There Is No Honor in Racism


On October 24, the Minnesota Vikings faced off against the NFL's Washington D.C. team. A coalition of Minnesota federally recognized Indian tribes, along with the National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media and the National Congress of American Indians, organized the 'There is No Honor in Racism' march and rally to address the Washington team's name. The name and brand have been under scrutiny for decades with very few concessions made by the Washington ball club. Current team owner Dan Snyder has even said, on record, "We'll never change the name. It's that simple. NEVER — you can use caps."

The team got the name in 1933 when new owner George Preston Marshall renamed the Boston Braves the Boston Redskins. Four years later, Marshall moved the team to Washington, D.C., and they have been the team we know today ever since.

Marshall and the Washington ball club maintain a history that the name was given to the team to honor its first coach, William "Lone Star" Dietz, who claimed to be American Indian. Recent research indicates that Dietz may have been lying about his heritage in order to avoid being drafted, but more significantly, team owner Marshall told the Associated Press in 1933 that he changed the name only because "Braves" was already in use by a professional baseball team.

Marshall himself was a staunch anti-integrationist. He was the last NFL team owner to refuse to hire African American football players, and it was only the threat of losing a stadium to play in that forced him to eventually integrate his team. Even in death, Marshall's racism was unrelenting, as he set up a foundation in his own name with the stipulation that no money be spent toward "any purpose, which supports or employs the principle of racial integration in any form."

The Washington team today insists that its use of the name ”redskin” and the stereotypical imagery it uses, such as the caricature of an American Indian in profile with a braid and two feathers in his hair, is meant to honor America’s indigenous peoples and show respect. The team’s administrative history as well as the history of the word itself make that difficult to believe for some observers.

The history of the term "redskin" is a murky one, but many American Indians as well as the Merriam- Webster Dictionary define it as derogatory slang. The earliest documentation of the word starts as far back as the late 1700s and can be found in various historical documents that contain many references to indigenous leaders using the term to describe themselves and their people within the context of their relationship with whites. Linguistically speaking, there is no basis to believe that any tribe used the term redskin in any translation as their own name for what they were. Ojibwe people such as those from the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, for example, have always used the term Anishinaabe to refer to themselves. One interpretation of this word is that it means "the original people." A more literal translation is closer to "life that came from nothing." In the Ojibwe language, most things are recognized by whether they are animate, that is, imbued with life, or not. It is certain that things, especially human beings, were not defined or identified by their skin color.

"Redskin" was a term invented by colonizers seeking to place indigenous people in a category that made them something other than human. At the October 24 rally, U.S. Representative Betty McCollum reminded attendants that "Even in our state, at one time, it was $250 for a 'redskin.'" McCollum referred to the common practice of government-funded bounties for American Indian scalps. McCollum along with many other speakers at the rally in the Commons at the U.S. Bank Stadium, called on the Washington team to change its name and mascot. "We need to tell the NFL not to make a profit off this racial slur," McCollum emphasized.

Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan, the highest ranking American Indian woman elected to Executive Office in the United States, led speakers at the rally by pointing out that, "It’s important that we stand up against racism wherever we find it." Flanagan talked about her daughter, who was dismayed when she saw a Washington team advertisement on TV. Flanagan reports her daughter telling her, "Mommy, that’s not right. We’re not animals. We’re people. We’re not mascots." Flanagan said that this was her answer to anyone who wants to know what she would say to Washington team owner Dan Snyder given the chance. "I would make Dan Snyder talk to my six-and-a-half-year-old little girl who would tell him how inappropriate and racist it is to have this Washington team name. This racial slur that he profits from is not right."

The issue, Flanagan went on to explain, is that the imagery of the team mascot dehumanizes American Indian people. It’s not about hurt feelings or being sensitive. It directly affects policy-making. "When you take humanity away from people," Flanagan said, "you don’t have to pass policies that are supportive of our people and communities. You don’t have to invest in our communities. You can roll right over our communities as big corporations. You have to see us. You have to value us. And you have to respect our people. We are here, we have always been here, and we will always be here."

Other speakers at the event included Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, Minneapolis Deputy Police Chief Henry Halvorson, Minnesota Representative Mary Kunesh-Podein, Prairie Island Indian Community President Shelley Buck, Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community Secretary/Treasurer Rebecca Crooks-Stratton, and Mille Lacs Band Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin.

Chief Executive Benjamin criticized commonly heard calls for American Indian communities to "get over it" or "deal with it" when it comes to racial slurs, offering the reply, "As a mother, as a grandmother, I have a few things for them to deal with. Good intentions mean nothing when you are causing real harm. That name is stained by genocide. It is the 21st century, and we will not be silenced in the face of racism. It is time for them to deal with that. As Indian people, we are proud, we are strong, we are united, and We Are Not Your Mascot."