clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Where a Redskins player and the Redskins website defend the indefensible

The origin of the word "redskin" counts for less than its contemporary meaning.

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Washington offensive lineman Jordan Black just doesn't understand why people are so upset about old timey racial epithets. He made his opinion known on Monday when he chimed in on the Redskins name-change debate. His team soon followed with a backhanded defense of its own.

As you might have expected, things only got more interesting from there.

Black, a white guy, offered up the usual, expected defense of other possibly offensive terms, some of which may surprise you.

The real revelation came when Black challenged Twitter followers to prove that the term "redskin" was a racially charged label, because obviously he can't be expected to remember everything thrown at him in a U.S. history survey class at Notre Dame.

Debate over the word's origin is nothing new. A linguist with the Smithsonian Institution, Ives Goddard, studied the term "redskin" and its evolving place in the American vernacular, summarized by this Washington Post article from 2005. Goddard's work gained attention in relation to a lawsuit from Native American activists led by Suzan Shown Harjo nearly a decade ago to cancel the "Redskins" trademark on the grounds that it disparaged Native Americans. A federal district court threw out the lawsuit over the issue of laches and the Supreme Court refused to hear it.

Goddard's study found a more complicated history of the term, finding it in use among Native Americans as early as the 1700s. It first appeared in print in 1815 in reports over treaty discussions with tribes in the Midwest. From there the history and meaning of the term gets more convoluted. Native use of the term came mostly second-hand via translators, which was a notorious problem through the troubled history of US-Native relations.

A more pejorative connotation took hold as the US government waged war on Western tribes and the popular mythology of the West painted Native Americans as a hostile impediment to expansion and settlement. From there, John Wayne and the ten-gallon hat wearing cowboys of the silver screen imbued the term with its modern context.

Black wasn't the only one talking about the use of the name "Redskins" on Monday. The team's official web site posted a short article noting a fairly widespread use of the name among high schools.

"We are very proud of our athletic teams and very proud to be called Redskins!"

These are the words of Coshocton High School athletic director George Hemming, who serves as the athletic director for just one of the 70 different High Schools in 25 states are known as the Redskins.

Ah yes, American high schools, beacons of enlightened thinking and always at the forefront of change.

The origins of the word don't really matter. Its contemporary significance does. Words and symbols lack meaning other than what we as a society place on them. The Swastika's roots can be traced to India, but the meaning of that symbol has been forever changed in the West, for obvious reasons.

The origin of the word "redskin" and the team's name may very well have originated innocuously enough, but the culture has evolved since then, altering the meaning and ideology of the words and the symbols we share.

For too many, the name conjures up a painful legacy of discrimination and even genocide. That's not a memory we should force on people just because someone else once thought it was innocuous.