Indian Country

A Second Look: The Honor of the Mascot, or A Team by Any Other Name

washington-redskins-helmet-logoThe latest publicity over the very name of the Washington Redskins is only the most recent eruption in a longtime simmer. As recently as 2009, the Supreme Court refused to hear a case dating back to 1992. This should not surprise given that the Supreme Court has never overturned Johnson v. McIntosh, its 1823 decision in which it justified the European conquest of Native American lands by right of the Doctrine of Discovery and asserted the United States’s assumption by inheritance of this right. The decision remains the law of the land. It is as if Dred Scott v. Sandford‎  were still accepted law. Fittingly, too, the 2009 decision was over the matter of trademark – an economic interest such as those that fueled all the conquest and abuse of Native America.

The latest effort against the Redskins denigration also began with a challenge to trademark. Now President Obama has weighed in, and for certain kind of American for whom neither the conquest, nor Johnson, nor the legacy of both is problematic, the very fact of Obama’s judgment belittles the case. That Lanny Davis, of all legal counsel, has been retained as Redskins representation offers its own ready commentary on the quality of the quarters to which adherents now retreat. All this foolishness about identity politics. (Crie those, generally, whose identity was never the reason for social difficulty.)

I wrote about this specific subject at length once before, on June 8, 2009.

From “The Honor of the Mascot, or A Team by Any Other Name”

Periodically, because of such suits – and actions on a more local level, against school athletic teams – the subject gains a degree of national attention. Some non-Natives are automatically sympathetic: of course, there shouldn’t be such team names. No Washington Redskins anymore than a Los Angeles Kikes, Washington Niggers, New York Spics, or Cleveland Bohunks.

Those less sympathetic generally argue from two positions. One is that of an apparently deep fatigue (so arduous has been the burden) with what is sometimes referred to (for instance, now, in the conservative opposition to the Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor) as “identity atlanta-braves-logopolitics.” This is a fatigue generally ironically experienced mostly by those who have never been the victims of the original identity politics, namely racial or ethnic discrimination. (Ah, but give them credit; they are born again.) And there is no group identity that has been longer both under attack and disregarded on this continent than that, collectively, of the various Native nations.

The other position – less explicitly presented but quite apparent – is that of the sports fans who don’t want their hallowed traditions messed with. Team names, statistical records, stadium rituals are all part of the mythic regalia of an athletic Valhalla. You want to disrupt all that for – the Indians? Of course, few would say exactly that, so one defense of current practice with regard to the Washington Redskins is that “Redskin” is not a derogatory term like those others I used. Sports Illustrated, of all publications (how curious) conducted a poll in 2002 that offered results indicating that an overwhelming majority of Native Americans did not object to the term. In 2004, the Annenberg Public Policy Center produced a similar poll.


Setting aside any consideration of the particularly problematic nature of polling what is, at this point, a very demographically complex Native population, one has first to note that there still, nonetheless, appear not to be athletic teams named the Los Angeles Semites, Washington Negroes, New York Hispanics, or Cleveland Slavs. And we might point out as a reasonable and parallel historical argument that, hey, the Indians signed all those treaties, didn’t they? It was all on the up and up. They agreed to it!

Besides (goes the further argument), we’re paying them a compliment. We’re honoring them (but not those Semites, Negroes, and, well, you get the point) for their courage and dignity and similar such encomiums. One has to wonder, if the Native population had managed to hold off and limit the European advance on the continent in any significant way, had achieved any measure of victory – at far greater cost to non-Native life, as is the nature of war – would the present-day fans of Redskin “courage” and “dignity” be nonetheless similarly enamored? One tends not to ennoble one’s conqueror. The defeated don’t make pets of the victorious.


Check the major American dictionaries: “Redskin” is defined as a derogatory term. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the American Counseling Association, and the American Psychological Association have all adopted resolutions opposing the use of Native American images as athletic symbols and mascots. Yet there remains something essential that most Americans do not get.

A few weeks ago, we spoke with Chad Smith, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma:

For generations now, what is the language or frame of reference we’ve accepted? Because of American history, it is based upon color. It’s very simplistic. Those are fairly shallow criteria…. There are a lot of other barriers that the United States and the American people don’t even recognize as a barrier. A very clear one is the Washington Redskins…. If we look in D.C. today, here is the capitol, here is the class of people who really should understand American history…but have so little understanding that the Washington Redskins – half the congress goes to those games, and you can go to their offices and see those derogatory caricatures.

The dominating mentality of the conqueror persists, little altered by time. The ownership of the Washington Redskins and its executive leadership condescend to praise Native Americans as they belittle them, by exercising a power that only the dominant can wield over those subject to that power – in this case, the force of an arrogant cultural disregard masking unremitting greed. So it was in previous centuries; so it is now. Twice in the nineteenth century the Cherokee had their Tribal lands removed from them because, beneath all the subterfuge, the government and whites simply wanted them for their own economic interests. An underlying truth in the case of the Washington Redskins is that a change in the team’s name, affecting branding and team identification, would have significant economic consequences for what is currently the second most valuable team in the National Football League.

Until now arguments in court have centered on trademark law and the timeliness of the plaintiff’s applications. This is how it has always been. But if there were a Los Angeles Kikes or a Washington Niggers, all quaintly dressed up in their most becoming cultural stereotypes, how long ago would growing popular outrage have forced the issue beyond the bounds of the blind technicalities of law?

A fine compendium on the issue.


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Indian Country

Redskins Redux

Indian Country Today reports that the litigants in the suit to force The Washington Redskins football team to change its name have decided to take the case to the United States Supreme Court. They filed a writ of certiorari petition with the court on Sept. 14.

Readers of this blog will recall that I first wrote about the case, and the general issue of Indian-named teams and mascots in The Honor of the Mascot back in June. A somewhat different version appeared as a guest post at The League of Ordinary Gentleman.

The contention of the plaintiff’s – clear, I think, to all but those resistant to recognizing a harsh truth about American history – is that the Redskins name is racist, which trademark law prohibits. Plaintiffs’ loss at the appellate level was based on statute of limitations grounds for filing the suit. I responded briefly to those grounds in the comments to the League version of the post, a response that was not legal in nature, but instead historical and moral. Of course, with the entire legal basis for dealing with Native Americans originating in the Supreme Court’s explicitly racist 1823 Johnson v. M’Intosh decision (an effective historical equivalent for Native Americans to the Dred Scott decision for African-Americans) – still unrevised by the Court and informally, supportively cited in conversation by Justice Antonin Scalia as recently as this past April (see the League post) – fundamental arguments against U.S. policy vis-à-vis Native Americans should not be legal, but historical and moral.

Suzan Shown Harjo

Most well known among the plaintiffs is Suzan Shown Harjo, a Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee Indian who heads Washington D.C.’s Morning Star Institute, an organization dedicated to “Native People’s traditional and cultural advocacy, arts promotion and research.” Included among these areas of the institute’s focus is protecting, preserving and restoring Native sacred grounds and spaces.

In that June post, I referenced an ESPN online editorial reflecting a typical lack of sympathy among many sports fans for the plaintiffs’ position and on the entire issue of team names and mascots. Interestingly, on another occasion, a supportive ESPN hosted Harjo in an online chat session about the subject with fans. The fan comments, as they can be, were revelatory if not necessarily instructive, and Harjo acquitted herself with remarkable grace and aplomb. Among the encouragingly supportive comments and the rankly boobish, there were some highlights. A couple of chatters offered this common response:

Harry: Don’t you think that this is a pretty petty thing to be nagging about? Aren’t there bigger issues out there in the world today than name-calling?

Suzan Shown Harjo: Most of the people who ask that question don’t do anything about our big issues. The Native American parties to our lawsuit are the ones who are doing something about the big issues, and this is one of them, because it is contextual, atmospheric — it affects federal Indian law because, for one thing, policymakers don’t make good policy for cartoons or for people who are used for others’ sport.

The questioner here is employing the either/or fallacy, the mistake in reasoning that suggests only one of two options is available – exclusive of each and any other – when there are, in fact, multiple, possibly non-exclusive options. Pursuing improvements in Native health and education, for instance, in no way precludes, also, attempts to eliminate government-supported racist iconography. Pursing the latter does not preclude the former. We can do more than one thing at a time. And, as Harjo astutely points out, there is a profound “contextual, atmospheric” element – the one that leads most Americans to be generally culturally, historically and morally unconscious in the matter of the country’s history with, and relation to, Native Americans. In this next question and answer, Harjo follows up on that point perfectly.

Noah Hurwitz: I’m alarmed at the number of offensive remarks that people have made during this chat. Why is it that there is so little respect given to Native Americans?

Suzan Shown Harjo: That’s one of the problems with dehumanizing, objectifying images, names, behaviors — promotion of disrespect.

There is this argument, often offered in relation to African-Americans, too, and about which I will soon post – the “get over it” argument.

Harry: I am first to agree that what has happened to the Indians by the Americans was a horrible thing, and it shouldn’t be looked over. However, how long are you going to play that trump card? Eventually, you need to move on as a group and realize that things are never going to revert back to the olden days. Eventually you are going to have to take responsibility for yourself and stop pulling out that same card.

Suzan Shown Harjo: We aren’t trying to go back to a bygone era. We seek justice in our own time and in comparison to all the other human beings of our time.

Finally, for my purposes, Harjo’s got herself a sense of humor.

JJ: Ever think that instead of promoting equality, this fight of yours will sour people about Indians. People may think that Indians are kind of stupid for trying to change a mascot’s name.

Suzan Shown Harjo: The thoughts of those who could be soured over a bid for justice are of little interest to me — what are they going to do? Get mad and take away the western hemisphere?