Notes from Indian Country
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)
© Native Sun News
August 11, 2014
Neil Cavuto, a broadcaster with the Fox Business Network, can't be blamed for looking askance at the decision by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for canceling the Washington professional football team's ownership of the name "Redskins" and the patent protections that go with it.
Cavuto was looking at it from a purely business point of view. When he wrote that it has only been in the past couple of years that this has become a contentious political issue he was dead wrong. Of course he had no reason to know what was happening to Native Americans and what their feelings were about this issue even though we had been making noises about it for more than 30 years. No Neil, it was not just a couple of years ago when this issue first came up.
I started writing locally (South Dakota) about the use of the word "Redskins" in 1982 and I wrote about it nationally for Newsweek Magazine in the January 27, 1992 issue. One year before that Suzanne Harjo, Michael Haney and I appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and confronted a die-hard Redskin fan about the use of the word.
When Suzanne, Michael and I were having lunch that day before the show we noticed this white guy standing at the bar throwing down drinks. We were very surprised when this turned out to be the guy who was going to speak up in defense of the Washington football team. Michael Haney later referred to the confrontation as "Three sober Indians and one drunken white guy." Native Americans are often depicted as "drunken Indians" so this reversal of roles was pretty ironic to us. Oprah apologized to us for having him on the show.
In his anger over how this would impact the business end of the Washington NFL franchise, Cavuto wrote, "Redskins" today? "Red Bull" tomorrow? Should the Cleveland Indians worry? Or the Atlanta Hawks?"
If he had been following the historic battle of Native Americans fighting to remove all usage of their image as mascots for America's fun and games he would have known that one of the first confrontations between Native Americans and the police involved a protest against the aforementioned Cleveland Indians in 1982. A lawsuit brought by activist Russell Means in 1983 against the Cleveland baseball team was settled out of court for $35,000. The Chief Wahoo mascot is still considered to be demeaning by Native Americans. If such a racist caricature of any other race, black, Hispanic, or Asian was displayed publicly as a mascot all hell would be raised by members of those minorities.
Native Americans have every reason to detest the Washington team's use of the "Redskin" mascot. For one, to name a mascot after the color of a people's skin is in itself racist. Why did the Pekin, Illinois High School mascot known by all of the fans as the "Chinks" become extinct? Simply put: it was considered to be racist. Why doesn't that common sense reasoning apply to Native Americans?
There was a time in the not so glorious past of this country when bounties were being offered for "Redskins." Literally! The skin of an Indian man, woman or child brought a bounty to the person who bagged the "Redskin." Most history books have long since erased this little part of American history because it does not reflect well upon the imagined morals of a nation.
When Suzanne Harjo was asked on the Oprah Winfrey Show why it was that some Native Americans did not object to being used as mascots she replied, "There were also happy campers on the old plantations in the South."
When the "Redskin" fans took a pig and painted it red and put a miniature feathered war bonnet on its head and proceeded to chase it around the football field at halftime, for me that was the straw that broke the camel's back. Now imagine if they had taken that same pig and painted it black and put an Afro wig on its head? Would that not be considered racist? You can bet your bottom dollar it would.
I think if Neil Cavuto and many other die-hard Redskin fans could walk a mile in our figurative moccasins, they would begin to see things a little differently. But in the interim, I have been writing about this for more than 30 years and to see something positive finally happening warms my heart. It just shows that persistence and patience can be rewarding. In a business sense I know where Cavuto is coming from and I feel sorry for how it will impact Dan Snyder, but all he has to do to remedy the situation is to change the name.
(Tim Giago is an Oglala Lakota and is the editor and publisher of Native Sun News. He was the founder and original publisher of Indian Country Today. Giago was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)