“Please Keep the Name ‘Redskins'”

“Please Keep the Name ‘Redskins'” July 4, 2020


Tlingit "war canoes"
Tlingit canoes head into the Auk Village Celebration, Juneau, in southeastern Alaska, from the North, via the Inside Passage.
(Wikimedia Commons public domain image)


With his permission, I again share a thought-provoking Facebook entry posted by a friend, neighbor, and fellow Interpreter Foundation volunteer:


“Please Keep the Name Redskins” by Tom Pittman
I am Native American. I am a member of the Tlingit tribe of Southeast Alaska. I am of the Raven moiety, and of the T’akdeintaan (Sea Pigeon) clan. My Tlingit name is Koohook. My mother raised me in the ways of our people: I harvested herring eggs, fished, hunted, wore regalia, danced, sang, ate Tlingit foods, and learned what my mom called “Native values”.
One of those values is integrity.
Contrary to the narrative people keep repeating, the word “redskins” was NOT coined as a derogatory reference to Native Americans.
According to Smithsonian historian Ives Goddard, it is a documented historical fact that the word “redskins” was originally coined by Native Americans as a SELF-IDENTIFIER to differentiate between the many groups of First Americans, and the groups of newly arrived, light-skinned colonists.
=> Obviously, Native Americans did not find the word they made up to refer to themselves as offensive.
In pre-Columbian America, indigenous Americans didn’t think of themselves as all one race as many do today. They saw themselves as different peoples with different languages, foods, customs, etc. Some tribes even warred with each other over things like territory.
It wasn’t until European colonists showed up that the need arose for a word to refer to all the indigenous tribes, without also referring to the newly arrived groups of lighter skinned people, hence the birth of the word “redskins”.
Goddard writes that the word was not used by white people until James Fenimore Cooper used it in his 1823 novel “The Pioneers”. In the book, Cooper has a dying Indian character lament, “There will soon be no red-skin in the country.”
Until then, white Americans called Indigenous Americans “Indians,” which when you think about it is by far the more offensive word.
In fact, if we Natives want to be indignant about something, and demand that someone change the name of something, it should be that the government rename agencies such as the “Bureau of Indian Affairs” and the “Indian Health Service”.
After all, everyone has known for over 500 years that American “Indians” were never from India, yet the word continues to be used and it is demeaning to both real Indians, and Indigenous Americans.
Of course, that’s not to say that some white people haven’t used the word “redskins” in a derogatory way, but then again some people have used the words “millennial” and “boomer” in derogatory ways as well.
Even the word “genius” is often used to demean someone as an idiot, but that doesn’t mean the word itself was ever intended to be offensive.
In the mid 1800s, when team owners (White Americans) began using the word “redskins” (and other Native American references) to name sports teams, they chose the words because they were widely seen positively, not as insults.
Just THINK about it: no one pays money to cheer for losers, so no team owner would ever name a team after something the public saw as negative.
In the 1800s, the term “redskin” carried the connotation “from THIS land” and “as American as American can be”.
So naming a sports team after a Native American reference was an expression of PATRIOTISM — of breaking from their European roots and coming together as Americans now.
Native American references in sports has always been intended as a tribute and a compliment. Team owners wanted their athletes to be regarded as highly as Native Americans were.
Of course, America also has a sad history of anti-Native American bigotry as well.
In 1915, a shockingly racist book was released called “Redskin Rimes” by Earl Emmons. Its introduction mocked people who had positive impressions of Natives, then the book went on to present “a series of poems, songs and speeches, each more offensive than the last” according to NPR’s Lakshmi Gandhi.
In addition to books, Native American racism was perpetuated by the fledgling movie industry.
Many films blatantly engaged in the appalling stereotyping of “Indians” including a 1932 Tom and Jerry cartoon called “Redskin Blues” wherein the duo was saved from blood-thirsty savages by the US army.
In short, while books and movies perpetuated racism in America, the sports world held Native Americans up in a positive light.
Wouldn’t it be a shame if the sports world was now punished for that?
Thanks to professional sports, millions of people look up to and cheer Native American symbols now!
As a final point to think about, please consider the life and legacy of one of my heroes, Jim Thorpe.
Jim Thorpe was a member of the Sac and Fox Nation, born during this very time period, in May of 1887.
As you probably know, Jim Thorpe was the first Native American to win a gold medal for the United States, winning 2 gold medals in the 1912 Olympics (decathlon and pentathlon).
At the time Thorpe won his gold medals, it was unclear if Native Americans were even recognized as U.S. citizens.
When Jim Thorpe was qualifying for the US Olympic team, The New York Times ran an article on April 28, 1912 with the headline “Indian Thorpe in Olympiad; Redskin from Carlisle Will Strive for Place on American Team”.
Note the positive use of the term “Redskin” in the headline from the most influential news publication of its time, the national “newspaper of record”.
The following year, in 1913, Jim Thorpe signed with the New York Giants and played 6 seasons of Major League Baseball.
Thorpe then switched sports and won 3 championships as a professional football player!
While playing professional football, Jim Thorpe organized a team and called it the “Oorang Indians” (from LaRue, Ohio).
Thorpe also organized a professional basketball team he called “the World Famous Indians of LaRue”.
Native American hero, Jim Thorpe, *TWICE* named professional sports teams after Native American references.
You can bet this was NOT done because he wanted to demean Native Americans!
=> At the very height of bigotry against Native Americans in the United States, with books and movies openly and intensely engaging in racial slurs and stereotypes, the world’s most famous Native American deliberately pushed against the hate by naming his professional sports teams after Native American references so that White Americans could see us in a positive light.
I would HATE to see Jim Thorpe’s superlative legacy unraveled by misinformed outrage.
The word “redskins” exists because we Native Americans made it up to refer to ourselves.
While some in history used the word as a racial slur, today millions of sports fans look to Native American symbols with enthusiastic support. And it’s our culture they are cheering!
Someone please take the footguns away from those Natives who are trying to unravel Jim Thorpe’s legacy!
To be clear, I personally am not fond of the team name “Redskins”.
But I’m not offended by it either, because I understand its origins and history.
=> What concerns me is that changing the name of the Washington Redskins will trigger a PURGING of Native American references in sports altogether, and that would be TRAGIC.
So if the Washington Redskins do change their name, I *REALLY* hope they will choose another Native American reference for the team’s name.
For instance, the University of Utah pays a royalty to the Ute tribe for their use of the “Runnin’ Utes”. We can have more win/wins like this.
My name is Koohook. My mother raised me in the ways of our people.
And I want my grandchildren living in a world that sees Native Americans in a positive light — in part because I think it will help them see themselves positively as well.
Thanks for listening.
 Just to put this in perspective:
Although I’m not opposed to watching part of an occasional football game, I’m far and away not much of a serious football enthusiast and I’m definitely not a particular fan of the NFL.  In other words, the names of NFL teams aren’t high on my list of issues.  I don’t really have a dog in this fight.  But I like accurate history and reasoned positions, and I think that Tom’s perspective is worth hearing.


It seems pretty unlikely to me that owners of professional sports teams have chosen to give them names that they themselves considered demeaning.  There are, so far as I’m aware, no professional athletic organizations bearing names like the Winnipeg Wimps, the Los Angeles Losers, the Seattle Sob Sisters, the Pittsburg Pansies, the Detroit Defeated, the Toledo Trodden-Upon, or the Cleveland Cowards  Instead, names like Vikings, Hawks, Bengals, Lions, Raiders, Hornets, Falcons, Titans, Timberwolves, Grizzlies, Steelers, Cavaliers, Braves, Redskins, Panthers, Rams, Pirates, Indians, Yankees, Eagles, Athletics, Buccaneers, Chiefs, Raptors, Reds, Chargers, Tigers, Giants, Warriors, and Rangers are intended to suggest rugged strength, defiance, fierce competitiveness, and so forth.  There is admiration in them.  Pride.  Certainly not contempt.



Browse Our Archives