The historian Robert Paquette has done something unforgivable in his column “‘Racism, Inc.’Comes to Football.” He has brought formidable scholarship and deep historical knowledge to a contentious subject that has hitherto been the province of politically correct clichés. His immediate subject is the controversy—if “controversy” is the correct term for a classic case of left-wing victimology—over the name”Redskins” for a football team. Is it a racially insensitive moniker? Yet another example of unthinking white supremacist intimidation? Or is it (as I would contend) a completely innocent label appropriated by the morally inflamed commissars of Racism, Inc. in their effort to further their campaign of racialist intimidation?
I think it’s the latter, and Paquette provides some historically informed observations that help explain why. Imagine bringing a lawsuit to force a football team to change its name. But that’s exactly what some left-wing activists with too much time on their hands have done. Quoth one such activist, Suzan Shown Harjo, “a Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee”: “Most Native Americans despise the term Redskins . . and say that it is the worst epithet hurled at Native Peoples in the English language.” Oh, dear. She went one to note that “Redskins” referred to “the days of Indian bounty hunting in the 1600s and 1700s,” i.e., the practice “of paying bounties for the bloody red skins and scalps as evidence of Indian kill.”
I want to interject here that I make it a practice, when asked, to refer to myself as a native American. Having been born in Shaker Heights, Ohio, than which a more American venue of natality is hard to imagine, I think I am entitled to the term. Sure, I know that “Native American” is like “Person of Color” ( I, too, I’d like to point out, have a color), a semantic lever used to further the work of neo-segregation. But I digress . . .
Paquette notes that “supporters in the academy have echoed [Harjo’s] assertion, although when the footnotes are examined the professors have performed little if any serious research on their own and, as was the case with one professor of political science and philosophy, merely assert that ‘this fact has been recognized by certain governing bodies [sic!].’”
Here’s where it gets interesting. “Other facts,” Paquette observes, “run counter to the activists’ narrative.”
Polling data, at this point in time, fail to support Ms. Harjo’s first point; a higher proportion, of whites than “Native-Americans,” in neither case a majority, find the word “redskins” offensive. Moreover, not a shred of documented historical evidence has surfaced to support Harjo’s more incendiary second point. As Ives Goddard, a prominent linguistic anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution, has pointed out, “Harjo has made a living of making assertions on a variety of controversial terms without providing any evidence for them.” In truth, the use of “red” in describing descendants of Pre-Columbian peoples has a historical trajectory that in no way matches that of “black” in describing Africans and persons of African-descent. Every word has its own discrete history. Undue present-mindedness, it appears, has led Ms. Harjo and her supporters to read into “redskin” an ugly equivalence, unsustained by historical scholarship, to that elicited by, say, the words “kike” and “spic.”
Not, I know, that historical scholarship, i.e., the truth about the facts of the case, is going to cut much mustard with folks like Suzan Shown Harjo. They are not in the business of establishing truth but rather of running a grievance-mongering industry, and only those facts that support their activism need apply for the job of counting as evidence. Still, for those of us interested in the actual, as distinct from the mythological, history of the issue, Paquette has some interesting facts to relate.
For more than a century after colonizing the North American mainland colonies, English settlers, when describing their interactions with indigenous peoples, applied the terms “white” or “tawny” to them. No one, to the best of any professional historian’s knowledge, has found the use of redskin to describe an “Indian” before the early decades of the eighteenth century. White Americans under the influence of French rationalism became more tri-color coded in broadly speaking of “races” only during the late eighteenth-century. In fact, no less than Thomas Jefferson in the first edition of Notes on the State of Virginia (1781), in a section of the book that challenges the wisdom of the French naturalist, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon in his characterization of the New World’s flora and fauna, emerges as one of the first prominent persons in the United States to speak of “man, white, red, and black,” The application by warriors of red paint to their bodies prior to waging war undoubtedly helped at some point to cement in the minds of whites the association of red with Indian. Thus, for many whites, though, to be sure, not all, “redskin” came to connote ferocity, bravery, and daring, attributes that one might easily want to associate with a football team.
And so on. Read the whole thing. Long live the Redskins!