This past week, the US Patent Office canceled the Washington Redskins’ trademark, because the agency believes the name is disparaging to Native Americans. This is the latest development in a renewed campaign by a vocal minority to force the team to change the name. The decision, if it holds up on appeal, wouldn’t necessarily force the team to change it, but it would make it difficult to conduct a profitable business while using the name. Without trademark protection, anyone could sell merchandise with the Redskins logo and name without the NFL’s permission, and this would drastically cut into the millions the team makes from these sales. I highly doubt the team would sacrifice these revenues just to keep the name. But I hope it doesn’t come to that. In my opinion, this controversy is largely a distraction, and I don’t think the team should have to change a name that it’s built an entire history on just because a few people are unhappy with it.
First of all, the nature of the name depends entirely on perspective. When a team chooses a nickname, they are looking to embody certain traits: bravery, skill, strength, integrity, and others. Many teams picked Native American-style nicknames for this reason, or to honor the traditions of their region or state (the Florida State Seminoles fall into this category). The Redskins logo conveys the traits of bravery and strength they wish to embody. Teams wouldn’t name themselves after something they view as weak or second-class. In addition, the term “redskin” wasn’t even used as a slur for most of its history. Smithsonian senior linguist Ives Goddard published a study in which he found that the first uses of the word were actually by Native Americans themselves to distinguish themselves from whites. This point is supported by an 1815 speech by Chief Black Thunder in which he uses “red skin” and “white skin” to refer to the two groups. In addition, he says that when English-speaking settlers first used the word, it came in “the most respectful context and the highest level.” White settlers heard Native Americans using the word to refer to themselves, so they used it too.
These days, a sizable number of Native Americans do not find the term offensive. For example, a 2004 poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that 90% of 768 self-identified Native Americans did not find the Redskins nickname offensive. While one poll from 10 years ago doesn’t tell us too much, 90% approval of something doesn’t just go away overnight. Many people of Native American descent have been quoted on both sides of the issue.
That said, redskin has been used in negative contexts as well, such as during the late 1800s when advertisements for the bounties on the lives of Native Americans in the West appeared in newspapers. The United States’ treatment of Native Americans at several points in its history was cruel and terrible, and this part of history should not be ignored or condoned, lest we repeat the same mistakes in the future.
However, many minority groups in America have reclaimed and repurposed terms that were once used as slurs or insults, and have radically changed people’s attitudes towards them. The Queer Student Union at my alma mater, the University of Virginia, seeks to make UVA a safe environment for LGBT individuals on campus. Queer was used for a long time as a derogatory term for LGBTs (there even was a version of tag called “smear the queer” where the object of the game is to tackle the “queer” who has the ball). Black was considered an offensive term for African-Americans for a long time, but now is less so since organizations like the Congressional Black Caucus started using the word in their names. I think redskin could be used as a way to promote healing between Native Americans and other groups, and could turn a negative into a positive. In fact, many majority-Native American high schools have already begun to do this. Many of them, such as Red Mesa High School in Arizona, use Redskins as a team name.
To me, the only way the team name should be changed is if it was deemed near-universally offensive by a certain group of people. It is clear from examination of the issue that this is not the case. We shouldn’t be running around trying to please everyone in the name of political correctness, especially when other teams have used similar names without incident. College and professional sports leagues have a lot of problems that are worth more of our time (NFL player safety, the NBA’s me-first reputation, steroids in MLB and cycling, etc.) than this.
As a postscript, I do believe there is one Native American logo in pro sports that should be changed, and that is the Cleveland Indians’. I do not believe the team should change its nickname, but the “smirking Indian” logo does not portray Native Americans in a positive light. If I were Native American looking at that logo, I might think it was mocking my people and heritage. Recently, the Indians have deemphasized this logo in favor of a typeface “C,” and I think the Indian head should be phased out entirely.