The Washington Redskins Mascot Controversy involves the logo and name of the Washington Redskins, and has been a source of controversy between its owners, certain Indian groups, fans, and the United States government. Some Indian groups insist that the term “Redskin” is a racial epithet, and as such, it perpetuates demeaning stereotypes of Native Americans. Others believe that the name is honoring the achievements and virtues of Native Americans, and that it is not perceived in a negative manner. Former Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke said “I admire the Redskins name. I think it stands for bravery, courage, and a stalwart spirit and I see no reason why we shouldn’t continue to use it.” These differing opinions have led to controversy, protests and legislative action.
The origin of the word "redskin" is debated. Some scholars say that the word was coined by early settlers in reference to the skin tone of Native Americans. Elizabeth Delacruz believes that “the term “redskins was originally used by white settlers as a way to count the number of Indian scalps collected by trappers and other Indian exterminators. However Smithsonian linguist Ives Goddard says the evidence to support such a claim is "unfounded" and further claims the term was first used in the 1800s.
The Washington Redskins were originally known as the Newark Tornadoes and then the Boston Braves. In 1933, co-owner George Preston Marshall changed the name to the Redskins; possibly in recognizance of the then head coach Lone Star Dietz who claimed to be part Sioux. Dietz’s true heritage has been questioned by some scholars. The Washington Redskins name and logo, which is a picture of an Indian, was officially registered in 1967.
There is much debate whether the use of the word Redskin is acceptable as a name for a sports team. Clarence Page of the Orlando Sentinel wrote in 1992 “[The Washington Redskins] are the only big time professional sports team whose name is an unequivocal racial slur. After all, how would we react if the team was named the Washington Negroes? Or the Washington Jews? ... It is more than just a racial reference, it is a racial epithet.”
Many others believe that the name is a positive reference to the culture of Native Americans. Many Redskins’ fans say that it is a reference to the strength and courage of Native Americans. Some scholars counteract this argument by saying that any stereotype, whether positive or negative, is a hindrance to the advancement of a group. Scott B. Vickers quotes Susan Harjo "the use of any stereotype in the portrayal of Indians is considered ... to be contributory to their dehumanization and deracination."
Despite vocal and legal action from Native American groups and scholars, the majority of people surveyed on the subject do not find the name offensive. Following the 1992 Super Bowl protests, the Washington Post posted a survey in which “89 percent of those surveyed said that the name should stay.” In a study performed by the National Annenberg Survey, Native Americans from the 48 continental U.S. states were asked “The professional football team in Washington calls itself the Washington Redskins. As a Native American, do you find that name offensive or does it not bother you?” In response, ninety percent replied that the name is acceptable, while nine percent said that it was offensive, and one percent would not answer.
Soon after the name change, Native Americans starting writing letters to owner Jack Kent Cooke encouraging him to change the name. Others boycotted Redskins products and protested. At one protest “Native Americans handed the fans redskin potatoes as they entered a Redskins game, suggesting that if the team will not change their name altogether, then they should at least change their mascot to the potato. Many of these events were led by Suzan Shown Harjo of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke responded to these pleas in an interview stating “There’s not a single, solitary jot, tittle, whit chance in the world that the Redskins will adopt a new nickname.”
There was a large protest at the 1992 Super Bowl between the Redskins and the Buffalo Bills. Since the game was held in Minnesota, the area's large Native American Population was able to voice their anger over the name. The American Indian Movement’s (AIM) Vernon Bellecourt was one of the main organizers and voices of the event. Before and during the game, approximately 2,000 Chippewa, Sioux, Winnebago, and Choctaw, and other Native Americans and members of the local population protested. Some of the signs they carried read “We are not Mascots”, “Promote Sports not Racism” and “Repeal Redskin Racism”.
In 1992, Susan Shown Harjo, President of the Morning Star Institute, joined forces with other prominent Native Americans as well as Dorsey & Whitney law firm of Minneapolis and petitioned the U.S. Patent and Trademark office. They based their lawsuit on the idea that Federal Trademark law states that certain trademarks are not legal if they are "disparaging, scandalous contemptuous, or disreputable.” The legal battle went on for seven years and in 1999 the judges canceled the federal trademarks of the Redskin name “on the grounds that the subject marks may disparage Native Americans and may bring them into contempt or disrepute.”
Upon the news that the Redskins had been sold, the owners appealed the decision to a district court in the District of Columbia in Pro-Football, Inc. vs. Harjo. The court reversed the decision on the grounds of insufficient evidence of disparagement. Subsequent appeals have been rejected on the basis of laches, which means that the Native Americans had pursued their rights in an untimely and delayed manner. If Harjo had won the case, the Washington Redskins would be able to keep the name and many of its federally trademarked rights, but they may have still lost out on millions of dollars worth of merchandise sales.
- Hail to the Redskins
- Native American mascot controversy
- List of sports team names and mascots derived from indigenous peoples
- List of ethnic sports team and mascot names
- Nacotchtank - The extinct Native American tribe whose home was in what is now Washington, DC.
- "A Linguist's Alternative History of 'Redskin'". Washingtonpost.com. 2005-10-03. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/10/02/AR2005100201139.html. Retrieved 2011-08-21.
- King, C. R., and Charles F. Springwood, eds. Team Spirits The Native American Mascots Controversy. New York: University of Nebraska, 2001. 191-207.Print.
- Ming, Robert D., ed. "How Politically Correct Must a Trademark Be?" Pepperdine Law Review 22.4 (1995): 13-19. Hein Online. Web.
- Delacruz, Elizabeth M. "Racism American Style and Resistance to Change: Art Education's Role in the Indian Mascot Issue." Art Education 56.3 (2003): 16. Web.
- Vickers, Scott. "American Identities: From Stereotype to Archetype in Art and Literature." Michigan Civil Rights Commission Report (1998): 68-69. Print.
- Miller, Jackson B. ""Indians" "Braves" and "Redskins". A Performative Struggle for Control of an Image." Quarterly Journal of Speech 85 (1999): 188-202. JSTOR. Web.
- National Annenberg Election Survey. Rep. University of Pennsylvania, 2004. Web.
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