THE BLOG

Redskins & Pigskins: Revisions of Justice

10/23/2013 08:26 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Like so many, I am a hyphenated American. Born and raised in Pennsylvania at a time before being Irish-Americans were accepted as "real" Americans, I know firsthand this nation's history of not accepting people perceived as different. There is an ongoing history of racism and exclusion in this country that is at strong odds with the professed ideals of equality and opportunity and it has cut across lines of every possible way to separate and divide people that could take it.

From the end of the Civil War (as if we needed to further highlight American willingness to divide and separate each other) to the early twentieth century, the "orphan trains" gathered thousands of children as young as eight who lacked parental protection westward to provide free labor to the expansion of farms for settling families. Most of these children were Irish Catholic and most farmers were Protestant. Adding considerably to this already Dickensian tale is the fact that the land in question was already occupied by American Indians who had been living on it for countless generations. The story was compelling to me to come across, capturing as it does the desire for a young nation to overcome its history of slavery while engaging in displacement of the people who were here first, of literally taking children and enlisting them in a colonial project to benefit newcomers at the expense of those who had always been in the spaces the nation was expanding into.

Many books have been written about these "children's trains." All of the books say how it actually worked in the favor of the farmer and the children. If you wonder about this small segment of history, take a look at the pictures of the children boarding the trains and realize they had no protection at all. They lost their parents, their religion, amend their customs as well as whatever else was stolen from them. The children were wards of the state because they missed school twice. A protestant minister set the system up because he felt the Irish were low grade ore and these kids needed to be straightened out by protestant values. The "nativist" movement was strong and almost won the presidency. These folks hated the incoming Irish, Italians and Slavs. The Irish were poor and the famine was wiping out one fifth of Ireland's population. General Robert E Lee said, 'he needed more Irish" for cannon fodder, hardly a position taken by the rich/valued in society. The U.S. government threw its immigrants into its armies, recruited farmers to occupy Indian lands without any treaty arrangement. The only clear and clarion plan was to kill the food of the American Indian, namely, the buffalo.

This is a roundabout way of asking Dan Snyder to change D.C.'s football team to another name. Perhaps the "Buffalo Skins" might be able to actually acknowledge the history of displacement without using an epithet as a sports name. This is a roundabout way of suggesting that we all ask where the historic leaders of native resistance are at the National Museum of the American Indian might be and what things would look like with public commemoration and historic inquiry of the heroic lives of the Cherokee's Tsali, the Nez Perce Chief Joseph, Crazy Horse of the Oglala Lakota, and numerous others. This is a roundabout way of saying that we should wonder, as a nation, how powerful and free we are to continue to incarcerate Leonard Peltier for so very long in spite of his age and health. This is a roundabout way to say that we should wonder in horror at the treatment that continues of native peoples who have been often exiled from their homelands and who continue to lag behind in being able to pursue the American Dream that was theirs first and whose cultures we have visited so many nightmares upon.

Did not enough of the Indians die to get respect? Did not the American Indian lose enough to demand some respect about their very skin? Have not enough Americans of all ethnic, religious, and other differences felt like unwelcome outsiders enough? I too like the team that throws a pigskin for D.C., but "Redskin" is an unacceptable epithet. I also know the story of Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Chief Joseph and Geronimo. These were the leaders of the people who happened to be in the way of a growing nation just freed of slavery. But there was no Lincoln for the American Indians (other than perhaps the Lincoln that ordered America's largest mass execution in Mankato). President Obama and many other opinion leaders have weighed in to support a name change, while others have groused waving the suspect flag of "tradition" with all the credibility of apologists and supporters that are used to endorse the "stars-and-bars" flag. The name isn't okay. Anti-Indian racism is regrettably still alive and well with other forms and a discussion and actions are long overdue. We have a terrible history of judging people by the color of their skin rather than "the content of their character" in this nation. Let us learn this bleak history and move away from it for once and for all towards a nation of real inclusion. Let's change the name of the Redskins. Let's free Leonard Peltier. Let's move forward to heal the past and move forward into the present and future as a country of inclusion and integrity for all.