All major Native American organizations have called for the Washington pro football franchise to end its team’s despicable name. Why? Because it’s a racial slur and—no matter how many millions it spends trying to sanitize it and silence Native Peoples—the epithet is not, was not and will not be an honorific.
Many Native people cannot bear to say or hear the R word, while some use it or “skins” in the same way that some African American people use the N word, but are not okay with those of other races using it. Lawyers for the team’s owners cite any use of the R word by Native persons to support their contention that we are fine with it; they’ve even spied around Facebook for use of the term by the Native young people who filed suit in 2006 in the ongoing Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football case.
Edward Bennett Williams was the franchise’s only owner to meet with Native people who oppose the name, and that was in 1972. Owners have maintained in court since 1992 that the name “honors Indians.” But in overlapping litigation of 21 years and counting no Native representatives have testified that they are honored, while Native friends of the court have stood up against the name and the “honoring” myth.
At the same time, the franchise’s owners have said that the name means only the football team and has nothing to do with Native Peoples. What then, pray tell, do they mean to suggest by that “Indian” profile and feathers (and by that stereotype-laden fight song, which didn’t stop being offensive just because “scalp ’em” was removed)?
The Washington “Indian” head was pasted on the sides of garbage bins on most D.C. street corners from the 1970s to 1990s. Then, the complexion of the “Indian” matched the team’s burgundy color. Gradually, but not so subtly, the color changed to the brown-black of the “Indian” skin on today’s helmets, which begs the question: Is someone considering a commensurate name change to target the supposed skin color of other people, and how fast would that repugnant idea be shot down by the fans, who don’t notice, don’t mind or look the other way now.
As loathsome as it is for the franchise to impose this false identity, its name is even more vile, because it is rooted in the commodification of Native skin and body parts as bounties and trophies. Some Europeans arrived here with millennial history of chopping off enemies’ heads and mounting them on stakes, and of scalping, skinning, dismembering and other tortures and trophy hunting. Some Native Peoples engaged in ritual versions of some of these practices, while many did not, but beheadings and grave robbing were so unusual that they remain prominent in Native oral histories.
Many Native Peoples became prey of European countries, companies and colonies, and of Americans, whose bounty proclamations set targets, proof of “Indian kill” and prices. Some bounties were paid for any person of a stated Native nation, in which case a captive, dead body or scalp with hair or ears or other cultural identifier would suffice. Others were paid on a sliding scale for men, women and children, in which case at least the front skin or scalped private parts would have to be produced in order to establish the rate of pay.
The British bounty on the Mi’kmaq Nation (Halifax, 1749), for example, was a straightforward “ten Guineas for every Indian Micmac taken or killed, to be paid upon producing such Savage taken or his scalp.”
More complex were the Massachusetts Bay bounties against the Penobscot Nation in 1755 (prices in pounds)—male prisoners (above age 12), 50 each, or for scalps “as Evidence of their being killed,” 40 each; and female prisoners or males (under 12), 25 each, or their scalps, 20 each—and Pennsylvania bounties against the Lenni Lenape Nation in 1756 (prices in Pieces of Eight): 130 for the “Scalp of Every Male Indian Enemy” and 50 for the “Scalp of Every Indian Woman, produced as evidence of their being killed.”
There are some who claim that the “scalp evidence” has nothing to do with Indian or bloody skin, because they cannot find the words skin or red in bounty documents. They do not allow that scalp is skin and that the skin of the head, with or without hair, is insufficient evidence of gender or age. (They also claim that Native people introduced themselves as “Red Skin,” because that’s how Europeans translated to English what Native men said in their tribal languages, when they likely said they were a Red, Blood or Related Person or Man.)
Cheyenne Scholar Dr. Leo Killsback did not obscure meaning in his November 2012 ICTMN column: “The bodies of the 39 Dakota men” (who were federally hanged at Mankato, Minnesota in 1862) “were skinned and preserved by the Mayo Clinic for further ‘scientific’ study.”
Records of military and congressional investigations into the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre illustrate that “scalping” and other terms were euphemisms for Colorado Volunteers mutilating Cheyenne people and wearing and displaying genitalia, fetuses and other “battle trophies.”
Native Peoples from ocean to ocean have long experience with twisted words, meanings and thinking, and we recognize echoes of a past that we do not want to repeat. This issue is part of cultural reclamation and protection of sovereign identity and good name that are ongoing in Native nations today.
Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne & Hodulgee Muscogee, is an award-winning columnist and a poet, writer, curator and policy advocate, who has helped Native Peoples to protect sacred places and recover more than 1 million acres of land.