Robert McCartney, Washington Post, May 20, 2016
A Washington Post poll released Thursday has confirmed that the vast majority of American Indians don’t consider the name of Washington’s professional football team to be offensive.
Why should this bother me? After all, I’m a longtime, devoted fan of the burgundy and gold. A season ticket holder for more than a decade. Most of my fellow fans will feel relief and vindication that 9 out of 10 Native Americans judge the name to be innocent–just as team owner Snyder and the National Football League have said all along.
But I have also been a proud, outspoken member of the vocal minority of fans denouncing the name as a racial slur. Three years ago, I threw out all my gear–a jacket, shirt and car flag–that displayed the word “Redskins.” More important, for two years beginning in February 2013, I used my privileged position as an opinion columnist in The Post’s Metro section to press the team to change the name. I wrote 10 pieces on the subject before I gave up my column in early 2015. I try to refrain from using the team name in radio and TV appearances.
I took up the cause largely because every major American Indian organization has resoundingly condemned the team name, going back 40 years. Multiple dictionaries have defined “redskin” as “often offensive” since the 1970s.
I also acted partly out of what I saw as a high-minded desire to support a politically weak ethnic group. It felt like a token of penance for the sufferings imposed on Native Americans over the centuries by the continent’s European conquerors and their descendants. One of my direct ancestors was a U.S. soldier who fought the Sioux on the Minnesota frontier in the Dakota War of 1862. The conflict culminated in the mass hanging of 38 Indians in the largest one-day execution in U.S. history. I don’t agonize over this now, but it’s worth remembering personal connections to an ugly common history.
So it’s unsettling to learn now that I vented all that energy and passion on behalf of such a small fraction of the Native American population.
Personally, I remain deeply uncomfortable with the word, which I’ve long thought to be a racial epithet. The poll suggests that about 1 million Native Americans object to it, and I see no reason to offend them. I won’t be buying a jacket emblazoned “Redskins” to replace the one I discarded. I’ll continue to avoid saying the word on air.
I was most surprised by the finding that 4 out of 5 Native Americans said they would not be personally offended if a non-native person called them a “redskin.” That suggests that dictionaries should add some kind of caveat in defining the word as a slur. Perhaps the reference books should add a second, non-pejorative definition, with a capital “R”: “Redskins: a National Football League franchise based in the Washington, D.C., area.” There’s a good chance that decades of NFL publicity and millions of dollars of promotion have transformed the word’s meaning such that most people, on hearing it, think first of the team.
If so, it’s a fresh example of how language evolves. Another lesson may be that political and moral arguments can seem solid one day but flimsy the next.