IMMONEN: The Washington football team needs a name change

An “Our Issues, Our Voices” column

The Washington Redskins’ trademark is such a divisive issue because it is such a racist term. On one level, the term “redskin” is reminiscent of identical slurs from a different era of American history, outdated and offensive words like Oriental or Negro (or worse) in that it paints a caricature of a race of people based on Western misgivings. Most people think the term “redskin” refers to a racial division based on a false perception of skin color, which in and of itself should be enough to persuade the National Football League to reconsider its team name. But it is much worse than that. Most people don’t know that the term “redskin” was used in California in the 1850s to refer to Indian scalps. Just like you might see advertisements for beaver skins or bear skins, there were public notices posted offering sums of money in exchange for the scalp of a dead human being. The term “redskin” means genocide: that’s what was happening in American history, a history we seem to forget.

I think that is the main argument against “freedom of speech” proponents for this particular NFL team.The American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, released a statement in favor of the NFL team, arguing that as Americans, we have the right to say offensive things; the government cannot away a team name just because some people don’t like it. But the implication of the word “redskin” is so hateful, racist and historically distorted that it reflects poorly on the NFL and our nation as a whole. The ACLU is right, I think, to acknowledge the logo’s offensive nature, because that’s better than wrongfully claiming that the organization is honoring Native Americans. But more needs to be done by society to recognize the harm that mascots are doing to this group. The perpetuation of stereotypes and the lack of recognition for diversity and culture that Native American tribes have among themselves may actually have lasting psychological effects on Native American people. There is ample evidence for a spiritual crisis among Indians today, and many on reservations feel hopeless. They face higher rates of incarceration, alcoholism, unemployment and even disparate outcomes in health care .

I know not everyone sees this argument, but I truly believe the lingering presence of harmful and offensive — no, racist — stereotypes has a psychological effect on Native American groups, across generations. How can Native Americans find the spiritual strength to heal themselves and their communities while there is a team in Washington openly and defiantly broadcasting their tragedies?

I also believe there is a fairly easy solution to mascots. Sports teams have the power to transform a logo from a damaging and offensive one to one that truly honors Native people. The Seattle Seahawks used a Tlinget-inspired design on their team logo, acknowledging the contributions of indigenous artists in the Seattle area. An arrangement like the Florida State Seminoles is also advisable. They have had a unique relationship with the tribe after which they were named throughout their history of developing a mascot, consulting often with the Seminole on changes in costume and offering a class for students specifically on the history of the Seminole people. In this way, the students at Florida State really are honoring the Seminole and learning about their history. I suggest that more teams adopt this. Some teams, like the Cleveland Indians and Washington Redskins, should probably do away with their mascots altogether like Dartmouth University, Stanford University and Syracuse University did. But how cool would it be if the Chicago Blackhawks redesigned their logo to look like a bird, coordinating with Blackfeet or other tribes to incorporate their traditional designs using the team colors? I propose the Redskins nix their logo and choose the name of a Native American leader — for example, the Lakota traditional healer Black Elk — and honor that culture by designing a mascot of an elk, and not a mascot of an entire culture of human beings.

Evelyn Immonen is a guest writer for The Cavalier Daily and the Minority Rights Coalition’s bi-weekly “Our Issues, Our Voices” column.

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