'Redskin' Is a Symbolic Mass Annihilation

Naomi Brisley

 “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.” -Søren Kierkegaard

I think we can all agree that words carry incredible power and their meanings are often times not held in what is being said verbally, but the connotations that are being applied subliminally. Phrases like “black” and “white” imply a system of higher and lower, good and bad, superior and inferior, but are played off as if they are just superficial observations about skin color. This is very apparent in the racial slur “Redskin.” Something that appears to be a standard observation has historically been used in ways to undermine an enormous group of peoples and treat them as inferior to the colonizers who coined the term. But what does “Redskin” really imply?

What do you envision when the term comes up in discourse? It is not a person with RED skin, this is quite impossible. Instead I believe the popular conception is someone with high cheekbones, large eyes, a big nose, feathers, barely clothed, maybe with a tomahawk or a peace pipe or bow and arrow or something of the sort. With this in mind; I would like to ask are there any representations or caricatures that come to mind when speaking of white people? Is there a standard get-up for people of European descent complete with clothing attire, facial structures and expressions? Can you imagine the feeling that whenever someone is introduced to you they try to pick out these characteristics in your personality or wait for you to behave a specific way in order to confirm their biases about the ethnic group you belong to? Or maybe even being the token representative for ALL of your people in a given situation? Like saying, “So and so, you are white-how would white people feel about this?” Or “Uh-uh, I talked to white people before and they don’t feel the same way you do about that situation.” At this point your whiteness is taken into question and attempts to categorize your amount of whiteness are enforced. (e.g. through blood quantum)

What the term “Redskin” and the mascot actually do is reinforce the mass ideology of symbolic annihilation. Symbolic annihilation is the absence of representation, or underrepresentation, of some group of people in the media (often based on their race, sex, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, etc.), understood in the social sciences to be a means of maintaining social inequality. By confining all Natives to this one representation or depiction cultivates the misconceptions our society has indoctrinated in us from a very early age. It is an attempt to glamorize the genocide of millions of people with this friendly slogan for a competitive American sport. I’m sure if we try to think back to grade school we can all remember the symbolic annihilation that took place against Native Americans in the first 4 to 6 pages of our history textbooks. In this introductory chapter the historians cover hundreds of thousands of years of the histories of hundreds of tribes, their interactions with one another, their complex legal, moral, religious, and philosophical approaches, their helpfulness and brotherhood that was extended to the Europeans when contact was first made, the way they helped shape the American constitution, the way they helped the Americans fight the British and “win” American away from England, and also their bravery in the face of colonization. Or wait a second…..I had to take college courses to learn all of this stuff.

The term “Redskin” and the caricatures of Native peoples dehumanizes us to a nostalgic figure of times passed. They turn us into a mascot as if we are a concept that can be conceived or a snapshot in time that can be saved. Not that we are living, breathing, current, human beings who are ever changing. After over 500 years of massacres, exile, prison camps (reservations), broken treaties, boarding schools, smallpox blankets, poisoned rations, religious persecution, alcohol, prison, hazardous waste, and medical experiments NATIVE AMERICANSARE STILL HERE. The resilience of these people is definitely a trait to be revered and honored but if the nation truly respected these incredibly strong individuals they would not allow this systematic genocide to take place.

Some Natives might not be offended by the term “Redskins” but there is no ambassador for the p.c. police. Some white people might not be offended by the term “cracker” or “honky” but they should be offended by the hate and disdain connotated in the use of the terms. Maybe someday we can get to the point where we can all be regarded as humans, but until then we should take a culturally sensitive standpoint for our depictions of one another. I was once told the Golden Rule, or “treat others as you want to be treated” is one of the most selfish ways to think imaginable. The way we should look at it is not from our perspective, but from their own. How selfish is it to think everybody wants to be treated the same way as we do considering everyone has different backgrounds and ways of life? So in concluding this paper, I ask you to at least consider “how can I treat this person the way they wish to be treated?”

Naomi Brisley is a member of the deer clan and the Seneca Nation of Indians. She was born and raised on the Allegheny territory in western New York. She currently attends Syracuse University and is majoring in Sociology and Philosophy with a minor in Native American studies.

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tmsyr11's picture
I am sorry but if a 'name' is so important and to applied respectfully, then where were the current racial agitators/purveyors of Doublethink when "Geronimo" was applied to the killing of Osma Bin Laden? Did the White House ever apologize to the Fort Sill Apache Nation and acknowledge receipt of the formal request of Fort Sill Apache, Jeff Sill? Perpetuating old stereotypes of Apaches but in a direct/current instance? Where are the allegations and challenges of these 'agitators' to the current US Federal policies on Indian Affairs to Indian Tribal Nations? Why can't this be deemed "Mass Annihilation" of current Indian Tribes particularly when PROMISES were given in 2008 and 2012 (short of the sky and moon). My generation successfully as prior generations, established ourselves as contributors to communities (native or not). THis is light of the Washington Redskin winning years of 1980s. So for the purveyors of doublethink to perputate how thought of people being 'hurt' is plainly wrong. There are too many legitimate occurences of US Govt policy not being challenged enough and falling to the way-side to be spending or wasting energy on a non-issue (which essentially is what the Federal Govt wants for Tribes and most people).
bullbear's picture
As natives of this land and survivors of the U.S. government-led objective to erase all signs of tribal heritage and traditions, we are not backing down until we have due respect. The minorities of this world are fighting for some of the basics of day-to-day living such as healthier lives for their young and elderly, justice and the right to live in peace. We are not backing down. This is not about a word. It is about prejudice and racism that corporate giants promote to millions of people throughout every country simply because in their minds, 'it isn't offensive to me.' In yesterday's Arizona Republic newspaper, Ms. Paola Boivin who is a regular contributor to the sports section writes, Momentum is picking up again to get the Washington Redskins to change their nickname. Thank goodness. Roger Godell quickly condemned the Philadelphia Eagles' Riley Cooper for using the N-word at a concert. Good for Goodell. But he doesn't show the same disgust that Native Americans find offensive. Boivin goes on to say that Sen. john McCain said on "The Dan Patrick Show" recently; "I'm not offended. You're not offended. But there are Native Americans who are." Isn't that enough?
Shadowwolf480's picture
Sadly, I find it unfortunate that our Native people on the reservations throughout the U.S. do not find the racist moniker "offensive". I grew up on the Rez myself, and to be honest, not everyone seems to be informed. Several factors contribute to this misinformation. One: that many Rez Indians do not have access to the internet where they can educate themselves. Secondly, cable and satellite sports channels and news do not offer much coverage of the issue either. So therefore, they are literally kept in the dark. They would go on to mock Urban Natives as being too overly sensitive, when they fail to understand the entire issue itself. We can't blame them for failing to see the broader harm, the WA NFL team has done to them. Folks both on and off the reservations, should continue to spread the word and be unified behind this greater cause. So that in the end, this racist mascotry and dehumanization of our people will come to rest.
Naomi Leigh Irie's picture
Hello there friends, my name is Naomi and I am the author of this essay. I really appreciate all of your comments and active participation and constructive criticism. Unfortunately, I just received this strange form of hate mail in my school email that was anything but constructive. And, even worse, come to find out one of the trusted admin at Indian Country shared my email address with this group called the "Rez Rats." I would like to share with you all what this email consisted of and my reply to it if that is okay. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Please pay attention to #11 below. We are the Reservation Rats, a group of fullbloods who speak our language fluently and volunteer and live on Indian reservations. When we were an active group, we used to fight drugs and gangs on Indian reservations. Almost 20 years ago, grandpa met a little white boy dressed up as an Indian on Halloween. The boy gave a squeal of delight when he spotted grandpa and asked, "Are you a real Native American??!!!??" "Yes," smiled grandpa, a former Medicine Man, "just like you are one today! But I don't look half as handsome as you do." "Well, what can you teach me about being Indian?" asked the little boy earnestly. "This," said grandpa. Then he took his pack of cigarettes from this pocket and threw it in the trash can. "These are very bad for your health. As an Indian today, you have to always keep your word, so promise me you will never smoke in your life." "I promise!!!" said the little boy as his parents mouthed thank you to grandpa. About 20 years later, I meet this blondie at Yale University who called herself Native American and waved her card at my face to prove it, even though I never asked her to show me any card or to prove her Indian status. The blondie recounted her own experience when she came across a little boy who was dressed up as an Indian on Halloween. She said, "I went up to him, ripped up the feathers he was wearing. Then I told his mom - I am Native American and I am NOT a costume! You should be ashamed of yourself for being such a RACIST!! Then I marched away leaving behind a shocked mother and her equally shocked son who will hopefully never play Indian again. They learned their lesson well! If the moral of the story isn't already apparent to you, it's this: These elite, highly educated, sophisticated Ivy League white blondes and blondies who are Native American only on paper don't realize that their behavior of screaming racism where there is none, and protesting innocent things like mascots and Halloween, is making the rest of America hate Indians and is portraying us as super-super-sensitive. When we are the exact opposite: Indians are extremely loving, very tolerant, highly accepting and have the most amazing sense of humor. There is a saying on reservations that only whiteskins object to redskin because it reminds everyone that these Indians are white. Mainstream Indians on reservations support mascots and names like Redskins. A UPenn-Annenberg survey shows that 91% of Indians support mascots (http://www.annenbergpublicpolicycenter.org/downloads/political_communication/naes/2004_03_redskins_09-24_pr.pdf). Our reasons for supporting mascots are briefly included below 1) When white Indians offend sports fans or insult a little child who loves Indians and puts on feathers, they alienate the rest of America against brown Indians. Note that the white Indians blend in beautifully into the white society. No one even realizes they are Indian. But when an angered sports fan who is upset about losing his mascot screams "Fuck you sandnigger" or throws a beer can at us from a passing car screaming "MOTHERFUCKER, GO BACK TO YOUR FUCKING RESERVATION!!" they scream such obscenities at my father, my cousin, my brother and my family members who look Indian. 2) The obsession with protesting mascots and names like Redskins is an obsession of white Indians. They protest mascots, children dressing up on Halloween and other silly things because it makes them feel Indian. It lets them scream racism. They know no other way of feeling Indian. They are totally disconnected from the real issues that affect mainstream Indians on reservations. They are fully Americanized. They have lost their language, culture, religion and even their skin color. 3) Unfortunately the white Indians have the loudest voices. If we go against them, they hurt us in our careers and lives because they control our media, academia, government jobs, medical clinics, finances, who gets denied federal recognition, even our tribes - everything. They have the money and the power. We have the Indian-ness. 4) Brown Indians on reservations have more important issues to worry about. Like diabetes, how we get our next meal, crime on reservations, lack of electricity, lack of toilets, lack of running water, no heat when there's snow outside, getting a relative to a dialysis clinic when there is no transport, finding a job when there's near 100% unemployment, near 100% consideration of suicide among our youth, alcoholism, drug abuse, elder abuse, spouse abuse, land loss, culture loss, language loss, etc. Mascots are a NON-ISSUE to us. 5) The Indian media should be screaming about the real issues. Instead their main focus is on mascots. The focus on mascots and meaningless debates about redskins detract attention from the REAL issues facing brown Indians. 6) Indians should do an A-B-C analysis and focus on the A-items. Mascots and names like redskin, or debates about whether the right word is Native American and not Indian, are not even C items. They are Z items. Unfortunately the white Indians obsess over these Z-items because that is the ONLY way they know how to feel Indian. If we twist America's arm and get America to concede on the trivial items, the country will lose patience with us when we negotiate important A-items. 7) We are offending our fan base. That little child who insists on dressing up in a costume and putting on some feathers loves Indians, but when white Indians insult his mom and dad by calling them racists, he grows up to resent those of us who look Indian. Indians were unflappable. Now even a silly word like "costume" that I used above instead of "regalia" raises hackles? Don't forget, it's the white Indians who come down and tell the rest of us to be offended. 8) When these white Indians object to mascots, their vocalizations unite Indian opposition - the opposition finds forums and avenues to kindle hatred against Indians and rehash and reiterate hateful sentiments about Indians. They find a common ground under which those who resent and oppose Indians can unify together and gather in strength. 9) White Indians who oppose mascots point to the Halloween "blackface" and ask, "Don't you find that offensive???" And the answer is yes, some Halloween costumes are expressly intended to mock and degrade. Sometimes it is Mother Mary dressed up voluptuously in revealing breasts, sometimes stupid people dress up as a rabbi with a hooked nose eating a bagel and counting money. Sometimes people put on a black face that portrays African Americans with exaggerated noses and large pink lips. Yes, these are no doubt offensive. But mascots usually portray teams that their fans are proud of. The Washington Redskins are proud of their mascots and will surely never run down their mascot this way. 10) The American sports lovers are our brothers and sisters. We love them and respect them and also understand they mean us no disrespect for the most part. Mascots represent their teams and sports fans love their teams. The clueless, identity-less white Indians drive a wedge between the mainstream Indians and sports loving fans causing mainstream America to hate us. 11) The vocal protests of these clueless white Indians have one more serious consequence: those of us who are poor, brown and Indian-looking cannot sell our Native art. Think about this for a moment. If Blacks made a huge deal about appropriation of African Americans, won't you pause for a moment before you buy a t-shirt with a black theme? These days because of all these protests over mascots and Halloween, Americans have become so sensitive about offending Natives that they are afraid of wearing Native jewelry and buying Native art pieces. Because they don't want to offend Natives who protest redskins and other forms or "appropriations". Which is really hurting Native artisans who make such jewelry and Native art. 12) In the same vein, it is only the white Indians who obsess about identity politics and play Identity Police. On Indian reservations, we have a standing joke: Q: What do you call a nation full of white people? A: The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. The all-white Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma is the leading identity police. They have also been whites for quite a few generations now! Why is it that only the white Indians obsess about identity politics and play Identity Police? This is because such Indians are mistaken for Caucasian throughout the world. One way they can reiterate their sense of identity is by pointing out that "he is not Indian" or "she is not Indian" or "they are wannabes." Indians have been through a holocaust and accusing someone of not being Indian is a very serious charge and something to be frowned upon, as is discriminating against Indians from tribes that have no federal recognition (the PC term is unrepresented tribes). What is noteworthy is that it is always the white Indians who play identity cops. Look at anyone who is accusing someone of not being Indian. With the possible exception of XXXX XXXXX (an identity cop who is African American with Indian status), almost all the other identity police are WHITE themselves. Such whites with Indian status get their sense of identity by accusing others of not being Indian. P.S. So many, many of our all-Indian high schools have teams with the word redskin. If the word "redskin" was offensive, why would we be singing this???? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jMopAla8ZPs These are the lyrics: "Take a look Just one more time Beautiful smile Beautiful eyes That's a redskin girl Shes so pretty Shes so fine Redskin girl I'll love you all the time" ~ The Reservation Rats
Naomi Leigh Irie
Naomi Leigh Irie's picture
And here is my response: "Hello there, you had taken the time to write out that thought provoking piece that I received in my email and I figured it would be very kind and appropriate for me to return the favor. Your essay/list really made me think. I definitely came to understand the ways that I and other Natives “like” myself are categorized and marginalized by Natives “like” yourselves. I have created a list of my own in response to your points and I would greatly appreciate it if you took the time to read them. 1. You said you are “full blood” Natives…  According to what? Blood quantum? A birth certificate? What you feel in your heart to be true? Is it because your skin is darker than mine that when you claim “full blood” it is more logical and accepted? Did your ancestors tell you you are full blooded? One of the most “Native” or “rezzed out” families on the rez where I come from are the Jimersons. I took a History of the Haudenosaunee class and found out the Jimersons originated from the Jemisons, as in Mary Jemison, an Irish woman who was adopted by the Seneca and ACCEPTED AS 100% THEIR OWN TRIBAL MEMBER. My tribe has a long history of being color blind. Maybe the Jimersons are really bad at remembering their history, or maybe skin color and ethnicity did not matter as much as it does in Indian Country today because what makes someone Native exists way beyond skin color. 2. “These elite, highly educated, sophisticated Ivy League white blondes and blondies who are Native American only on paper don't realize that their behavior of screaming racism where there is none….”  If this is a crack at my personal identity then I guess I can take some personal time to explain myself. I am sociology major and it is my job to look at the larger patterns and ideologies in society and how they shape our lives. That being said, I have colored my hair blonde because I have been convinced that it is “better” looking at times than darker hair and also just for change. My hair has also been blue, red, purple, etc. and I currently sport dreadlocks. Does this distinguish me as a certain type of person (or Indian) as well? Anyways, I currently attend Syracuse University. Far from an Ivy League school, but I was offered a SCHOLARSHIP because I am “Native” enough. Would it have been “more Indian” of me to renounce it? So I had no hope at all of positively contributing to my tribe and other tribes across the country? If this is so then I guess I don’t want to be “your kind” of Indian anyways. 3. “There is a saying on reservations that only whiteskins object to redskin because it reminds everyone that these Indians are white.”  Which reservations? Certainly not mine or any rez I have visited across New York. Maybe this is because I am Seneca, from Allegheny, our tribe has a casino, and is classified as “white Indians”, am I correct? 4. “….is making the rest of America hate Indians and is portraying us as super-super-sensitive.”  Who is “us”? Those illusive brown Indians again? And how can you categorize a whole band of people with conflicting opinions and identities and life experiences? Not only are you speaking for all of “us” or “you” but you are also speaking for “the rest of America.” If this whole email was in response to my essay, then I feel as if this would be an appropriate place for me to state that I made it a point to not speak for ANY group of people; all I am responsible for is myself. 5. “A U-Penn Annenberg survey shows that 91% of Indians support mascots…”  I am sure that if you are bringing up statistics such as the one above that you have taken into deep consideration that numerous tribes do not participate in these polls nor numerous other governmental surveys or censuses. The Onondaga nation right here in New York is one of those tribes. And again, which “Indians” are you talking about? The brown ones? If the white ones approve of the mascots is there something wrong with them or should they be praised for agreeing with your own personal ideas? 6. “Brown Indians on reservations have more important issues to worry about. Like diabetes, how we get our next meal, crime on reservations, lack of electricity, lack of toilets, lack of running water, no heat when there's snow outside, getting a relative to a dialysis clinic when there is no transport, finding a job when there's near 100% unemployment, near 100% consideration of suicide among our youth, alcoholism, drug abuse, elder abuse, spouse abuse, land loss, culture loss, language loss, etc. Mascots are a NON-ISSUE to us.”  Again here is that violent “us” word. So because I colored my hair blonde and have lighter skin than some I an immune to these problems? Because I can tell you right now, buddy, that this is what my childhood consisted of. And if you still want to blame me for pursuing an education to improve my future and to help those still in these situations back home then I guess this conversation was over long before it ever began. And, most importantly, about the racism. Your whole essay is based on loose generalizations of “brown Indians” and “white Indians.” You create this hypocritical pigmentocracy that separates “real” Indians from “wannabe” ones. You bash the Cherokee for being culture police but that is exactly what you are doing throughout your whole essay. But yours is justified, right? And theirs isn’t? Because you are “real”, am I correct? You stated that Natives are “extremely loving, very tolerant, highly accepting and have the most amazing sense of humor.” Which Indians? The brown ones? The white ones? I am unsure of which ones are. Regardless, if this were true, then you would not have come up with this piece attacking the character of a “separate and unequal” group of your “own” people. You are not being the grandfather, but the ignorant college student. Her problem is not that she is blonde, or attends an Ivy League school, it is that she is ignorant and is unsure where she should direct her anger towards. Is it towards the perpetrator? Or the brown Indian police? Should she attack her “own” people as you are doing now? Then who is going to fight for us? Maybe her problem is that she grew up in a white world (which is possible even on the rez) and was a half breed (at no fault or her own) who has a conflicting identity that is constantly policed by everyone everywhere she goes, be them white or red skinned. You stated “Note that the white Indians blend in beautifully into the white society. No one even realizes they are Indian.” Maybe this is part of “our” problem-we pass as white and are separated from our tribes because of people like YOU. I believe the grandfather would give this girl guidance and teach her to open her heart more. NOT shun her because of her outward appearance or her ignorance that is near identical to that of the young boy who knows little about Natives in general."
Naomi Leigh Irie
ElderFlower's picture
I think a reputable writer would post the entirety of the e-mail that person sent you, not just your response to SOME of their statements which were taken out of context. I would honestly like to read ALL opinions on this topic.
Naomi Leigh Irie's picture
Hello Elder Flower, I tried to post the entirety of their email with an explanation but the moderator's did not publish it.
Naomi Leigh Irie