The editorial no newspaper would publish

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.

19 comments

  1. Jane Campbell says:

    Thank you Kent Nerburn for spelling this out for the ones who still laugh about this and slap each other on the back about their “team name”.They lack the understanding that this is harmful, invalidation of every Native American and the history of these people.
    I agree that the general public would be outraged to hear a team called the white skins, the black skins, etc. I cam imagine logos that would accompany these team names.

  2. Denny says:

    Very well spoken. So sad this was not published.

  3. Marc Allen says:

    I highly doubt it, but even if it’s true that 9 out of 10 Indians are okay about a team called the Redskins, what about the 1 in 10 who aren’t okay with it? Why offend 10% of any population if you don’t have to? Change the name!

    How about calling it the black-and-white skins? I don’t think they have any red or yellow skins on their team. If they do, they could call it the black and white and red and yellow skins. I took a substantial poll, and 95% of Americans would be fine with that. Including me. But then, I have nothing to do with professional sports. I’ve got better things to do with my time. Like read a book… especially one by Kent Nerburn, who is one of the finest writers of our age.

  4. Marc Allen says:

    Oops, I have to correct my last post… my wife reminded me I didn’t include brown skins — and there are probably quite a few brown skins on the team, though I don’t know, because I think most of them play soccer instead, which for some strange reason they call football.

  5. Bob K says:

    Well said Kent an Marc Allen.., Much truth said.
    Mr. Kent Nerburn, Love your Wondering, wandering and writing.

  6. John Maxwell says:

    Kent, I see matters of spirituality largely along the lines of your views. But I disagree with your categorization as offensive all Native American names used by modern American sports teams. Unless there is a clear purpose in using a word or term associated with native people to degrade native people, a sobriquet should not automatically be deemed offensive. In general, teams are not named either for people, or for animal mascots, or for anything else which is commonly the subject of public ridicule. Self-ridicule is not the goal. To the contrary, the name of a team usually is intended to be honorific; or else it has some historical/regional basis; or else it is intended to confer some positive attribute such as power, strength, etc. The name “Seminoles” used by University of Florida teams certainly was not chosen to degrade anyone. It is an historical honorific. “Redskin” always has been a colloquial term. This does not in and of itself make the term offensive. It can be spoken without any intent to degrade. A century ago, when many Americans were racists, this word was more commonly spoken with condescension or with intent to degrade. There are fewer racists in America today. Few people today use the word to express racist thoughts. Virtually nobody who is connected with the Washington football team (owner, management, players, or fans) speaks the name with an intent to degrade Native people. If anything is meant, it is honorific in nature.

    Intent in using a team name is the key. Don’t presuppose bad intent in the use of a colloquial term when no bad intent obviously exists. Rigid politically correct speech codes have extremely corrosive effects in human society. They drive people apart and polarize us. If you want these outcomes, proceed forward as you have in the past. The only fruit of your efforts will be deepening alienation.

  7. Nici says:

    Great read. Thanks for posting, Ken!

  8. knerburn says:

    Intent is not the key. I assume that you, too, are a white male, as am I. We are quite able to use the tools of rationality to craft a position that seems, objectively, to be perfectly reasonable. But I have lived long enough and seen enough to know that I cannot presume to understand the hearts and minds of those who carry deep wounds. Now, granted, that there are those who traffic in grievance as a way of life, and revel in perceived victimhood. But I am in no position to sort them out, though I have my own opinions. What matters to me is that as long as there is one child, earnest and full of innocence, who is wounded by the objectification that is fostered and justified by our well-intentioned words and actions, I will speak out against it. The term “redskins” is wrong, and I stand by that without apology.

  9. Lin says:

    Well said – both the original article and your response to John Maxwell’s comment. “I didn’t mean it that way” has long been the excuse for many acts that have indeed hurt someone. It doesn’t make it OK to continue – it gives the person being hurtful the responsibility to examine his action and change it. That happens all the time in life – how much more important that it happen on such a universal scale as this. Thank you for educating is all, Kent.

  10. Lisa Neau says:

    I don’t understand why non-native people insist on defending “how” the R word is used, or why they defend that it’s all keyed in on “intent”. It simply is not the case. That’s like saying the N-word is no longer “offensive” or, like another comment above, it would be just fine to call that team the Washington Chinks because the “intent” is not to “offend” anyone. This is simply ridiculous and is nothing more than someone who has no real life experience dealing with how this word (and others like it) cause actual damage. This is ignorance in its truest meaning…. having an opinion that is passed off as “fact” when there is no understanding of the real issue (or issues). I’m not sure when “political correctness” became a “bad word”… political correctness can be taken to an seemingly ridiculous extreme but it was originally based in having compassion for those who have had experiences that maybe we have never had to deal with so we can’t understand so instead we are kind and compassionate even though we may not know first-hand the damage, history, and how it still impacts some to this very day. Ignorance abounds so we still have these conversations with those who want to defend the use of offensive words that don’t impact them. Very sad indeed. Great piece Ken. It’s no wonder it wasn’t published in any editorial as it brings non-natives face to face with the fact that there simply is no defending this word when it’s really all about chasing the almighty $$. Joe is right… we must make taking care of our children more important than the bottom line of a “sport” organization. We really need to value the children more than a sport team. That team won’t make any less $$ if they were to change the name. I have long been a fan of changing that name to the Washington Crooks to honor US General George Crook… seems like “an honor” to me.

  11. knerburn says:

    Well spoken, Lisa.

  12. Tom Kanthak says:

    Thank, Kent for a sensitive and clear observation of a reprehensible “policy” of a sports team. We need your voice to off-set the insanity of voices, like The Donald, who give validation to views, opinions, and core beliefs that are immoral and unjust. Even though you, Kent, are not running for President (dammit), please keep us in the loop. Much love and respect to you, my friend.

  13. John Maxwell says:

    Notice that after Kent states, “Intent is not the key,” he immediately presumes that John Maxwell is a white male. Kent could be wrong! There are people named John Maxwell who are black. There is also a John Maxwell who is a Cherokee. The real key for Kent and for some people who defend Kent’s position on this issue is the race/ethnicity of anyone who might speak a word that certain members of a minority group deem to be offensive. This is speech code enforcement based on race or ethnicity. I ask Ken and his supporters on this issue whether you simply want the words “Redskin,” “Seminole,” and “Indian” banned from use as sports team names? Or do you want these words to be banned from all human speech? Would you equally sanction a native American who speaks these words in all circumstances? Would you equally sanction anyone, regardless of their race/ethnicity, who speaks the word Redneck” in reference to white people?

    There are people who want to totally excise certain words from all human speech. Consider the example of Paul McCartney and Kanye West concerning West’s liberal use of the N-word. McCartney played West a melody, and then West modified the melody and added lyrics. McCartney said:

    “I get this track back, a thing called ‘All Day’. [He’s] taken my melody and he’s made it seriously urban, which is funny because the lyrics use the N-Word—a lot! ‘How long have you been at the mall? All day, n-word.'”

    McCartney continues:

    “People like Oprah, who are a little conservative about that stuff, she says, ‘You shouldn’t do it, even black people shouldn’t use that word.'”

    McCartney continues:

    “I said, ‘Yeah, but it’ Kanye!’ And he’s talking about an urban generation that uses that word in a completely different way. It’s the context, so I was actually pleased by it.”

    Here McCartney grants an exception from proscribed speech which allows West and urban black people to use the N-word because McCartney feels the contexts of their use of the word confer no improper intent whatsoever. Oprah doesn’t agree–she wants to ban the word from all human speech by everyone.

    How do readers of this post feel about the McCartney/West example? Are your conclusions equally applicable to use of the words “Redskin,” “Seminole,” and “Indians” by both native Americans as well as non-native people? Should Florida State stop using the name “Seminoles” for their sports team, just as Stanford University stopped using the name “Indians” for their sports teams? Is the word “Redskin” so offensive to some native people that its use should be banned for both Native people and non-Native people? How far are you willing to go in imposing speech codes?

  14. knerburn says:

    What think you readers about John’s words? I look forward to a good exchange.

  15. Regina Kelly says:

    Very good essay and very true. “The Lakota Country Times” might be interested and surprising and crazy that the “The Seattle Times” is not interested.
    I lived in Taos, New Mexico which enjoys a different history. The Taos Pueblo has been occupied for more than a thousand years and the Taos people own a lot of land. It has prevented the extreme deracination experienced by other indigenous people in America.
    Taos also has a Latino population that dates back to the 1500’s. It would be completely unthinkable to call a Taos Pueblo citizen a “redskin.”
    Makes one wonder: Are American football fans are completely insensitive and have low IQ/EQ’s? Imagine referring to the skin color of football or baseball players?
    “Up at bat, the very dark-skinned, Spanish speaking, Big Papi.”
    Thanks,
    Regina

    Regina Kelly Houghteling
    Research, Reference & Instruction Librarian

    Thanks for this.

  16. MJBliv says:

    It really is disturbing to hear the justification that “I didn’t intend” to offend anyone. I believe that many who use offensive terms and language are doing so based on ignorance or lack of empathy and not because they intent to offend. Intent is not necessary and is not the point. Nobody is suggesting that the term “R****” can’t be used in a beneficial context in certain societal interactions. It is just clearly offensive in it’s use by the Washington football sports franchise – not as blatantly so as in earlier times but absolutely yes, it is time to retire the term in this context. This revisionist theory that the use of these terms was to “honor” the group is naive. These terms for sports teams were used to inspire fear in opponents because of the nasty, mean, and dangerous connotation associated with the team mascot. Whether bears, lions, or R****s the team name was not meant to honor that group but make the team appear to be mean, nasty, and dangerous. An opponent you don’t want to take on. We have progressed since then. No team will be named “R****s” in the future and the use of human sports names will be limited to those that truly are intended to honor without direct regard to race or ethnicity. Even better they will limit themselves to non-human names (Wild, Jazz, Sound, 76’ers, Nets, Rockies, etc.)

  17. William Cannon says:

    I think I am most offended by John Maxwell’s pomposity. As when he states that there are fewer racists today. The population of the US has roughly doubled since 1950… Perhaps the percentage of racists has decreased but not necessarily the number. Racism against Native Americans is huge in states like South Dakota… As far as ‘imposing speech codes’… Really? This ‘issue’ is about how times have changed and what is the right thing to do…Not: what is the right thing to do for me. Thinking for all of us is complex. Snyder’s thinking is very narrow, the more one reads about him and what he has to say, the more one sees his interests are selfish (even if he poses differently). I think quoting Cornel West would be wiser than quoting Kanye West on the issue of the n word.
    West: I hope that rap musicians and hip-hop artists become more sensitive to the vicious history of the “N word.” That I know that “nigga” as opposed to “nigger” is a term of endearment for some young people. But the history of “nigger” with its connotation of self-hatred and self-disrespect needs to be acknowledged, so the discussion of the “N word” on my CD that pits my dear brother Michael Eric Dyson who defends the word, against myself, with my dear brother Tavis Smiley moderating provides a forum for this crucial question.
    So too, here, let whoever is of Native American heritage speak…and if we are not….let us read and listen…no assumptions made by name or hand.

  18. Patrick D says:

    I make no claim to be correct. Nor do I wish to cause harm. In that light I offer my perspective, and will speak in general terms.

    Many individuals have lost their sense of community in the purest form. They are off balance as a human being, and have been imprinted with beliefs that tether them to what I refer to as false reality. They are guided by a spirit from the outside, and lack the capacity to look within for answers.

    Having denied the capacity to think for themselves, they attempt to justify a position that is designed to offer no sustainable (pure) solution. The false reality in which they place themselves does not offer solutions, only justification within the man made system.

    The use of many labels are an outward sign of an inward truth that is born from false reality. Imprinted into the consciences of the unsuspecting (non thinking) individual. An imprinted third party representation created to misrepresent the human race.

    “They must find it difficult…those who have taken authority as the truth, rather than truth as the authority.” – Gerald Massey

    “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” – Mark Twain

  19. Regarding John Maxwell,

    I bet it must be fun to not recognize the person or their ethnicity. Paul McCartney was not the intellectual center of the Beatles, probably not the intellectual, spiritual, or musical center of much. His stuff is cute but does it have anything to do with the human condition much less any insights? Maxwell, you are way off base. It’s back to Fox News for you!

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