WASHINGTON — The name “Redskins” — which some believe is destined for deletion from all levels of sports — has a complicated history with Native Americans in Iowa and other parts of the country.
Johnathan Buffalo, historic preservation director of the Meskwaki Nation, also known as the Sac & Fox Tribe of the Mississippi, said tribal members in the 1800s used “redskins” as a simple term of identifying themselves — just as they identified others as “whiteskins” or “blackskins” — without any derogatory intent. Because of that history, Buffalo said most Meskwaki don’t find the name offensive, although he emphasized he isn’t speaking for the tribe.
He said the tribe even fielded a baseball team in the 1930s and 1940s — the Tama Redskins.
“It’s a very old word,” Buffalo said. “For us, it was a diplomatic way of talking, just a descriptive term to identify people. But as the word moved west, as the west took hold of the term, it became derogatory. It was no longer diplomatic, as it was when it started in the east. So it depends on where you ask people and whether they grew up with the term. ... Now we’re talking about the ugliness of the word, not the richness of the word.”
Washington’s professional football team has been known as the Redskins since 1932 — first in Boston, and since 1937 in D.C. Despite that history, recent events suggest the controversial name is unlikely to endure.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office stripped the Redskins of its federal trademark status June 18. There is no immediate effect, since the Redskins immediately appealed the decision, and such appeal cases are known to take years. The decision also doesn’t mean the team can’t keep using the name, and there still is common law authority protecting the name from being used by others.
But pressure is mounting.
The National Congress of American Indians, which bills itself as the “oldest, largest and most representative” Native American organization, has been trying to get the Redskins to change the name since 1968, arguing the name is associated with racism and genocide.
Brian Cladoosby, a member of the Swinomish tribe in the Pacific Northwest and association president, said the name dates back to America’s colonial period, when King George II of England offered a bounty for the bloody scalps — literally, the red skins — of Native Americans.
“If it takes another 45 years, we will continue to apply the pressure,” Cladoosby said. “Lord willing, with as much support as we’re getting now through various church organizations, U.S. senators, hopefully the owner will see the writing on the wall. We’re living in the 21st Century.”
In May, 50 U.S. Senators — all Democrats, including Iowa’s Tom Harkin — signed a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, urging him to push Redskins owner Dan Snyder to change the name.
Eastern Iowa’s congressional delegation is nearly united that the name must go.
“As attitudes have evolved, it has become apparent that a significant number of Native Americans find the name of Washington’s football team insulting,” said Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa. “While I respect the right to free speech, I am hopeful that the team’s owner will finally recognize the offense many take to the name.”
But Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley called the issue a private business matter.
“What people want to call their teams is a private market, free enterprise sort of thing. If it benefits them, it benefits them,” Grassley said. “But if there’s a downside to their use of the name, they’re going to pay a price in the marketplace. In the end, there are no federal law violations involved, so it’s not a federal matter.”
Buffalo, of Meskwaki Nation, is frustrated with the controversy.
“The people who are for it will find Indians who aren’t offended, and the people who are against it will find Indians who are offended,” he said. “But the one thing I hate is that we have bigger Indian issues that we should be fighting over instead of a sports team. Loss of our land. Loss of our language. Our self-governance is always threatened. Our sovereignty is always threatened.