When the National Football League’s Washington Redskins franchise traveled to the University’s TCF Stadium to play the Vikings, they brought with them a considerable amount of controversy. It has been difficult to avoid the debate surrounding the Washington team and their controversial moniker. This is not solely a Minnesota phenomenon; nearly all of the team’s away games have seen a significant amount of protest by both sides. The use of the redskin name has pitted advocates of a change to a more inclusive name against supporters of the football team and their more than eighty year history. While fans of the franchise argue that the name does not reflect any racism, it is important to understand the origins of the term redskin and how it fits into the wider context of the Native American genocide.
The Washington Redskins are amongst the oldest NFL franchises, having been established in 1932. However, the origins of the term redskin run much deeper. Its first usage is uncertain, but the term entered American lexicon sometime in the late eighteenth century. In the 1840’s at the height of Manifest Destiny, racism towards Native people began to increase. Using redskin and other derogative language to describe Native people was used to differentiate them from ‘civilized’ European culture. This would make it easier for the influx of settlers migrating west to confiscate tribal lands.
By the 1860’s, we can find evidence of the term being used for bounties on Native Americans in Winona. Even beloved children’s author L. Frank Baum, who wrote the Wizard of Oz, used the term redskin while openly advocating for the elimination of Native American people. The usage of the term helped reinforce the us versus them mentality of the United States at the time, making it easier to initiate the American-Indian Wars, which totally destroyed Native American culture in the U.S. In 1915, Redskin Rimes was published. It included a direct rebuttal of James Fennimore Cooper’s (author of The Last of the Mohicans) assessment of the noble Native. By this time, the term redskin was firmly entrenched as a slur against Native people. With this historical understanding it is impossible to understand Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder’s claims that the team name honors Native communities.
In the months before the November 2nd game, the University made an attempt to block the use of the Redskin name, but agreements between the school, the Vikings and NFL restricted the university’s ability to dictate any changes, including the usage and display of the controversial team name. Before the game, thousands of protesters gathered outside TCF Stadium to vocalize their anger at institutionalized racism. It is easy to think of the 21st century as being far removed from the atrocities committed in the United States against Native American people, but the insistence on keeping the Redskins name is a stark, ugly reminder that progress has not come as far as we think. Until the National Football League and its Washington franchise agree to change its name, it will forever be stigmatized with an aura of ignorance and racism.
Joe Eggers is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, focusing his research on cultural genocide and indigenous communities. His thesis project explores discrepancies between the legal definition and Lemkin’s concept of genocide through analysis of American government assimilation policies towards Native Nations.