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August 5, 2022
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August 5, 2022

Redskins: Insult and Brand

Redskins: Insult and Brand



Names and naming, as this book details, always carry a charge in the study of indigenous people, precisely because they articulate power, identity, and representation so succinctly, forcefully, and often invisibly. Thus, one must take great care in the interpretation and application of language. Colonial histories, national narratives, and cultural practices do not make this easy. In what follows, I make two conscious language choices. First, I will use American Indians, Native Americans, indigenous peoples, and native nations interchangeably in this text. Second, I endeavor to avoid the r-word. I understand it to be a racial slur, on par with the n-word. While the former enjoys wider acceptance and use than the latter, this is not a defensible rationale for relying on it. In fact, persistent reiteration makes it appear reasonable and even appropriate, a pattern that I think important to disrupt and undermine. To this end, I will substitute phrases like the Washington professional football team and the DC NFL franchise, as well as the team and the franchise. When unavoidable, I employ an altered version of the word, R*dskin(s), to underscore its unspeakable, problematic nature. I have not edited the usage of others in direct quotations, in part to remain faithful to my sources and in part to draw attention to the slur.

Redskin is a problem. It is an outdated reference to an American Indian. It is best regarded as a racial slur on par with other denigrating terms. In fact, while similar terms have been crossed out of our collective vocabulary as inappropriate and offensive, . . . it still finds use. Most visibly, it remains the moniker of the Washington professional football team, long anchoring its brand and traditions. This should unsettle us. The word has deep connections to the history of anti-Indian violence, marked by ethnic cleansing, dispossession, and displacement. It is a term of contempt and derision that targets indigenous people. As much a weapon as a word, then, it injures and excludes, denying history and humanity. Its lingering presence undermines the pursuit of equality, inclusion, and empowerment by American Indians. Indeed, this continued use of a racial slur as the name of a professional sports team, the ongoing defense of it, and the willingness of the franchise, the National Football League (NFL), and their media partners to profit from it pose an even more troubling set of problems.


informal term for a name.

Sportscaster Bob Costas seemed to recognize as much when in October 2013, during halftime of the Sunday Night Football game between Dallas and Washington, he offered a sharply worded critique of the latter’s team name, describing it as a “slur” and an “insult.”1 In denouncing the continued use of the moniker, he followed a growing number of high-profile journalists, from Peter King and Bill Simmons to Christine Brennan and Dave Zirin. At the same time, he joined media figures, including Howard Stern, Matthew Berry, and John Oliver, and athletes, like Billy Mills, Mike Tyson, and Martina Navratilova, who have all publicly spoken out against the name.2 And in the subsequent NFL season, use of the team name declined by 27 percent, as sportscasters “deferred to ‘Washington’ more often.”3 Costas’s comments, moreover, echoed the long-standing position of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and nearly a dozen tribes. And they found support in positions taken by a number of professional organizations, including the American Studies Association, the American Sociological Association, and the Organization of American Historians; religious groups; and news outlets, like Mother Jones, the Seattle Times, and the Washington City Paper.4 Even Larry Dolan, owner of the Cleveland Indians, infamous for its continued use of the caricature Chief Wahoo, has remarked, “If we were the Redskins, the day after I owned the team, the name would have been changed.”5

These changing attitudes coincide with a recent ruling in Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., which stripped the team of several of its trademarks (and was upheld by a federal court in the first round of appeals). They unfold alongside, if not in direct response to, Change the Mascot, a well-orchestrated campaign spearheaded by the National Congress