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Change the Washington R@dsk!ns Name? What Might a 19th Century Bishop Say?

05/29/2014 12:37 pm ET | Updated Jul 29, 2014
  • Gustav Niebuhr Author, 'Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America'

Who wants Washington's NFL team to dump its name, the Redskins? Lately, the list has expanded to include U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and 49 of his Democratic colleagues. Soon, it could even include NFL players, every one of whom can expect a letter from the National Congress of American Indians, and the Oneida Indian Nation, seeking their support for a change.

"Redskin" may have originally come into usage 250 or so years ago as a neutral noun, as some writers assert. But from the 19th Century on, the word has done duty as a potent pejorative for American Indian. Crack a dictionary and you will find a warning next to the term.

So, let's take a different tack in the controversy and bring in a 19th Century voice, one among whose papers I have spent much time in the past three years. Henry B. Whipple, the first Episcopal bishop of Minnesota, is not well-known as he once was, but his advocacy on behalf of Native Americans makes him enduringly interesting--especially in light of the current controversy. A New York State native, he became a priest in Chicago before being elected Minnesota bishop in 1859. Thereafter, he took a profound interest in Indian welfare, traveling to Washington and going so far as to lobby Abraham Lincoln on Native Americans' behalf. Yes, Lincoln!

Their first meeting took place in mid-September 1862, during Confederate General Robert E. Lee's first invasion of the North and--more to the point--during the Dakota War, a ferocious conflict between Native Americans and white settlers in Minnesota. Whipple blamed the Dakota War's long-term cause on the federal government--specifically, the Office of Indian Affairs, which he regarded as thoroughly corrupt, its agents allied with unscrupulous traders who kept Indians indebted and often abused them. Lincoln would later say the bishop's testimony had "shaken him down to his boots."

During the Dakota War, many terrified settlers in Minnesota called Indians "redskins" (and much worse) and even called for the harshest retribution. Whipple gave Lincoln a different perspective from which to view the conflict and its origins. That would prove crucial. When the Army brought the conflict to an end, it quickly tried and condemned 303 Dakota men to death. Minnesota's governor and the military commander there called for a mass hanging. Only Lincoln could decide. He took his time; ultimately, he reprieved 265 men. Thirty-eight went the gallows.

Granted, the issue confronting us today is not life-or-death. But if there is a common ground between events of 1862 and 2014, it has to do with respect. Whipple wrote to Congressmen, Cabinet officers, business friends, fellow bishops to press a change in whites' attitudes toward Native Americans generally. He had found the Indians, he wrote, to be "generally chaste, truthful, honest, generous, and hospitable." He knew many whites took him for naïve or worse, but he persisted.

The bishop was ahead of his time--albeit not ahead of ours. If he used the term "redskin," I did not find it in his papers. He did say "red men" (now, fortunately out of circulation), as he did "white men" and "black men." As a missionary bishop, he also preached the virtues of Christianity and believed agriculture, not hunting, to be the Indians' economic future.

If he felt he had moral authority to lobby Lincoln, what would he say to Dan Snyder, Washington's NFL owner? I think Whipple would have agreed with Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian's Museum of the American Indian, quoted in USA Today last October 7 as suggesting the Redskins become the "Americans." Gove's idea was put back into play a few days ago by a Sporting News columnist, Vinnie Iyer.

The Americans: as a team name, it would include an implicit nod to Native Americans, who as Whipple often said, "have strong national pride and love of country."

Gustav Niebuhr is the author of Lincoln's Bishop: a President, a Priest and the Fate of 300 Dakota Sioux Warriors published by

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