Redskin (slang)

"Red-skin" redirects here. For other uses, see Redskin (disambiguation).
"Red people" redirects here. For the Malaysian Internet supergroup, see RED People.

"Redskin" is a slang term referring to Native Americans in the United States. In modern dictionaries of American English it is labeled "usually offensive",[1] "disparaging",[2][3] "insulting",[4] or "taboo".[5]

The origin of the term is debated, in particular whether the use of "red" referred to skin color or the use of pigments by certain tribes, and also whether the term was applied to natives by Europeans or came from language natives used to refer to themselves. Whatever its origins in the colonial period, many argue that "redskin" underwent a process of pejoration due to the increasingly disparaging use of the term through the 19th and early 20th centuries.[6] Use of the term is connected to the history of bounties being paid for Indian scalps.[7]

Although the term has almost disappeared from common use, it remains as the name of many sports teams, most prominently the Washington Redskins, and the term's meaning has been a significant point of controversy. That controversy has led to many high schools in the United States changing their team name. While 28 schools changed during the 25 years prior to 2013, an additional eleven changed between 2013 and 2016 as a result of protest by Native Americans, government action, or voluntary action.

Origin and meaning

The origin of the term "redskin" in English is debated. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) had cited its earliest use in a 1699 letter from an English colonialist, Samuel Smith, living in Hadley, Massachusetts, which supposedly contains the following passage: "Ye firste Meetinge House was solid mayde to withstande ye wicked onsaults of ye Red Skins." Based on this source, the OED suggests the term was specifically applied to the Delaware Indians and "referred not to the natural skin color of the Delaware, but to their use of vermilion face paint and body paint."[8] Smithsonian linguistics scholar Ives Goddard concluded the letter was a "work of fiction", saying that the "language was Hollywood [...] It didn't look like the way people really wrote." The OED agreed with Goddard's findings, stating that the quotation was "subsequently found to be misattributed; the actual text was written in 1900 by an author claiming, for purposes of historical fiction, to be quoting an earlier letter."[9][10][11]

Goddard proposes as an alternative the emergence of the term from the speech of Native Americans themselves and that the origin and use of the term in the late 18th and early 19th century was benign: "When it first appeared as an English expression in the early 1800s, it came in the most respectful context and at the highest level. [...] These are white people and Indians talking together, with the white people trying to ingratiate themselves."[11] The word later underwent a process of pejoration, by which it gained a negative connotation.[8] Goddard suggests that "redskin" emerged from French translations of Native American speech in Illinois and Missouri territories in the 18th and 19th centuries. He cites as the earliest example a 1769 set of "talks" or letters from three chiefs of the Piankeshaw to an English officer at Fort de Chartres. The letter from Chief "Mosquito" (French: Maringouin) had the following passage in French: "I shall be pleased to have you come to speak to me yourself if you pity our women and our children; and, if any redskins do you harm, I shall be able to look out for you even at the peril of my life." ("je serai flatté que tu viennes me parler toi-même si tu as pitié de nos femmes et de nos enfants, et si quels que peaux rouges te font du mal, je saurai soutenir tes intérêts même au peril de ma Vie") Another letter in the set, this from a "Chief Hannanas," contained the following passage: "[...] You think that I am an orphan; but all the people of these rivers and all the redskins will learn of my death." ("[...] tu crois que je suis orphelin, mais tous les gens de ces rivières et tous les peaux rouges apprendront ma mort").[9]

However, in an interview Goddard admits that it is impossible to verify if the native words were accurately translated.[11] Johnathan Buffalo, historic preservation director of the Meskwaki Nation, also known as the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa, said tribal members in the 1800s used "redskins" as a simple term of identifying themselves—just as they identified others as "whiteskins" or "blackskins"—without any derogatory intent.[12]

The Beothuk (/bˈɒtək/ or /ˈb.əθʊk/; also spelled Beothuck)[13][14] were an indigenous people based on the island of Newfoundland.[15] During spring, the Beothuk used red ochre to paint not only their bodies, but also their houses, canoes, weapons, and other possessions. This practice led Europeans to refer to them as "Red Indians". The use of ochre had great cultural significance. The decorating was done during an annual multi-day spring celebration. It designated tribal identity; for example, decorating newborn children was a way to welcome them into the tribe. Forbidding a person to wear ochre was a form of punishment.[16]

It is argued by sociologist Irving Lewis Allen that slang identifiers for ethnic groups based upon physical characteristics, including "redskin", are by nature derogatory, emphasizing the difference between the speaker and the target.[17] However, Professor Luvell Anderson of the University of Memphis, in his paper "Slurring Words", argues that for a word to be a slur, the word must communicate ideas beyond identifying a target group, and that slurs are offensive because the additional data contained in those words differentiates those individuals from otherwise accepted groups.[18] However, in the same sense that nigger originated as meaning nothing more than "black-skinned", redskin also took on an increasingly negative meaning.[8]

One of the many linguistic discrepancies is that initial explorers and later Anglo-Americans termed Native Americans light-skinned, brown, tawny, or russet, according to historian Alden T. Vaughan. "Not until the middle of the eighteenth century did most Anglo-Americans view Indians as significantly different in color from themselves, and not until the nineteenth century did red become the universally accepted color label for American Indians."[19]

The term appeared in an August 22, 1812, meeting between President James Madison and a delegation of chiefs from western tribes. There, the response of Osage chief "No Ears" (Osage: Tetobasi) to Madison's speech included the statement, "I know the manners of the whites and the red skins," while the principal chief of the Wahpekute band of Santee Sioux—French Crow—is recorded to have said, "I am a red-skin, but what I say is the truth, and notwithstanding I came a long way I am content, but wish to return from here."[9]

The earliest known appearance of the term in print occurred on October 9, 1813, in an article quoting a letter dated August 27, 1813, from a "gentleman at St. Louis" concerning an expedition being formed and to be led by Gen. Benjamin Howard to "route the savages from the Illinois and Mississippi territories[.]" "The expedition will be 40 days out, and there is no doubt but we shall have to contend with powerful hordes of red skins, as our frontiers have been lined with them last summer, and have had frequent skirmishes with our regulars and rangers."[20]

However, while these usages may have been earlier, they may not have been disseminated widely. (For instance, while the 1812 meeting with President Madison was contemporaneously recorded, it was not published until 2004. Goddard suggests that a key usage was in a 20 July 1815 speech by Meskwaki chief Black Thunder at the treaty council at Portage des Sioux, in which he is recorded as stating, "My Father—Restrain your feelings, and hear ca[l]mly what I shall say. I shall tell it to you plainly, I shall not speak with fear and trembling. I feel no fear. I have no cause to fear. I have never injured you, and innocence can feel no fear. I turn to all, red skins and white skins, and challenge an accusation against me." This speech was published widely, and Goddard speculates that it reached James Fenimore Cooper. In Cooper's novels The Pioneers (published in 1823) and The Last of the Mohicans (1826), both Native American and white characters use the term. These novels were widely distributed, and can be credited with bringing the term to "universal notice" and notes that the first time the term appears in Bartlett's "Dictionary of Americanisms" (in 1858) the illustrative reference is to Last of the Mohicans.[9]

In a lecture on the origins and meaning of "redskin", Dr. Darren R. Reid of Coventry University presents a number of reasons why he argues the term is racist.[21]

A third controversial etymological claim is that the term emerged from the practice of paying a bounty for Indians, and that "redskin" refers to the bloody, red scalp of a Native American.[22] During the entire history of America until the turn of the twentieth century, Indigenous Americans were hunted, killed, and forcibly removed from their lands by European settlers.[23] This includes the paying of bounties beginning in the colonial period with, for example, a proclamation declaring war against the Penobscot Indians in 1755. Issued by Lieutenant Governor Spencer Phips (and commonly as the Phips Proclamation[24][25]), the proclamation orders "His Majesty's subjects to Embrace all opportunities of pursuing, captivating, killing and Destroying all and every of the aforesaid Indians." The colonial government paid 50 pounds for scalps of males over 12 years, 25 pounds for scalps of women over 12, and 20 pounds for scalps of boys and girls under 12. Twenty-five British pounds sterling in 1755, worth around $9,000 today—a small fortune in those days when an English teacher earned 60 pounds a year.[24]

Though the proclamation itself does not use the word, an historical association between the use of "redskin" and the paying of bounties can be made from newspapers of the time. In 1863, a Winona, Minnesota, newspaper, the Daily Republican, printed an announcement: "The state reward for dead Indians has been increased to $200 for every red-skin sent to Purgatory. This sum is more than the dead bodies of all the Indians east of the Red River are worth."[26] A news story published by the Atchison Daily Champion in Atchison, Kansas, on October 9, 1885, tells of the settlers' "hunt for redskins, with a view of obtaining their scalps" valued at $250.[27] In An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States, "redskin" is said not to refer to scalps, but to the bloody bodies left behind by scalp-hunters.[28] This association can evoke strongly negative sentiments. In a 2014 interview after the Trademark decision, lead petitioner Amanda Blackhorse expressed her opinion: "The name itself actually dates back [to] the time when the Native American population was being exterminated, and bounty hunters were hired to kill Native American people [...] So, in order to show that they made their kill, they had to bring back a scalp or their skin."[29]

Later use

Goddard's study is specific to the period 1769–1826, and says nothing about the subsequent use and meaning of the term.[11] "Redskin" was used throughout the English-speaking world (and in equivalent transliterations in Europe) throughout the mid-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a common term of reference for indigenous Americans. However, the more commonly used term from early colonization through the twentieth century was "Indian", perpetuating Columbus' belief that he had found the Indies. A linguistic analysis of 42 books published between 1875 and 1930 found that negative contexts in the use of "redskin" were significantly more frequent than positive usage. (However, the use of the word "Indian" in a similarly selected set of books was nearly the same, with more frequent negative than positive contexts.)[30] An example is the story "Sam Harding's Trophy" by Duke Cuyer, printed in the Spanish Fork Press in 1909. The trophy was a scalp taken from a "thieving Redskin".[31]

The term was in common use in movies during the most popular period for Hollywood westerns (approximately 1920–1970), with "redskins" usually being used to refer to Native Americans when war was imminent or in progress.[32] In the Washington Redskins trademark litigation, the main issue was the meaning of the term during the period when the trademark registrations were issued, 1967–1990. The linguistic expert for the petitioner, Dr. Geoffrey Nunberg, successfully argued that whatever its origins, "redskins" was a slur at that time based upon the passages from books and newspapers and movie clips, in which the word is inevitably associated with contempt, derision, condescension, or sentimental paeans to the noble savage.[33] John McWhorter, an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University, compares the name's becoming a slur to the other racial terms such as "Oriental" which acquired implied meanings associated with contempt.[34]

Current use

The Redskin Theater in Anadarko, Oklahoma. The town proclaims itself to be the "Indian Capital of the Nation", and its population is 41% Native American.

In the United States, "redskin" is regarded as a racial epithet by some,[35] but as neutral by others, including some Native Americans.[36] Three predominantly Native American schools use the name for their athletic teams, most notably Red Mesa High School in Teec Nos Pos, Arizona where the student body is 98% Native American.[37][38][39]

The American Heritage style guide advises that "the term redskin evokes an even more objectionable stereotype" than the use of red as a racial adjective by outsiders,[40] while others urge writers to use the term only in a historical context.[41] The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) rejected an application to register "Redskins Hog Rinds" because it "consists of or includes matter which may disparage or bring into contempt or disrepute persons, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols".[42] A decision by the USPTO to cancel the registration of some trademarks of the Washington NFL team for the same reason was handed down on June 18, 2014.[43]

Sports teams

Numerous civil rights, educational, athletic, and academic organizations consider any use of native names/symbols by non-native sports teams to be a harmful form of ethnic stereotyping which should be eliminated.[44] Several college teams that formerly used the name have changed voluntarily:

In 2014 a bill has been introduced to ban the name currently used by four high schools in the state of California. Assemblyman Luis Alejo stated that there is "no reason why we can't [...] phase out that particular derogatory term from our public high schools."[45]

High schools

As of early 2013 the Capitol News Service (CNS) in Maryland listed 62 high schools using the Redskins name, including three having a majority of Native American students: Red Mesa High School (Arizona), Wellpinit High School Wellpinit, Washington, and Kingston High School Kingston, Oklahoma. Twenty-eight high schools in 18 states had dropped the "Redskins" name during the prior 25 years as a result of a combination of state legal action, protests from Native American groups, or voluntarily.[46] Since the CNS list was compiled, this trend has continued, with an additional twelve high school teams having completed or planned changes, and one has closed, leaving the total at 49 high schools.

Washington Redskins

The term is most prominent in the name of the Washington Redskins, a National Football League football team. Public protest of the name began in 1968, with a resolution by the National Congress of American Indians.[60] Native American groups and their supporters argue that since they view the word "redskin" as offensive, that it is inappropriate for an NFL team to continue to use it, regardless of whether any offense is intended.[30][61][62]

Opinion polls

In a 2004 poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, 90% of those who identified themselves as American Indians answered that they were "not bothered" by the name "Redskins" being used for the Washington football team.[63] However, in a commentary published soon after that poll, fifteen Native American scholars collaborated on a critique that stated that there were so many flaws in the Annenberg study that rather than being a measure of Native American opinion, it was an expression of white privilege and colonialism.[64] In August 2015, the Glushko-Samuelson Law Clinic at American University published the text of a memo written by Chintan Turakhia, Sr. and Courtney Kennedy, both vice-presidents and senior researches at Abt SRBI, the survey organization responsible for collecting the data for the 2004 survey. The memo had been prepared at the request of Ken Winneg, Annenberg's Managing Director of Survey Research. The memo made it clear that the survey should not be taken as an accurate reflection of Native American attitudes at the time, since the methods used to survey the general population are not effective for generating representative samples for all possible subgroups that may be of interest. Some subgroups, including Native Americans, have unique characteristics (e.g., multiple languages, unusual residential patterns) that require specialized survey designs if they are to be measured rigorously.[65]

An alternative method to standard opinion polls was used by the Center for Indigenous Peoples Studies at California State University, San Bernardino. A survey was conducted of 400 individuals, with 98 individuals positively identified as Native Americans, finding that 67% agreed with the statement that "Redskins" is offensive and racist. The response from non-natives was almost the opposite, with 68% responding that the name is not offensive.[66][67]

In May 2016, the Washington Post asked the same question from the Annenberg survey in its general opinion poll when a respondent identified themselves as Native American, producing the same results, that 90% of the 504 respondents were "not bothered" by the team's name.[68][69][70] While taking steps to address some of the issues in the earlier survey, many of the conditions remained the same, and the results were immediately criticized. NCAI Executive Director Jacqueline Pata stated "The survey doesn't recognize the psychological impacts these racist names and imagery have on American Indian and Alaska Natives. It is not respectful to who we are as Native people. This poll still doesn't make it right."[71] The Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) issued a statement calling the publication of the poll, and the reporting of its significance, as not only inaccurate and misleading but unethical. "The reporters and editors behind this story must have known that it would be used as justification for the continued use of these harmful, racist mascots. They were either willfully malicious or dangerously naïve in the process and reporting used in this story, and neither is acceptable from any journalistic institution."[72]

Trademark case

On June 18, 2014, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) cancelled the six trademarks held by the team in a two-to-one decision that held that the term "redskins" is disparaging to a "substantial composite of Native Americans", and this is demonstrated "by the near complete drop-off in usage of 'redskins' as a reference to Native Americans beginning in the 1960s."[73][74] Evidence of disparagement submitted by the petitioners in the TTAB case include the frequent references to "scalping" made by sportswriters for sixty years when reporting the Redskins loss of a game,[75] and passages from movies made from the 1940s to the 1960s using "redskin" to refer to Native Americans as a savage enemy.[76] A linguistics expert for the team unsuccessfully argued that the name is merely a descriptive term no different than other uses of color to differentiate people by race.[77] The linguistic expert for the petitioners, Dr. Geoffrey Nunberg, argued that whatever its origins, "redskins" was a slur at the time of the trademark registrations, based upon the passages from books and newspapers and movie clips, in which the word is inevitably associated with contempt, derision, condescension, or sentimental paeans to the noble savage.[33] On July 8, 2015, District Court Judge Lee affirmed the decision of the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board,[78] denying the team's summary judgment motions challenging the constitutionality of the Lanham Act and granted the Blackhorse Defendants' summary judgment motions, finding that "the evidence before the Court supports the legal conclusion that [...] the Redskin Marks consisted of matter that 'may disparage' a substantial composite of Native Americans."

See also


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  2. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. 2011. Retrieved November 7, 2014. n. Offensive Slang Used as a disparaging term for a Native American.
  3. "Redskin". Retrieved November 7, 2014. noun, Slang: Disparaging and Offensive. 1. a North American Indian.
  4. "definition of redskin". RANDOM HOUSE KERNERMAN WEBSTER'S College Dictionary. Retrieved November 7, 2014.
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  7. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. "What "Redskins" Really Means: An Origin of Violence and Genocide". Beacon Press.
  8. 1 2 3 "Definition of redskin". Oxford Dictionaries.
  9. 1 2 3 4 Goddard, Ives (2005). "I AM A RED-SKIN: The Adoption of a Native American Expression (1769–1826)" (PDF). Native American Studies (19:2): 1. Retrieved July 1, 2014.
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  13. "Dictionary of Newfoundland English". Retrieved 2016-02-11.
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  28. Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne (2014). An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States. Beacon Press.
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  31. "Spanish Fork Press (Spanish Fork, UT) 1909-07-22" (PDF). Retrieved October 24, 2015.
  32. J. Gordon Hylton (2010). "Before the Redskins Were the Redskins: The Use of Native American Team Names in the Formative Era of American Sports, 1857–1933". North Dakota Law Review. 86: 879–903.
  33. 1 2 Geoffrey Nunberg (June 23, 2014). "When Slang Becomes a Slur". The Atlantic Monthly.
  34. John McWhorter (October 12, 2015). "Why 'Redskins' Is a Bad Word". Time Inc.
  35. "Slang epithet … Redskin is regarded as highly offensive" to native Americans Herbst, Philip (1997). Color of Words: An Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Ethnic Bias in the United States. Intercultural Press. p. 197. ISBN 1877864978.
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  56. Jean Bonchak (March 19, 2014). "Ledgemont School Board votes to close high school building". The News-Herald.
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  70. "Washington Post poll of Native Americans on Redskins' team name - Survey conducted December 16, 2015 to April 12, 2016". The Washington Post. Retrieved May 24, 2016.
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  73. Ken Belson; Edward Wyatt (June 18, 2014). "U.S. Patent Office Cancels Redskins Trademark Registration". The New York Times.
  74. "USPTO TTABVUE. Proceeding Number 92046185". United States Patent and Trademark Office. June 18, 2014. Retrieved June 18, 2014.
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  76. Dan Steinberg (June 18, 2014). "Here are some of the movie clips cited in the Redskins trademark case". The Washington Post.
  77. Jay Caspian Kang (June 18, 2014). "Dan Snyder and the Redskins Take a Loss". The New Yorker.
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Further reading

Look up redskin in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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