Redskins Not So Black and White

Adrian Jawort
November 13, 2012

With the state of Washington recently voting to ban the usage of all Native American-related mascots in public schools, it brings momentum and hope to those that aim to see national mascots like the Cleveland Indians or Washington Redskins caricatures retired. However, while I read the lines of debate in blogs or Facebook posts or comment sections, I can’t help but notice one glaring statement that’s always inserted into the debates: “redskins” equals “scalp.” This conclusion originates from American Indian activist Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne and Muscogee) and a National Congress of American Indians’ brief. In the Pro Football vs. Harjo trademark case in a bid to force the Washington Redskins to change their name, Harjo and six others made it to the U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C. before the Supreme Court eventually rejected their longstanding case in the 2009. And while that fight still goes on via Blackhorse v. Pro-Football, Inc., Harjo’s team had previously claimed “redskin” derived from referring to bloody Indian scalps during the onset of the French and Indian War. Particularly cited is England’s 1755 Phips Proclamation, a declaration of war against the non-British allied Penobscot Nation stating: “…For every Scalp of such Female Indian or Male Indian under the Age of twelve years that Shall be killed and brought in as Evidence of their being killed as aforesaid, Twenty pounds.” As appalling and emotionally appealing as it is, the Phips Proclamation doesn’t include the words “red skins” in it. Claiming “scalps” automatically means “red skins” is revisionist history, to be blunt. It was the Native Americans who first used the term “red” in order to differentiate between indigenous, white, and black people. When not referring to their individual and other tribes collectively, why would they use Indian, Native, or other adjectives to describe their obvious skin differences back then? Ives Goddard is a senior linguist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of History. Goddard wrote the book, I am a Redskin: The Adoption of a Native American Expression (1769-1826) and notes the earliest uses of “red skin” were in recorded statements from Natives by the French who generally traded amicably with them. The French were careful to denote the “red” distinction was made by Natives themselves. By the time of the Phips Proclamation, according to Goddard, “red” to describe Natives was used “by both French and English…. Although Europeans sometimes used such expressions among themselves, however, they remained aware of the fact that this was originally and particularly a Native American usage.” Also citing Goddard in the recent article, “Before The Redskins Were The Redskins: The Use Of Native American Team Names In The Formative Era of American Sports, 1857-1944,” Professor of Law and historian J. Gordon Hylton writes about the term, “…throughout the nineteenth century, the term was essentially neutral when used by whites, reflecting neither a particularly positive or particularly negative connotation.” Even Sitting Bull once remarked, “I am a red man. If the Great Spirit had desired me to be a white man he would have made me so in the first place.” Regardless, over the years, the scalp-equals-redskin theory has gained traction as well-meaning people took Harjo’s word on the matter as fact—including ICTMN. In Montana last year, a Gros Ventre friend of mine, Nona Main, was invited to speak at a high school as they debated the fate of the Red Lodge Redskins mascot. To support the successful bid to retire the mascot, she spoke eloquently, "We are not asking you to change your religious beliefs or the language you speak. The change we ask for is minimal compared to the changes we have gone through." A letter addressed to the mostly white Red Lodge High School was from Native American Public Communications, Inc. Executive Director Shirley K. Sneve. Attached to the letter was a photocopy of an ICTNM article highlighting the Maine Indian Tribal State Commission’s struggle to change the Sanford High School Redskins’ name. With the Penobscot Nation being in Maine, the Phips Proclamation/redskin-equals-scalp theory was of course repeatedly mentioned during heated debates. The Sanford Redskins name was eventually retired on May 7 of this year. But after seeing what happened in Washington state—and the former Red Lodge Redskins mascot aside—I can’t help but think how the banning of all Native American-related mascots would go over in my home state of Montana. It’d undoubtedly be ironic seeing as the reservation schools have names like the Browning and Lodge Grass Indians, the Heart Butte and Pryor Warriors, as well as the off-reservation but predominately Northern Cheyenne attended school of the St. Labre Braves just to mention a few. Go figure, the Navajo school in Teec Nos Pos, Arizona is called the Red Mesa Redskins, and there’s a 2002 Chris Eyre film that takes place on the Pine Ridge Reservation called “Skins.” However, I still respect opinions that are against the term redskin, as it’s hard to imagine a white person seriously saying it without at least some condescension. So protest if you feel it collectively demeans Natives. I’m also annoyed by shirtless white guys putting on fake war paint and headdresses while mockingly chanting ‘Whoo whoo whoo!’ And although I don’t believe the redskins and scalp theory was contrived with devious intent, remember, in the study of history, one should not let their own passions of today override existing facts of the past just because they don’t fit our own modern version of political correctness. A lifelong Montana resident, Adrian Jawort is a freelance journalist, writer, and poet. A proud member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, he is a contributor to Indian Country Today Media Network as well as Native Peoples, Cowboys & Indians, and many other publications.




niijii's picture
As someone who was actually involved with this issue over 16 years ago I have a different opinion. I found the term "Redskins" in "New England" colonial history. It was used in the colonial bounty system of that area. In order to verify that Indians had been killed the colonies originally required that the "bounty hunters" bring in the "redskins" of the Indians they had killed for payment. There was a different price for male ,female and children. Is that clear enough,Know your history Mr. Jawort,know your history.
Anonymous's picture
The last paragraph is the most relevant: the name in itself is not so important, it is the behavior legitimized by the names and mascots that undermines the dignity of native cultures. Being portrayed as noble savages is no different than stereotyping African Americans as great athletes and entertainers (but not intellectuals). If the name and loge were changed, this behavior would not stop immediately, but it is a necessary first step.
Anonymous's picture
Quit being derogatory; it's unprofessional. The guy does know his history; and the sources used by the people he is citing is information that predates the time the English began using the term.
Anonymous's picture
This whole debate is simply a matter or people trying to improve their career or political standing simply by making this into something more than it is. Words themselves are benign, like a firearm. The human that wields them and the intentions of that person is where the problem lies. Using any word, in a way that unites and glorifies, should not be subject to political maneuvering and media sensation. The etymology of the word is moot, how it's used is not.