I can see the Christmas tree. Its decked boughs rise eight feet towards our vaulted ceiling. Twinkling lights of blue, red, green and amber are caught in the reflection of shiny bulbs as they dance around the room. I was five years old. I sat under the tree and gazed at those mesmerizing lights sick with anticipation. We didn’t do Christmas morning in our house. My mom was a immigrant from Germanic stock, so Christmas happened the night of the 24th. My dad grew up dirt poor. Him and his brother started working with their mom when they were four and five years old, picking blueberries on the Skokomish Reservation in Washington state so they could eat. They lost their dad to alcoholism early, and it was just the three of them against the world. He was just excited to have Christmas at all.
Under the tree that year there was a square box. It was 1-foot x 1-foot x 1-foot of green and red paper. I can still feel the weight of the cube. It was heavier than the other presents. It rattled intriguingly when I shook it. There was something big in there. What was in the box?
Christmas Eve arrived. I had to wait all day for my dad to get off work at six that evening. It was torture. I sat in our living room window waiting for his old Dodge pick-up to rumble down the gravel road. Finally, he’d burst into the house ho-ho-ho-ing with his yearly Christmas gift from the boss: a huge fruit basket. Then we had Christmas dinner. I shoveled in mashed potatoes and turkey as fast as my little arms could shovel. Then there was pie. Pie?! Never has dessert seemed more cruel. The Christmas tree loomed behind me. Taunting me with it’s pile of un-opened gifts. And I was being served pie.
Eventually, my parents relented. I darted to the tree and started sniffing around like a prized truffle hog under his first Oak of the season. My dad popped on the Santa hat and we got down to business. Socks. Comic books. A new Sega Master System game. My dad caught me eye-balling the big green and red cube at the back. He acquiesced. I tore into the mystery cube. Shorn paper flew like ticker tape for a returning astronaut. I opened the box. Inside was a brand new kid-sized official NFL helmet of my dad’s favorite team, The Washington Redskins.
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There are a lot of opinions fluttering around the idea of the Washington Redskins. It’s a controversy that spans several generations. One poll showed that about 83 percent of American Indians are offended by the term. A very flawed Washington Post poll says that up to 90 percent don’t actually care. The truth, as always, is somewhere closer to the middle.
Sports teams using Indian iconography is as old as American sport itself. The Boston Redskins would smear warpaint on their faces. Their coach wore feathers on the field. The band dressed in skins and feathers as it marched, drummed, and tooted on the field. That was a long a time ago. The idea of smearing warpaint on one’s face before battle is not a trait utilized by only one group of people. No more than the term chief is solely attributed to singular culture.
Back when Indians were being forcibly assimilated into white-American culture, Indian colleges were known for having the best athletes. Many believed that Indians were predisposed to excel at sporting due to their savage nature. As the assimilation schools were slowly removed from American society for their trenchant destruction and racism, the idea of using an Indian idea, or logo, or nicknamed remained. The reasoning was deceptively simple. Indians were the best collegiate athletes. Many schools wanted to channel that strength into their athletes. Keep in mind, this was a time that cultural-appropriation didn’t exist, and segregation and institutional racism was still the modus operandi.
This bled into professional sports teams early. There were instances of Indians playing on professional teams, and some, perhaps, inspiring renaming of teams. But the ship had long since sailed on using Indian iconography in sports before any Indian took the professional field. And this is where we go in two very different directions.
Some teams, and their owners, chose racially abstract representations of Indian culture. Bill Veeck changed the logo of the Cleveland Indians in 1946 to something that was considered racially insensitive already in those days. He was successfully sued in the 1970s, and the logo was removed. Somehow, the logo was brought back in 1980 and Chief Wahoo remains an official logo to this day. To Cleveland’s credit, they have started quietly phasing the logo out.
The Seattle Seahawks started as an expansion team in 1976. The year prior they spent setting up the team in typical sports tradition by leaning into Indian themes. General Manager Thompson decided that the team should follow “Northwest Indian culture” when naming the team and designing the logo. They weren’t exactly sure on where that should go, or what it should be. After flipping through a book from his shelf about Northwest Indian art, he decided to contact Marvin Oliver, a Quinault/Isleta artist. Marvin based a logo design from the Kwakwaka’wakw ceremonial mask. Thus the Seahawks were born from inclusion.
This was a marked departure. Thomspon wasn’t looking at Indian culture from the perspective of a monolith, he looked inward and found something that was local. Moreover, when you research or engage with the Seahawks and their American Indian imagery you find positive aspects of that culture. You’re led to museums. You’re allowed a portal to actual Indian culture by Indians.
The Washington Redskins got their start in Boston, playing on the Boston Braves’ baseball field. Teams in Boston were named after Indians because of the Boston Tea Party where white immigrants protested taxation by dressing up as “Braves” or “Redskins” to fool the British into thinking it wasn’t them doing the protesting. To use a parlance of the time, sounds a very pusillanimous way to protest. Hence, Boston had a deep-rooted association with the term.
But as professional sports goes, both teams eventually left Boston, but retained their names. The Redskins relocated to Washington, D.C. in 1937. The Redskins based their logo off the standard Chief in a warbonnet similar to pennies and nickels of the past. Eventually the logo became a simple R. According to the Washington Post in 1971 the logo was redesigned with oversight from the National Congress of American Indians, which was overseen by former NCAI leader Walter “Blackie” Wetzel. Wetzel wanted there to be more representation of American Indians in pop and sports culture and putting the logo back on the Redskins helmet was the best way to do that. These claims are heavily disputed.
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I wore that Redskins helmet a lot. Proudly. It represented my dad’s culture and that culture being represented not only in American culture, but in our nation’s capital. It was a slice of my identity that I could see on TV, in commercials, and hero athletes.
As the ’80s winded on, I started following the Seahawks more. I drifted from my dad’s team. On a trip to our tribal center on the Skokomish Indian Reservation, I took time to wander around the tiny museum. I looked at the large photos that had been taken by Edward Curtis back in the early 1900s. The men didn’t wear feathers or warbonnets and fling spears. They didn’t have gnarled clean faces. And they were certainly not on horseback riding across some endless plain. They wore reed hats and carried grass baskets. They had thick facial hair. And they rode hollowed out canoes into the seas. The carvings on the totems and canoes surrounding me in the museum didn’t look anything like a Redskin or Brave. They all looked like the Seahawks logo.
I learned that day that American Indian culture isn’t a monolith. It’s more varied than I could imagine. That helmet I was wearing didn’t represent my dad or his culture. It represented what white America wanted him (and me) to be. I asked for a Seahawks jacket for Christmas that year.
As I continued to self-actualize, I devoured American Indian history. I spent countless hours at the library searching for any volume I could find that would give me an insight into who half of me was. But also what the hell happened to these people, my people. What I found was heart-breaking.
Redskin is a pejorative. It was originally coined as self-referential term in the 18th century to deal with speaking to people in a political setting. Just because a term was invented over 300 years ago as self-referential identifier does not mean that that term has not picked up some baggage along the way. Redskin was used as a slur on the level with n*gger in the 19th century to stir white and black Americans to head west and murder Indians for profit. Full stop. As often does, a term that was created to identify one’s self turned into a weapon to exterminate.
Blackhawk’s people were slaughtered in a river while they slept. The Black Hawk wars are some of the most vile massacres carried out by the U.S. Army. Women and children were gunned down and left to die as they bled out into the Mississippi River. And this was after they announced that they were going to surrender that very same morning.
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What is created by these nicknames is two fold. First, you reduce a continent of 600 individual cultures to a monolith based upon an outsider’s perception of those cultures. As a part-Indian with Skokomish, Yakama, Hawaiian, and Wishram blood, I have less in common with a Seminole or Mohawk than someone from Ireland has in common with with a Turk or Georgian. Secondly, why would you want to create a franchise that reminds you of these horrific acts of extermination when you’re trying to watch sports?
I can’t watch the kids in their dyed feathers and fake beads in Chicago cheering on the Blackhawks without thinking about the actual Sauk being tricked and murdered for having faith in the USA to do the right thing. I can’t watch Chief Zee dance around as the Redskins play without thinking about the Buffalo Soldiers racing west to help slaughter Indians for the USA. Why does that have to be what any of us think when we just want to watch our teams play? I want to disconnect from the vitriol and hate of history, not inject it into a sporting event for a few hours. I don’t want to be reminded that my father’s language, religion and culture is extinct. Who would?
It comes down to this: Can American Indians be culturally and honorably represented in sports culture? Yes. Look at the Seattle Seahawks and their fans. You never see any of the monoculture proselytizing in Seattle that you you see by any of the other teams “honoring” Indians. I have no problem with Dan Snyder saying he wants to honor American Indians. I just don’t believe he knows what that means. I don’t know if any of us know what that means.
Snyder could easily take a page from the Seattle playbook and rename his team after our newly minted National Mammal the American Bison. It’s a symbol of strength. It’s also a symbol of Americans from all cultures working together to successfully save a species from extinction. It’s the symbol of what we, as Americans, can do together. Ask yourself, do you honestly think that Washington would be worse off changing their name to the Washington Bisons? What animal is more powerful on the North American continent than a bison? And why not honor American Indians and have a local Indian artist design the logo? Just like Seattle did 40 years ago. FORTY.
There is a huge part of me that wants part of American culture to honor American Indians. And they can do that. But to do so they need to stop using a racist monoculture and start looking inward. There is no reason The Cleveland Indians can’t remove their logo, which, again, was considered racist in 1946, and replace it with something done by a Choctaw artist. Look at that logo above. Are you telling me you wouldn’t rock that jersey at every game?
In a perfect world sports teams would avoid using any race for their team. In a sense we already do this. Are there any professional teams out there named after Asian American, African American, Hispanic, Jewish cultures? Nope. Not one. Can you even image one existing without falling immediately into cultural stereotyping and appropriation? Would any of you be comfortable watching the Brooklyn Jews, the Los Angeles Beaners, or the New Orleans Negros? Then why are any of us comfortable watching the Washington Redskins?
The current state of the American Indian is dire. Suicide rates are at critical levels. Sexual abuse towards women and children are epidemic (and 80 percent is being perpetrated by non-Indians). Most reservations are still not allowed to investigate, much less prosecute non-tribal members that commit heinous acts of murder or rape on their reservations. In fact, 72 percent or rapes and 54 percent of murders go completely un-prosecuted. The biggest reason being cited is that the U.S. Department of Justice simply doesn’t feel like it and there’s almost no public support. That’s before we even get the poverty, or the consumer and environmental exploitation.
Maybe there is a historical reason to keep American Indians as a part of our combined sports heritage. It is part of America’s Indian history. American Indians need positive representations in their country. It’s inextricably tethered to their well-being. It’s been proven that the more negative American Indian culture is represented or mis-represented in American culture, the worse American Indian life is.
Most of us aren’t a single culture. We come from a myriad of immigration and conquest, even before we landed on the shores of the Americas. I’m a Prussian, Lithuanian, Polish, Finnish, Ashkenazi Jewish, German, English, Scottish, Irish, Hawaiian, Skokomish, Yakama, and Wishram American. But you know what all that means? It means I’m just an American. Like you. And every Indian from a reservation is just an American. Like the rest of us. And they deserve better.
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I am a Seahawks fan. I’m not so much of a fan that I’m willing to stay up between 2-5 a.m. to watch a game from Europe, but I follow along. My dad started following the Seahawks more and more as he realized the significance of their logo, and the banality of the Redskins’. One of my last memories of my dad was sitting in his bedroom and watching the Seahawks play the Buccaneers on December 20th, 2009. There was no Christmas tree that year. My mother was spending her time calling doctors looking for a last ditch treatment for my dad’s cancer. She didn’t have time for pies and turkey. We didn’t even have any presents to open. No fruit basket. No ho-ho-ho-ing. As we watched the game, my dad drifted in and out. The medication he was on made him warn me over and over again that the ceiling was falling on my head. And the Seahawks lost, again. We watched The Outlaw Josey Wales after the game as a palette cleanser. My dad was a big fan of Chief Dan George’s and Clint Eastwood’s willingness to humanize Indians.
Six days later, my dad was gone. I still have my Redskins helmet. The Redskins were all my dad had growing up in a cruel world he didn’t understand. It gave him hope that he could make it off the reservation and become an American. He hoped that progress would be made. He hoped that his sons and grandsons would have a better chance than he was afforded.
In the end it really doesn’t matter what Dan Snyder wants to call his team. That is on him, not me or any other American for that matter. History will judge Dan Snyder, not us.
All I know is that my sons wear Seahawks hats. But one day I hope to buy them a Washington Bisons helmet.