You can buy most anything emblazoned with the name and logo of the Washington Redskins these days: dinner plates, fuzzy dice, handbags, sunglasses, foam fingers, vinyl car mats.
That 80-year-old name, goes the canard that’s as worn as FedEx Field, honors Native Americans.
Car magnets, nail polish, dog toys, plush monkeys, feather earrings, golf towels.
Cultures reduced to a pile of logoed baubles and a stadium full of singing about “braves on the warpath” and a name that former U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell lists as one of the four most derogatory words to describe a Native American. The equivalent, to some, of the n-word. An honor.
Campbell, the former Olympian who enjoys football and counts coach Mike Shanahan as a friend, poses a simple question to Redskins supporters miffed by his offense: “How would you like to change the name of the team to the Washington Darkies?”
Silence usually follows.
The debate over the name isn’t new. That doesn’t mean it’s without importance or unworthy of thoughtful, rational discussion. Last week’s daylong symposium on racist sports nicknames at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and a hearing next month in the long-running lawsuit to strip federal trademark protection from the name ensure this uncomfortable question won’t soon fade. Nor should it.
One symposium speaker recalled the worst thing he’s been called: “Dirty redskin.”
Another speaker: “I am not a mascot.”
The word passes our lips and keyboards without thought, something associated with Robert Griffin III and afternoons with family and The Hogs. We don’t want to feel badly about something we enjoy or admit that it may offend. After all, what would that say about us? That doesn’t change the word’s meaning or the deep hurt caused to many of the all-but-invisible minority supposedly honored. That the word is familiar and repeated doesn’t make it any more justified than slurs assigned to other groups; if someone is offended, we need to listen.
“I don’t think the owners understand that they’re not honoring us,” said Robert Holden, deputy director of the National Congress of American Indians. “If they’re still saying that, please take it back. Honors like that we don’t need, we don’t want.”
Open a dictionary to “redskin.” Merriam-Webster: “usually offensive.” Oxford: “dated or offensive.” Random House: “often disparaging and offensive.” Collins: “now considered taboo.”
That’s the black-and-white truth, not an honor.
When was the last time you used “redskin” in non-sports discussion? If the word really, truly honored, we’d have a National Museum of the Redskin and refer to the former redskin U.S. Senator from Colorado and drive past the Bureau of Redskin Affairs on C Street in Washington. Sports and John Ford Westerns are the last places the word hasn’t been banished from polite conversation.
Imagine a stadium screaming a similar slur (don’t forget the one-size-fits-all logo!) about African-Americans. Gays or lesbians. Hispanics. Handicapped. Jews. Mentally challenged. Muslims. Whatever minority you can imagine. Strip away individualism, attach a name they never adopted and turn the group into a caricature. Call it an honor.
Are they mascots or, you know, actual people?
So, the Redskins sell flasks, beer steins, shot glasses. Never mind that 11.7 percent of Native American deaths are alcohol-related, almost four times the national average. Credit cards, money clips. Twenty-eight percent live at or below the poverty line, the highest of any racial group in the nation.
Our greatest connection with them is the anonymous, dehumanized silhouette on mass-produced trinkets that has nothing to do with their noble history or gut-wrenching present. You learn nothing about how they got here, the trail of broken treaties, bison hunted into near-extinction, entire peoples ravaged by smallpox and the Indian wars, then decades of forced assimilation that stripped away their culture one custom and native word at a time. Instead of being as revolted by the subjugation as we are by our nation’s slave-owning past, we sell a dog leash covered in Redskins logos for $17.20.
The Native American community is beset by startlingly high rates of suicide, tuberculosis, diabetes, hepatitis, liver disease, mental health disorders. More gang involvement than any racial group. A 60 percent higher infant death rate than Caucasians. They get less education. Don’t live as long.
And supporters of the team wear headdresses to FedEx Field. Can’t name the Piscataway people, Native Americans who populated the Washington region generations ago. Sing the team’s fight song that’s been edited to remove references to scalping and “we want heap more,” implicitly admitting that, yes, these Native American stereotypes are offensive. Cover their bodies in red paint, interrupted only by a loincloth, and prance in cultural drag. Imagine the outrage if someone strolled FedEx Field’s parking lot in blackface.
One panelist at the museum’s symposium challenged owner Daniel Snyder to visit the National Congress of American Indians’ next convention and use “redskin” to learn the response to such an honor in person.
If we can’t see Native Americans as anything more than a sweatshirt to tug on, an identity to wrap our fandom around, how can we possibly hope to understand the deep-seated problems of the present or respect thousands of years of history? It’s easier, really, to mindlessly sing after another touchdown about going on the warpath. Or hand over cash for another bauble.
Rain boots. Socks. Flip-flops. Bumper stickers. Tire covers.
There’s no small irony in the inescapable logos. Division rules Washington: Democrat and Republican, lobbyist and homeless, transient and lifer, for and against, your country and mine. Football is the great unifying force in a city blessed with diversity of people and ideas, barriers papered over with name that’s a grievous insult to some and, really, is a slur on us all.