Is it necessary, this late in the day, to say that the team name is racist? Is it essential to point out that the name and logo dehumanize my Indian grandchildren, and make us—the non-Indians, strangers in their own land—complicitous in keeping alive the ghost of centuries of genocidal policies, concentration camps euphemistically called “reservations,” and racial violence?
In a letter to Washington football fans dated October 9, 2013, owner Dan Snyder defended the use of the name for his franchise: “The name was never a label. It was and continues to be, a badge of honor.” Snyder makes his case by citing support among certain members of the Indian community and concludes that he cannot ignore the “strong feelings of most of our fans as well as Native Americans throughout the country.” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/letter-from-washington-redskins-owner-dan-snyder-to-fans/2013/10/09/e7670ba0-30fe-11e3-8627-c5d7de0a046b_story.html)
In the spring of 1876, three weeks after the battle of Little Bighorn, William F. Cody (“Buffalo Bill”) re-joined his old regiment—the 5th Cavalry under General George Crook. He enlisted to serve as guide and chief of scouts in the war against Sitting Bull’s Lakotas and Cheyennes. At War Bonnet Creek—so the legend says—Cody defeated the Cheyenne warrior Yellow Hand in hand-to-hand combat. Cody later re-told the story: “I scientifically scalped him in about five seconds…. I swung the Indian chieftain’s top-knot and bonnet in the air, and shouted: “The first scalp for Custer.” (William F. Cody, The Life of Hon. William F. Cody, Known as BuffaloBill)
Cody’s duel against Yellow Hand was reported in New York newspapers. Soon after, he re-enacted the incident in a stage melodrama: The Red Right Hand; or Buffalo Bill’s First Scalp for Custer. He displayed Yellow Hand’s warrior ornaments—including the scalp—outside of theaters where he performed as if they were the captured arms of a fallen Greek warrior. “The image of Cody waving [Yellow Hand’s] scalp in the air … became a permanent feature of Buffalo Bill iconography.” (Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation)
In his letter Snyder remarked: “Our past isn’t just where we came from—it’s who we are.” In brandishing his team name and logo in “bumper stickers, Redskin decals, Redskin t-shirts, Redskins everything,” the Washington football organization is re-presenting the same display of Indian ornaments—and with the same effect, regardless of harmless intentions—that William Cody flaunted before his “Red Right Hand” melodrama. And Snyder, claiming a debt to “fans and coaches and players, past and present, to preserve that heritage,” is re-enacting the part of Buffalo Bill.
“Washington Redskins is more than a name…. It is a symbol … of strength, courage, pride, and respect.” These are what George Bernard Shaw would call “deadly virtues.” For strength that is used to push and shove the weak is merely bullying; courage applied against the defenseless is merely cowardice; pride that is used to demean others is mere vanity; and respect of fellow Americans should be made of sterner stuff than the diabolic idolatry of signs and symbols.
Hail to the Redskins indeed! Lose the name.