This column was originally published in the San Antonio Express-News, October 11, 2003
by Susan Ives
Last week a Federal court judge ruled that the Washington Redskins can keep their name.
The NFL football team was challenged by Native American activists, who argued that the name violated a 1946 law that prohibits registering a trademark that is disparaging, scandalous, contemptuous or disreputable.
They won their case before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 1992 and weathered an appeal in 1996. The team bumped it to the next level.
The judge wrote in her 84-page decision that the activists waited too long to complain and didn’t offer enough evidence.
I have followed this case closely because I was once a Redskin. Not a Washington Redskin, mind you, but a Neshaminy High School Redskin. It didn’t bother me then. It bothers me now.
My mentor in this controversy has been Jonathan Hook, until recently the director of the American Indian Resource Center.
The term redskin, Jonathan wrote, “is believed to have originated with the practice of placing a bounty on Indian body parts such as heads, scalps, and skins. So, bringing in a redskin literally meant the death of an Indian.”
Make no mistake. Redskin is a racial insult. Many Native Americans place it on par with the “N” word in the African-American community, a slur so vile that writers don’t write it and papers don’t print it.
I explained to Jonathan that I wasn’t a real redskin; the girls at Neshaminy were called squaws.
He replied, “Squaw became the derogatory name used by white men for Indian women. Many believe that its closest literal translation is the most offensive and vulgar term commonly used for vagina.”
You won’t catch me bragging about that sorry aspect of my school days.
But it’s more than words. Teams embellish their mascots with mock regalia and rituals. Interpret “mock” in both its senses: fake and insulting.
Jonathan wrote, “Feathers are sacred to many American Indians; yet, show me one Indian mascot that does not include the depiction of feathers. Our drum is sacred; yet, show me the use of an Indian mascot that does not include a band drumming a Hollywood Indian beat.”
“A similar scenario,” he continued, “would be a mascot dressed as a priest waving a cross and tossing out communion wafers at a football game while cheerleaders dressed as parodies of nuns danced on the sidelines. Would that be acceptable? Activities currently happening at athletic contests are just as offensive to Native peoples.”
No one bears the team ill-will for a name picked more than 70 years ago, when society was insensitive about racial insults.
To its credit, the team does not parody native traditions with a goofy mascot. Fans in the stands enthusiastically fill in that gap. They cleaned up the lyrics to the team’s fight song about the same time they integrated in 1962, the last pro team to do so. Where the song now says, “Beat ’em, swamp ’em, touchdown! – Let the points soar!” it once went, “Scalp ’em, swamp ’em – We will take ’em big score / Read ’em, weep ’em, touchdown! – We want heap more!”
It’s not just about tradition. The team rakes in millions selling merchandise with the Redskin logo. It’s about money, too.
There are still about 2,000 schools, my own included, that retain Indian mascots. A thousand other schools have changed theirs. Sam Houston High School switched from the Indians to the Hurricanes last year. The sky didn’t fall.
There’s a precedent right in the nation’s capital. In 1997 the NBA’s Washington Bullets changed their name to the Wizards as part of the team’s anti-violence campaign.
The Washington Redskins could be a model of enlightened behavior. Instead, they cling to a hurtful past, signaling to schools and the children who attend them that cruel caricatures are acceptable.
The Redskins say they mean no offense and intend to honor Native Americans. Offense and honor can only be interpreted by those bearing the offense and the honor.
Native Americans are calling the Redskins out of bounds. In this play, they are the only legitimate referees.