05/13/2013 11:35 am ET Updated Jul 13, 2013

Racist Redskin: Resolving Anglo Ignorance About Naming Natives

Getty Images

Here's an idea.

It follows the stunning recent report that 79 percent of people polled want the Redskins football team to keep its name. In the evolving American consciousness, where there's growing support for illegal immigrants who want U.S. citizenship and for gays who want wedlock, the same impulse apparently does not recognize that the word redskins is as reprehensible and offensive to (most) Native Americans as the "n" word is to African Americans.

Are Native Americans (yes, they usually call themselves Indians, and joke they're lucky Columbus didn't land in Turkey) considered some fringe (wearing) interest group with a super sensitive political correctness problem?

Apparently so.

As a non-Native scholar of Native Americana sighed to me recently, "Indians are under the radar." They've been under the radar, she continued, since decades ago, since the Alcatraz takeover and the Wounded Knee confrontation. Among Native people, the memory of such drama, self-assertiveness and fury is alive and hallowed. Among most of us nons (as I call my fellow Anglo kin), it's history. What have you attacked for us lately?

Many Natives have been trying in the politest ways possible (how well that works!) to persuade non-Natives the word redskins is repugnant. Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Muscogee activist, has been relentless in her attempts. Some of us have heard and heeded. Not enough of us, though. Whether the word refers to the practice of white authorities rewarding settlers with payment for every "red skin" they brought in, one dead Indian, etc., is perhaps debatable, but not debatable is that to Native people the word is a horrible insult.

The sagest comment about the matter may come from Ansel Deon, a Chicagoan whose mother is Navajo, whose father is Lakota. When I met Ansel years ago, Chicago media was full of the controversy about "Chief Illiniwek," the mascot for the Urbana campus of the University of Illinois. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) ordered Urbana to get rid of Illiniwek or else. Ansel, whose job at Chicago's American Indian Center involved explaining cultural traditions to non-Indians, allowed he was sick of being asked about "the Chief." He rolled his eyes at the argument that a stadium of people cheering the prancing mascot (a non-Indian wearing buckskin regalia that reportedly was purchased from a destitute Native) was a form of honor and respect.

Said Ansel with his usual softness, "It's hard to comprehend the fact you're honoring and respecting us, but won't listen to what we have to say."

That's it, isn't it? If someone calls me a name that I say offends me, but insists, "I mean it with honor and respect, Alison. You're a c--t," how am I supposed to feel?

Redskins name advocates don't get this. Online letters about the subject show particular cruelty, in the mode of "You politically correct types are pathetic." Some comments are more baffling than insulting. Changing the team name of Bullets didn't stop killings, so...

Ignorance is surely a factor. Consider that bizarre ungreeting no Native American uttered except at the barrel of a Hollywood paycheck. "How!" A Native acquaintance told me that when he mentioned to someone at work last month, yes, he's Indian, the colleague looked confused, then raised his hand and said, "Well, How! right?"

As someone who receives a Google Alert daily for the phrase "Native Americans" and has interviewed Native people about their lives, I know that some Native people consider the mascot issue far down the list of battles. How about mending a broken treaty? Cleaning up environmental destruction to Native lands? Stopping the terrifying number of Native teen suicides? Tackling diabetes?

I come to my idea.

Perhaps the way to raise awareness of the disgusting moniker of "redskins" is not through rational argument, but through efforts by a certain group of people who are gaining acceptance among the general population, including football tailgaters.

Yes, gays. And not only gays. I'm talking gay Indians! But let's narrow the category further. Gay Indian comedians! What, you didn't know about them?

"I worry about dating white men," says Native humorist Charlie Ballard on a video'ed routine. "Not because of getting HIV, but getting smallpox. White boys are cute, but don't cough on me."

Couldn't he and others create jokes about gay redskin warriors? Let's figure this out. Redskins, foreskins? Something about locker rooms? Maybe teepees? They're always a yuck. This shtick has potential, I know it. Did you hear about that buff redskin who...

Well, it's worth a try, no, kemo sabe? And Native people, I've learned to my amazement, have the developed sense of humor and humanity to laugh at virtually anything. So don't worry about insulting them in this endeavor. Especially if the goal is to kick the word redskins into history.

There it can join its many despised companions, including the s-word: squaw.

But that's another story.