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LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Washington team name should unite, not divide

- - Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Having grown up as a Washington Redskins fan, I am saddened by the controversy that has arisen over the team's name ("Redskins fire back against Harry Reid, senators on name change," Web, May 23).

The word's origin, it bears emphasis, was entirely benign. Smithsonian Institution senior linguist Ives Goddard studied the history of the name "redskin" and determined that it was introduced by American Indians themselves in the 18th century as a term imbued with honor and dignity. It was "a genuine Native American idiom" that reflected their "distinct cultural perspective," in contrast to the European-imposed label "Indian." When it was first used by Europeans, they did so "in the most respectful context and at the highest level." It was later popularized by author James Fenimore Cooper, who used it as "an inclusive term of self-reference," likely drawing from an 1815 speech by Meskwaki chief Black Thunder.

No one can deny that "redskin" was subsequently misappropriated as a slur in popular culture and film. As recently as 2004, however, an independent poll found that 90 percent of American Indians rejected the view that the NFL team's name was offensive.

Moreover, isn't the name Dallas Cowboys far more offensive? Although historically it was U.S. Army cavalry units, not cowboys, who attacked American Indians throughout the 1800s (and many cowboys were themselves Indians), in film and popular culture, cowboys were celebrated for slaughtering Indians without regard for their humanity. While Redskins fans proudly identify with the Native Americans, Cowboys fans cheer for their mythologized killers.

Regardless of this history, language changes over time, and what was acceptable yesterday may be deemed inappropriate today. The point of a sports team is to unite members of a diverse community behind a group of players who inspire them to pour their hearts out together. If the name Redskins now fails that test, it should be changed.

Perhaps team owner Dan Snyder might consider the name "Washington T. Rexes," in honor of the Smithsonian's newly acquired Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil. Children would love it and if fictional movies are once again to be our guide, Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park" suggests that these prehistoric "sons of Washington" would devour the reviled Cowboys.

STEPHEN A. SILVER

San Francisco