but it woke us all up. My Grandmother and my cousin Christie who was 12 at the time. They were the oldest there so they opened the door.

A man had been drinking way too much and started to yell at my grandmother. He said as he pointed a gun at us; “Which one of you F-ing Redskins untied my dog? I know it was one of you F-ing Indians” I could tell by my grandmother's stoic look that wasn’t her first encounter with the now infamous term, Redskins. I could also tell whatever it meant it wasn’t good.

The children all huddled together with my grandmother standing in front, I’m not sure what was said next because me and the smaller cousins were in tears as the older ones consoled us.
I do remember are neighbor Elmer coming over. The commotion was so loud that it woke him and his wife up. He talked the guy into putting the gun down and convincing him we had nothing to do with it, he eventually left.

I’m 34 now, and at 6, that was my first encounter with Redskins. The word still haunts me.

I’m not sure how long after that happened my grandmother said to me,”Life will be different for you because of the way you look.” She stressed the “because of the way you look part” and I knew she meant.

I am and always will be an Indian but I do not look like it, therefore I will have other advantages and as I grow up living in both worlds. And as I grew I literally saw what she meant by that.

I would also like to say, Wado grandmother for your unconditional love and tolerance. May you forever walk on in peace with the ancestors.

I hope this letter finds the right person or persons, and I hope some will come to understand the true cruelty of the word Redskins.

A Loving Tsalagi Granddaughter

Talisa Reeve is an American Indian/Caucasian who was born and raised in Oklahoma. She is passionate about her heritage and is active in her local Tsalagi Nation Satellite community. She currently resides in Los Angeles with her husband Jamie Byrne and their small dog.

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Anonymous's picture
so sick on this topic...
Anonymous's picture
Thank you for posting this. It needed to be shared!
Michael Madrid's picture
To Anonymous below: Why read the article (which I doubt that you did) or comment if you're tired of this subject? To Ms. Reeve: Wonderful article and why am I NOT surprised that you weren't "honored" when you were called a Redskin? I've heard too many apologists for this term which is really stupid as Redskins is defined as a derogatory term. One by one the excuses for the name are being taken down. We are not honored, the majority of us DO NOT want the term used, it IS detrimental to all of our society. End sports sanctioned racism NOW!
Michael Madrid
Mythwalker's picture
Your letter found me well and I am thankful. Your words are very clear, moving, and strong, and what a wonderful grandmother you have to thank for your wisdom. Many are working on ending the usage of this defamatory word and hopefully this change is sooner in arriving than never at all. Peace!
Waylela's picture
Thank you for your article. Your Grandmother sounds a great deal like mine she to was Tsalagi. My Grandfather was Shawano sadly his substance abuse kept me from knowing him. The first time I heard the R word I had just started school and it was read by my teacher from one of the history books. When I got home I asked what it meant, Grandma replied, "Always remember it's not the color that makes the person it is the heart. The Creator made 1 race, it is man who made more." She never did tell me but I knew from her look that day it wasn't a good word to call anyone. I have blonde hair and blue eyes like my German Father and from both parents and grandparents I learned to be proud of all my heritage and I have past that on to my children.
Nancy Lynn Baker's picture
I envy Talisa Reeve her grandmother and being raised in the traditions of her people. Being taught on a daily basis to love and respect the traditions that are her heritage surrounded by a loving supportive family. My family was not so "functional". I learned my heritage on my own. But I will always be glad that I did. I love this article.
Nancy Lynn Baker
Depree Walkinshadow's picture
Thank you for sharing your story. As a child, we try to categorize our world in absolutes, but the world is never black and white. My first lesson about skin color was on a pueblo in New Mexico. I was oven cooked by the sun and we were visiting the village. Playing in the sun with other kids my age. I can’t remember how it happen but I made the mistaking of telling a light skin kid, something along the lines of “not being an Indian.” Well, his cousins soon corrected me. He’s related to us, “He is Indian!” I never forgot that and I try to keep that childhood lesson in my cliff notes because it’s so easy to want to simplify my decisions by categorizing a person. Oh, she this …. Oh, he’s a …. Truth is the world is not black and white but complicated hues, colors, tones and shades of truth. You remind me that, I may still not have outgrown that childish perspective but I am grown enough to realize my prejudice. That prejudice comes from the pain of experiencing the glance judgment. As an adult, I am working on being grown up which means eating crow occasionally. Thank you for sharing your story, personalizing the pain and giving voice to your grandmother. Ixehee.
Depree Walkinshadow