Why the Redskins name needs to be changed

Nov 7, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; A Washington Redskins helmet against the Minnesota Vikings at Mall of America Field at H.H.H. Metrodome. The Vikings defeated the Redskins 34-27. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 7, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; A Washington Redskins helmet against the Minnesota Vikings at Mall of America Field at H.H.H. Metrodome. The Vikings defeated the Redskins 34-27. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports /

Imagine walking onto a Native American reservation in New Mexico or Wisconsin or California or any of the numerous states in which they exist. How would you address the first person you saw? Probably with a simple greeting of “hey” or “how’re you doing?” What you wouldn’t do is call them a redskin.

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And why wouldn’t you call them that? Well, because it’s offensive and demeaning.

Following this logic, why then, is it acceptable for a football team—in the nation’s capital no less—to use the word as a nickname?

Here, let me answer that question for you: it isn’t.

A few days ago, the ever-smoldering embers regarding the Redskins name were sparked once again, as 50 United States Senators submitted a call to the NFL to stop using Redskins as a nickname for Washington’s football team.

"“The NFL can no longer ignore this and perpetuate the use of this name as anything but what it is: a racial slur,” the letter says. “We urge the NFL to formally support a name change for the Washington football team. We urge you and the National Football League to send the same clear message as the NBA did: that racism and bigotry have no place in professional sports.”"

In response, the NFL sent out an embarrassing statement defending the use of the name based on their long-standing claims of respect, something I already dissected here.

But this piece isn’t about the NFL’s response, rather about the name in general, and why it must go.

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There are conflicting theories on how the word redskin originated, with Ives Goddard, the senior linguist at the Smithsonian Institution, writing that the initial use was for descriptive purposes.

"“Smithsonian Institution senior linguist Ives Goddard spent seven months researching its history and concluded that “redskin” was first used by Native Americans in the 18th century to distinguish themselves from the white “other” encroaching on their lands and culture.”"

Others, however, such as Suzan Shown Harjo, suggest a more sinister origin.

"“As loathsome as it is for the franchise to impose this false identity, its name is even more vile, because it is rooted in the commodification of Native skin and body parts as bounties and trophies.”"

Without the ability to travel back in time and settle it once and for all, the debate over the origin of the word will go on forever.

However, the origin of the word matters not. Regardless of how tame or innocent the initial use of the word may have been, the fact remains that at some point along the line, the word picked up negative connotations and became offensive—something it remains today.

As our nation grew and expanded, Native Americans were treated as an inferior people, subjected to vile racism and forced to move from their homes. Millions upon millions were even killed as the government became greedy for the lands they occupied.

Throughout the early history of the United States, Native Americans were described as savages and varmint, a people not to be associated with.

Using the word redskin furthered that non-association that people were desperate to achieve and was yet another way for people to subjugate Native Americans to a lower status. You may argue the word started out in an innocent manner, used to describe a color of skin; but words change meaning over time, and when a group of people are turned into second-class citizens, any word describing them is no longer innocent.

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Similar to the debate over how the word redskin was first used, many dispute the reasons why Redskins was chosen as the nickname for Washington’s football team. Once again, however, the origins don’t matter and are irrelevant in the fight to change the name.

We’ve heard the countless claims of honor and respect and the studies alleging the name isn’t offensive. Yet all the while, prominent people—both Native American and non-Native American—decry the name as offensive and insulting. Numerous tribes have called for the name to be dropped, prominent columnists have refused to keep using the word in their writing, and thousands of high schools across the country have dropped the nickname from their sports teams. Even still, Dan Snyder, the Washington Redskins organization and the NFL continue to reaffirm their backwards stances on the name.

Based on public feedback, it’s clear many do not find the name to be offensive and do not think it should be changed, which is a sad commentary on today’s society. Thankfully, there are just as many fighting for the name to be changed.

Wanting to change the Redskins name isn’t a case of PC police running wild and ruining the country. The country already has a shameful history of treatment towards Native Americans that borders on genocide. I don’t think wanting to get rid of a racist nickname is going to make that worse.

Wanting to change the Redskins name isn’t a waste of the government’s time. Though it hasn’t always done the best job, our government exists to make the country the best place it can be for all people. When a large group of people feels discriminated against because of something, it is the government’s job is to try and fix that problem.

Wanting to change the Redskins name is a matter of right and wrong, and that’s why it needs to be changed. It’s the right thing to do.