Redskin is a slang term for Native Americans in the United States and First Nations in Canada. The term "redskin" underwent pejoration through the 19th to early 20th centuries and in contemporary dictionaries of American English it is labeled "usually offensive", "disparaging", "insulting", or "taboo".
The origin of the choice of "red" to describe Native Americans in English is debated. While related terms were used in anthropological literature as early as the 17th century, labels based on skin-color entered everyday speech around the middle of the 18th century. "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."
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.
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.: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,:634 the general use of the term was in response to meeting people who called themselves "white" and their slaves "black".:629 The choice of red rather than other colors may have been due to cultural associations, rather than skin color.:632 Red and white were a dichotomy that had pervasive symbolic meanings in southeastern Native cultures which was less prevalent among northern tribes.: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".: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".
Early ethnographic writers used a variety of terms; olivastre (olive) by François Bernier (1684), rufus (reddish, ruddy) by Linnaeus (1758) kupferroth ("copper-red") by Blumenbach (1779), and eventually simply "red" by René Lesson (1847).
In the modern debate over sports teams with the name, it is sometimes asserted that Oklahoma translates from Choctaw as "red people" (okla, people + humma, red). However, "humma" has a number of possible meanings in Choctaw, one of which is "humma, an addition to a man's name which gives him some distinction, calling on him for courage and honor." The alternative meaning of Oklahoma becomes "honorable/courageous nation" or "a brave people".
Origins of redskin in English
Use of the English adjective "red" in reference to American Indians as a race is first recorded in the 1720s. The combination with "skin", to form the term "redskin", can be dated to 1769. It arises from a translation of French peaux rouges, which in turn had been written by the French translator from the Miami-Illinois language, in a letter sent by three chiefs of the Piankashaws to Col. John Wilkins. The term here refers to warriors specifically. The term "redskin" enters wider English usage only in the first half of the 19th century.:4–5
Ives Goddard (2005) pointed out that what had previously been considered the earliest attestation of the term, a letter purported to have been written to an Englishman living in Hadley, Massachusetts in 1699, was spurious.
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". The word later underwent a process of pejoration, by which it gained a negative connotation. 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".:4 However, in an interview Goddard admitted that it is impossible to verify whether the native words were accurately translated.
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.":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 ..."
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.: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". 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' were used to refer to Indians, while waapeshkinameshkaanichini 'one with white skin, white person' was used to refer to Europeans. 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.: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.
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.
The pejoration of the term "redskin" arguably begins as soon as its introduction in the early 19th century. 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, indicating that it was not the term "redskin" that was loaded pejoratively, but that its usage represents a generally negative attitude towards its referent. The word was first listed in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary in 1898 as "often contemptuous."
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. 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. In the same sense that "nigger" originated as meaning nothing more than "black-skinned", redskin also took on an increasingly negative meaning.
Some Native American activists in the 21st century, in contradiction of the etymological evidence discussed above, assert that "redskin" refers directly to the bloody, red scalp or other body part collected for bounty. While this claim is associated in the media with litigants in the Washington Redskins trademark dispute; Amanda Blackhorse and Suzan Shown Harjo, the NCAI's support indicates that the belief is widespread. Goddard (2005) denies any direct connection to scalping, and says there is a lack of evidence for the claim.:1 King (2016) argues that the lack of direct evidence for the assertion does not mean that those making the claim 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".
The term "red-skin" was, in fact used in conjunction with scalp hunting in the 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." 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. 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."
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. 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. 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.
In the United States, "redskin" is regarded as a racial epithet by some, but as neutral by others, including some Native Americans. 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, while others urge writers to use the term only in a historical context. In modern dictionaries of American English it is labeled "usually offensive", "disparaging", "insulting", or "taboo".
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. and Wellpinit High School, Wellpinit, Washington. 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." In 2014, Wellpinit High School, located on the Spokane Indian Reservation, voted to keep the Redskins name. 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."
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.
Marc H. Morial, President and CEO of the National Urban League
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. 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. A claim by Pete Hegseth on May 26, 2014 in a segment on "Outnumbered" that Redskins is "used historically" as "a term of respect" was deemed to be "Mostly False" by PolitiFact.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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. 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." 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."
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". 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, and passages from movies made from the 1940s to the 1960s using "redskin" to refer to Native Americans as a savage enemy. 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. 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. Although the USPTO decision was upheld upon appeal, 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. 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.
College and secondary school teams
College teams that formerly used the name changed voluntarily:
- The University of Utah Redskins became the Utah Utes in 1972.
- The Miami University (of Ohio) Redskins became the RedHawks in 1997.
- The Southern Nazarene University Redskins became the Crimson Storm in 1998.
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. Since the CNS list was compiled, this trend has continued, with an additional thirteen high school teams having changed, plus one closed, leaving a total of 48 high schools continuing to use the name.
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Definition of REDSKIN (offensive): American indian
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n. Offensive Slang Used as a disparaging term for a Native American.
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noun, Slang: Disparaging and Offensive. 1. a North American Indian.
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n. Offensive Slang Used as a disparaging term for a Native American.
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