The recent decision by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to step into the contentious debate over the nickname of the Washington NFL team by rescinding federal trademark protection was most likely an overreach and should be overturned by the courts.
But change must come. Choosing our language with care and sensitivity is not political correctness run amok. Rather, it reflects a heightened awareness that our words have an impact on others, especially others who may not have the same political and economic clout as the group of which we’re members. Not to excuse incivility by anyone but the white, male, heterosexual, Anglo establishment — the power elite of our society — has the greater obligation to get it right.
During a news conference defending his refusal to change his team name, Washington owner Dan Snyder cited 80 years of tradition and went to great lengths to express his admiration for Native Americans and their storied history. But, not surprisingly, he never once referred to them as the R-word. And that’s just it. No one in the last 40 years with any sense would think of calling Native Americans by the name of the Washington football team. So how can the Washington football team? Dictionaries label the term “offensive,” “disparaging” and “insulting.”
“Red skins” was a common term of reference for America’s indigenous peoples throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, even used by some Native Americans who lacked a generic name to identify collective tribes.
That’s one thing I’ve never understood: given their rich traditions and languages, why Native Americans never developed a common name for themselves other than relying on Anglo phrasing. After all, there was no “America” to be a native of before Columbus, and “Indian,” of course, was simply the mischaracterization of the indigenous people as natives of India where Columbus thought he’d landed.
Defenders of the Washington name point to a 2004 survey that found 90 percent of “self-identified” Native Americans weren’t bothered by it. A 2014 survey of “verified” Native Americans, however, finds 67 percent calling the name a racist slur. The response from non-natives was almost the opposite, with 68 percent saying the name is not offensive. But what’s considered appropriate terminology changes as people gain greater awareness, just it has for blacks, Hispanics and gays.
How can it not, when Americans finally own up to the government’s systematic slaughter of indigenous peoples, brutally removing them from ancestral lands and robbing them of their dignity and culture? By the way, speaking of “tradition,” they had lived on those tribal lands a lot longer than 80 years!
Here’s why that term is so offensive to Native Americans and why it will become offensive to the rest of us. In the American West, right up through the turn of the 20th century, in order to collect their government reward, bounty hunters were required to bring back a scalp, or colloquially, a “red skin.”
Yeah, Dan, I’d be real proud of that tradition.
Marty Moore is a freelance writer living in Port Richey.