As the Washington Post puts out its utterly bizarre, incomprehensible, and shamelessly self serving poll saying that 9 out of 10 Native people are okay with the term Redskins, I feel compelled to repost an editorial that I sent out to a number of papers a while ago. It should come as no surprise that none was willing to publish it. Perhaps you can pass it on, so we can get it seen on social media:
Whooping it up with the Redskins
“It hurts the children,” said my friend, Joe, as we shared a cup of coffee across a restaurant table. “I don’t understand why they don’t see that? Why would anyone want to hurt little kids just to make a dollar?”
Joe is a Native American – a member of the Ojibwe, or Chippewa people. A Redskin.
He was talking about the willing embrace of Indian names and mascots, and the cultural blindness that seems to find the Washington Redskins acceptable while we recoil at the thought of the “Washington Coons” or the “Washington Chinks.”
Such names are unthinkable and very likely unprintable. In fact, you are probably very uncomfortable just reading those terms.
But, Washington Redskins? No problem printing that; no problem saying that. “Hey, that’s their name. Just use it.”
As the lawyer for Daniel Snyder, the owner of the football Redskins, crowed triumphantly after winning a lawsuit brought by Native American plaintiffs, “Millions have been spent on the Redskins brand and the team would have suffered great economic loss if they lost the trademark registrations. It’s a great day for the Redskins and their fans and their owner Dan Snyder.” Mr. Snyder, by the way, is the same man who once demanded that the weekly Washington City Paper apologize for showing a photo of him with kid-scribbled horns and a beard that he felt were anti-Semitic.
What is this disconnect, and why can’t we overcome it?
Part of it is economic, of course. As Snyder’s lawyer said, “The team would have suffered great economic loss. . .” They don’t even try to hide it.
But some of it is because of the strange relationship America has to its original inhabitants. First, we don’t know the real history. We aren’t taught about the dislocations, forced marches, and conscious efforts at cultural annihilation that took place all across this continent. We don’t hear about the hundreds of thousands of children who were ripped from their families, sent off to prison-like boarding schools, shorn of their hair and their language and their culture, and left to cry themselves to sleep every night. We never even ask the simple mathematical question of what happened to the 20 million or so Native American people who were here when our European boats first landed on this shore? And we certainly never broach the word,”genocide.”
Instead, we hold up a mythic image of the Native American as something we can exploit and appropriate. It gives us a fantasy tie to a vision of freedom, exoticism, and earth-bound spirituality. Why else would Native Americans have the odd status of being the only minority group that Euro-Americans clamor to get into, desperately searching for a real or imagined Cherokee grandmother in their family tree?
Sadly, we experience some kind of emotional disconnect between the Native mom and dad going to the grocery store with their children and the mythic Indian riding across the plains or canoeing through pine dotted islands. Because we love that mythic Indian, we think that any reference to the Indian in our popular culture is an honoring, and that Indians, if there are any, are just being too sensitive and ought to get with the program. What we are really doing is using those images to blind ourselves to a past that we would rather ignore than acknowledge, and turning real people into caricatures and cartoons.
It is time we fixed this, not only for Joe and the little children, but for our own understanding of the peoples who are the heartbeat of our history on this continent. It is time that we understood and honored the gifts of their intellectual and spiritual traditions — an awareness that the earth is a teacher; that we are but a part of nature and not the owners of it; that there is spirit in every rock and leaf and creature that lives on this planet.
Instead we do tomahawk chops and warwhoops and call teams Redskins. It is a sorry commentary on our historical self-understanding as well as an indictment of our cultural sensitivity. And, as Joe says, it hurts the little children.
It is time that we changed our ways.