The offensive term Redskins is in the news again. Calling the nickname disparaging to Native Americans, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has canceled the trademark registration of the Washington Redskins, by far the best known of the teams that use such nicknames. But those names are used in many places, including North Side High School in Fort Wayne and elsewhere in northern Indiana. What follows is an editorial that appeared in this newspaper 26 years ago, on May 1, 1988, which shows that while courtesy and sensitivity maybe have a short half-life, offensiveness lives on.
The Pittsburgh Negroes don’t really exist. Neither do the Kansas City Jews or the San Diego Caucasians. But the Martin-Williams Advertising Agency created the hypothetical teams, and the poster pictured here, to hit home the offensiveness in naming an athletic group – such as the Cleveland Indians – after our country’s Native Americans.
The poster is jarring. It needs to be. Most of us find it hard to see the problem with naming teams after Indians, or using Indians as mascots.
Indian nicknames seem such a normal part of life. As wholesome and as traditional as the sports they label. After all, many of our nation’s school and professional teams have had Indian nicknames for decades. A survey of schools in our readership area alone found that at least 23 use some play off Indian, from the Little Warriors of Woodburn Elementary to the Wabash High School Apaches. It’s time for these schools to drop them.
People connected with teams using Indian names say they were picked to honor Indians, not to ridicule them. North Side High School, for example, picked its team name, the Redskins, and their mascot, Chief Mac, to recognize the Indian settlements that had been built on the riverbank where the school is now located.
Jack Kent Cooke, owner of the Washington Redskins, is amazed that anyone could find his team’s name derogatory. Calling Indians redskins is the same as calling Canadians Canucks, and as a former Canadian, he doesn’t resent that, Cooke said in a recent letter.
Many people feel otherwise. Chris Burke, a supporter of Washington’s football team (a phrase he uses to avoid the r-word), has founded the group, Fans Against Indian Racism. Using the term Redskins is absolutely wrong, Burke believes. No matter the intent, the bottom line is it does cause pain. You shouldn’t call a group of people a name they don’t want to be called.
And Indians don’t want to be called that name. Simply put, redskins is to Indians what nigger is to blacks.
Indians also don’t like the way they are portrayed by many teams and their fans. Phil St. John, a Native American of the Dakota tribe, went to a high school basketball game in Minneapolis. He and his children became upset by one team’s Indian mascot, a student dressed up in Hollywood-style Indian garb. They felt denigrated, stereotyped as war-whooping savages. In response, St. John formed Concerned American Indian Parents. It works with the National Conference of Christians and Jews to educate people about the problem.
The groups try to make people understand how horrible Indians feel when religious objects of theirs – peace pipes, feathers, paint – are used as props for pregame entertainment. It would be like you or I were taking a menorah or a cross or a Buddha and using them, says Pat Helmberger, of the National Conference.
And, of course, the groups don’t appreciate opponents of Indian-named teams who come up with catchy slogans like Scalp the Indians, or Let’s burn the Indians at the stake. To bring an end to these offenses, they’d like all teams to stop using Indian names.
The Minneapolis school board heard their complaints. It has prohibited schools from having a team name or mascot bearing the name of an ethnic, racial, tribal or religious group. It’s time for our schools to respond.
Some will object, saying that to do so upsets a tradition. But racist traditions don’t deserve to stay around. Just because it was traditional for Southern restaurants to have separate eating sections for blacks and whites doesn’t mean it was morally right.
Besides, as Burke says, changing a name is a wonderful opportunity for a community to show its sensitivity.
We know that at least some of our 23 schools will see things the Indians’ way, and will stop using names and traditions that hurt instead of honor.
An update: A list from the Indiana High School Athletic Association shows more than 40 high schools in the state have nicknames that originated with Native Americans. That number includes 18 calledWarriors, which doesn’t have to be an Indian nickname and which is not necessarily offensive, and four with Redskins, which certainly is.