Redskin (slang)

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"Redskin" is a slang term referring to Native Americans in the United States. The use of skin color as racial identifiers emerged at the beginning of the 18th century, with white, red, and black becoming widespread only in the latter part of the century. The origins of identifying Native Americans as "red" is debated, since early European explorers did not describe Natives as having a natural skin color different than themselves, but attributed differences in coloration to such practices as the use of pigments. The self-identification of some tribes as red, including "red-skins" may have had cultural rather than racial origins. The terms were used primarily in the context of diplomatic relations between Natives and Europeans. Whatever its origins in the colonial period, scholars agree that "redskin" underwent a process of pejoration due to the increasingly disparaging use of the term through the 19th and early 20th centuries.[1] In modern dictionaries of American English it is labeled "usually offensive",[2] "disparaging",[3][4] "insulting",[5] or "taboo".[6]

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 high schools in the United States changing their team name as a result of protest by Native Americans, government regulations, or voluntary action.


The historical context for the emergence in the Americas of racial identities based upon skin color was the establishment of colonies which developed a plantation economy depended upon slave labor. Before that, the British identified themselves as Christians rather than white. "At the start of the eighteenth century, Indians and Europeans rarely mentioned the color of each other’s skins. By midcentury, remarks about skin color and the categorization of peoples by simple color-coded labels (red, white, black) had become commonplace."[7]

Red as a racial identifier

Documents from the colonial period indicate that the use of "red" as an identifier by Native Americans for themselves emerged in the context of Indian-European diplomacy in the southeastern region of North America, before later being adopted by Europeans and becoming a generic label for all Native Americans.[8]:627–28 Linguistic evidence indicates that, while some tribes may have used red to refer to themselves during the Pre-Columbian era based upon their origin stories,[8]:634 the general use of the term was in response to meeting people who called themselves "white" and their slaves "black".[8]:629 The choice of red rather than other colors may have been due to cultural associations, rather than skin color.[8]:632

Red and white were a dichotomy that had pervasive symbolic meanings in southeastern Native cultures which was less prevalent among northern tribes.[8]:632 While there was occasional use of "red" in Indian-European diplomacy in the northeast, it was still rare there even after it had become common in the southeast. Instead, "Indian" was translated into the native languages there as "men", "real people", or "original people".[8]:629–30 Usage in the northeast region by Europeans may have been largely limited to descriptions of tribes such as the Beothuk of Newfoundland, whose practice of painting their bodies and possessions with red ochre led Europeans to refer to them as "Red Indians".[9] Early explorers and later Anglo-Americans termed Native Americans "light-skinned", "brown", "tawny", or "russet", and red did not become the universally accepted color label for Native Americans until the nineteenth century.[10]

Origins of redskin in English

The origin of the term "redskin" in English is debated; whether it was a direct translation of words used by Native Americans to refer to themselves, or used by colonial settlers in the context of violence against Native Americans. Both uses may have been concurrent at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the latter becoming predominate by the end of the century.[7]

Smithsonian linguistics scholar Ives Goddard begins his analysis of textual evidence on the origins of "redskin" by discrediting what had previously been taken as the earliest usage in English, a 1699 letter attributed to an English colonialist, Samuel Smith, living in Hadley, Massachusetts. The letter supposedly contains both "ye Red Skin Men" and "ye Red Skins. Based on this source, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) had suggested that 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".[11]:1–4[12] Goddard concluded the letter was a "work of fiction".[13] 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".[14]

Roots in Native American language

Goddard's alternative etymology is that the term emerged 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 "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".[13] The word later underwent a process of pejoration, by which it gained a negative connotation.[15] Goddard suggests that "redskin" emerged from French translations of Native American speech in Illinois and Missouri territories in the 18th century. He cites as the earliest example a 1769 set of "talks", or letters, from chiefs of the Piankeshaw to an English officer at Fort de Chartres. One letter included "si quelques peaux Rouges", which was translated as "if any redskins", and the second included "tout les peaux rouges", which was translated as "all the redskins".[11]:4 However, in an interview Goddard admitted that it is impossible to verify whether the native words were accurately translated.[13]

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 French Crow, principal chief of the Wahpekute band of Santee Sioux, was recorded as having 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."[11]:14–15

The earliest known appearance of the term in print occurred in 1813, in an article in the Weekly Register quoting a letter dated August 27, 1813. It concerned an expedition during the War of 1812 led by General Benjamin Howard against Indians in 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 ..."[16]

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, the records were 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". The first time the term appears in Bartlett's "Dictionary of Americanisms" (in 1858), Goddard notes, the illustrative reference is to Last of the Mohicans.[11]:15–16

Johnathan Buffalo, historic preservation director of the Meskwaki, said that in the 1800s "redskins" was used by the tribe for self-identification. Similarly, they identified others as "whiteskins" or "blackskins".[17] Goddard's evidence for Native language usage includes a 1914 phonetic transcription of the Meskwaki language in which both eesaawinameshkaata 'one with brown skin' and meeshkwinameshkaata 'one with red skin' where used to refer to Indians, while waapeshkinameshkaanichini 'one with white skin, white person' was used to refer to Europeans.[18] However, the pre-contact Meskwaki use of "red" in identifying themselves did not refer to skin color, but to their origin stories as the "red-earth" people.[19]:239

Historian Darren Reid of Coventry University states it is difficult for historians to document anything with certainty since Native Americans, as a non-literate society, did not produce the written sources upon which historians rely. Instead, what is cited as Native American usage was generally attributed to them by European writers. Any use of "red" in its various forms, including redskin, by Native Americans to refer to themselves reflected their need to use the language of the times in order to be understood by Europeans.[20]

Sociologist James V. Fenelon makes a more explicit statement that Goddard's article is poor scholarship, given that the conclusion of the origin and usage by Natives as "entirely benign" is divorced from the socio-historical realities of hostility and racism from which it emerged.[21]

Roots in colonial violence

For Native American scholars[22] and leaders, including the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the term redskin originated in the practice of paying a bounty for killing Indians, which began in the colonial period and overshadowed any neutral usage.[23][24] In American Holocaust, historian David Stannard cites an account from King Philips War (1676):[25] "Hunting redskins for the time being became a popular sport in New England...".[26] The details of bounties paid for collected scalps was shown in the proclamation declaring war against the Penobscot Indians in 1755 issued by Lieutenant Governor Spencer Phips (commonly known as the Phips Proclamation). The proclamation specified the different amounts to be paid for the scalps of men, women, and children".[27][28] Eventually, government bounties would be offered for Native American heads or scalps in at least 23 states or territories.[29]

Some Native Americans assert that "redskin" refers directly to the bloody, red scalp or other body part offered as proof to collect this payment,[30] based upon oral history passed down in Native American families.[31] While this claim is associated in the media with litigants in the Washington Redskins trademark dispute; Amanda Blackhorse[32] and Suzan Shown Harjo[33], the NCAI's support indicates that the belief is widespread. Goddard denies any direct connection to scalping, and says there is a lack of evidence for the claim.[11]:1[14] For C. Richard King the lack of direct evidence does not mean that contemporary Native people are wrong to draw an association between a term that empathizes an identity based upon skin color and a history that commodified Native American body parts.[34]


Goddard's study is specific to the period 1769–1826, and says nothing about the subsequent use and meaning of the term.[13] "Redskin" was used throughout the English-speaking world (and in equivalent transliterations in Europe) throughout the mid-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a 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 for the use of "redskin" were significantly more frequent than positive ones. 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.[35] 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".[36] The word was first listed in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary in 1898 as "often contemptuous."[37]

Sociologist Irving Lewis Allen suggests 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.[38] However, 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.[39] In the same sense that "nigger" originated as meaning nothing more than "black-skinned", redskin also took on an increasingly negative meaning.[15]

The term was used in conjunction with scalp hunting into the late 19th century. 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."[40] 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", worth $250.[41] In his early career as the owner of a newspaper in South Dakota, L. Frank Baum wrote an editorial upon the death of Chief Sitting Bull in which he advocates the annihilation of all remaining Redskins in order to secure the safety of white settlers, and because "better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are."[42]

When Hollywood westerns were most popular, roughly 1920–1970, the term "redskins" was often used to refer to Native Americans when war was imminent or in progress.[43] In the Washington Redskins trademark dispute, the main issue was the meaning of the term in 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 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.[44] John McWhorter, an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University, had compared the evolution of the name into a slur to that of other racial terms such as "Oriental" which also acquired implied meanings associated with contempt.[45]

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,[46] but as neutral by others, including some Native Americans.[47] 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,[48] while others urge writers to use the term only in a historical context.[49] In modern dictionaries of American English it is labeled "usually offensive",[2] "disparaging",[3][4] "insulting",[5] or "taboo".[6]

Use among Native Americans

Three predominantly Native American schools use the name for their athletic teams, two of which serve reservations: Red Mesa High School in Teec Nos Pos, Arizona where the student body is 99% Native American.[50] and Wellpinit High School, Wellpinit, Washington.[51] The principal of Red Mesa said in 2014 that use of the word outside American Indian communities should be avoided because it could perpetuate "the legacy of negativity that the term has created."[52] In 2014, Wellpinit High School, located on the Spokane Indian Reservation, voted to keep the Redskins name.[53] Native American writer and attorney Gyasi Ross compares Native American use of variations of the word "Redskin" with African-American use of variations of the word "Nigger". Use of these terms by some members of minority communities does not mean that these words may be used by outsiders. Ross also notes that while activism on the issue may be from a minority of Native Americans, this is due to most being concerned with more immediate issues, but also says "The presentation of the name 'Redskins' is problematic for many Native Americans because it identifies Natives in a way that the vast majority of Natives simply don't identity ourselves."[54]

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.[55]

Washington Redskins

The controversy regarding Native mascots in general, and use of the name Redskins, is most prominent in the name of the Washington Redskins, a National Football League team. Public protest of the name began in 1968, with a resolution by the National Congress of American Indians.[56] Native American groups and their supporters argue that since they view the word "redskin" as offensive, it is inappropriate for an NFL team to continue to use it, regardless of whether any offense is intended.[35][57][58] A claim by Pete Hegseth on May 26th, 2014 in a segment on "Outnumbered" that Redskins is "used historically" as "a term of respect" was deemed to be "Mostly False" by PolitiFact.[59]

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.[60] 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.[61] 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.[62]

An alternative method to standard opinion polls was used by the Center for Indigenous Peoples Studies at California State University, San Bernardino. A survey of 400 individuals, with 98 individuals positively identified as Native Americans, found 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.[63][64]

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.[65][66][67] 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 by supporters of a name change. 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."[68] 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."[69]

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".[70][71] 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,[72] and passages from movies made from the 1940s to the 1960s using "redskin" to refer to Native Americans as a savage enemy.[73] 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.[74] 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.[44] Although the USPTO decision was upheld upon appeal[75], on June 19, 2017 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in another case, Matal v. Tam, that the disparagement clause of the Latham Act violated the First Amendment's Free Speech Clause.[76] Both the Native American petitioners and the Justice Department have withdrawn from any further litigation now that the Supreme Court has rendered the legal issue moot.[77]

College and secondary school teams

College teams that formerly used the name changed voluntarily:

As of early 2013 the Capitol News Service (CNS) in Maryland listed 62 high schools using the Redskins name. Twenty-eight high schools in 18 states had dropped the Redskins name during the prior 25 years, either voluntarily or as a result of a combination of state legal action and protests from Native American groups.[50] Since the CNS list was compiled, this trend has continued, with an additional thirteen high school teams having changed, plus one closed,[78] leaving a total of 48 high schools continuing to use the name.

In 2014 a bill was introduced to ban the name then being used by four high schools in the state of California. Assemblyman Luis Alejo said that there was "no reason why we can't ... phase out that particular derogatory term from our public high schools".[79] The bill, designated the California Racial Mascots Act, passed both houses and was signed into law by California governor Jerry Brown on October 11, 2015[80]

At Conrad Schools of Science, Wilmington, Delaware, the national controversy which had led to more than a year of local discussion prompted the Red Clay Consolidated School District board to appoint a committee to study the issue. The committee, made up of teachers, parents, community members, alumni, and two representatives from Native American tribes, made a recommendation to change the name by a vote of 9 to 4. The majority of the community opposed this decision, but Nanticoke Chief William Daisey, who served on the mascot committee, said at a meeting last month, "It is a slur word, folks. It's a slur word –period."[81] In response to committee members who opposed the change in order to maintain a tradition the honors Native Americans, Lenape Chief Dennis Coker said that many impressions of Native American life aren't necessarily true.[82]

A name change was initiated by students at Cooperstown Central School, Cooperstown, New York, who expressed embarrassment with the Redskins name. The administration agreed that change was consistent with diversity and cultural sensitivity.[83] When the school changed its team name to "Hawkeyes", the Oneida Indian Nation donated $10,000 towards the cost of doing so.[84]

After years of local discussion with various opinions of both sides, the school board voted to change the name of Goshen High School, Goshen, Indiana. The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians advocated the change, stating "The R-word crosses a line for us. It's offensive, derogatory, and demeaning. ... Using the R-word perpetuates harmful stereotypes of Native Americans, and continues the damaging practice of relegating Native Americans to the past and portraying us as a caricature."[85]

The Houston Independent School District in Texas voted in 2013 to eliminate all culturally offensive mascots, including the Lamar High School Redskins, which became the Texans in 2014.[86]

Lancaster High School, Lancaster, New York.[87]

See also


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Further reading

  • Bass, Amy (2005). In the Game: Race, Identity, and Sports in the Twentieth Century. 
  • Nafziger, James A. R.; Paterson, Robert Kirkwood; Renteln, Alison Dundes (2010). Cultural Law: International, Comparative, and Indigenous. Cambridge University Press. p. 644. ISBN 978-0-521-86550-0. 
  • Rosier, Paul C. (2003). Native American Issues. 
  • Zografos, Daphne (2010). Intellectual Property and Traditional Cultural Expressions. Edward Elgar Publishing. pp. 93–. ISBN 978-1-84980-633-6. 

External links

  • "The Other Redskins". Capitol News Service. 
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