Merlene Davis: American Indian racial slurs are never a 'badge of honor'

Herald-Leader columnistJune 25, 2014 

Redskins What’s A Slur

The Washington Redskins name is displayed on a building at their training center in Ashburn, Va.

NICK WASS — Associated Press

My son, a die-hard Washington Redskins fan, said it is time for that National Football League team to let go of its name. And he said so on Facebook.

That's a major step, and it seems to be gathering momentum now that the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board has canceled six trademarks registered by the team. It is only the second time the office has used its power to take down an offensive trademark, and both cases involved that football team.

But why?

Dan Snyder, the team's owner, said the name has been in place for more than 80 years, and he has pledged never to change it. He said the name is "a badge of honor."

"Well, I'm not feeling it," said Mary Annette Pember of Cincinnati, a Red Cliff Ojibwe. "I'm not honored."

Neither is Tressa Brown.

"What's wrong with the name is that it is very disparaging and it is a racial slur," said Brown, coordinator of the Native American Heritage and African American Heritage commissions for the Kentucky Heritage Council. "It's like saying 'that savage.' It is like lumping everyone together."

It is no different, she said, than using wop in reference to Italians, chink for Chinese, nigger for blacks or mick for the Irish.

Mercy. I definitely wouldn't want to see any of those names on a jersey in my son's room.

"We don't even say the n-word," said Pember, a former photographer for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "Not only is it not acceptable, we don't even utter it. That is a sea change."

And that radical transformation is what she and many others of American Indian heritage want to see happen to the name of the Washington football team. The word redskin might have originated because of the coppery hue some tribes used on their skin for sunscreen, mosquito repellent or for ceremony or when at war, said Helen Danser, chairwoman of the Kentucky Native American Heritage Commission.

Sometimes the material used was a type of clay material called red ochre or a coloring from walnuts. Sometimes it was mixed with bear grease, she said, and put on their bodies. If the coloring was used for a ceremony, the formula was different and was kept secret.

"Both of those would give the red hue to the skin," Danser said. "Warrior color would be red and black. That is probably where they got their name."

But not all Indian nations held the same traditions or rituals. And without the paint, American Indians come in all shades, she said.

The name is not the only problem, however.

Danser said using the headdress or war bonnet on the team's logo and mascot also is hurtful. Not all nations used the war bonnets, and for those that did, wearing it was an earned privilege.

"You had to prove yourself as a warrior to get that war bonnet," she said. The football team is "pretending to be who you are not."

The word might have been harmless at first, but it later was used as a pejorative. Bounties were placed for Indian scalps and skulls. Under the Indian Removal Act of 1830, tribes were forced to relocate to reservations and assimilate.

"They are really referring to us as bounty," Pember said. "They are referring to our pelts. We are fauna. Redskin refers to us as animals."

For some reason, though, Indian racial slurs have not been challenged as vociferously as have the epithets of other ethnic minorities.

"It is rare to see another racial group of people used in the images that American Indians have been used," Brown said.

That is changing. For decades, Indians have battled against the use of mascots and names for sports teams without much success. This time, however, the heat is building. Indians want the same respect given to other minorities when those groups demanded it. Fortunately, federal and state lawmakers, civil rights organizations, the president, and a lot of fans agree.

"Some people think all Indian people should have beads and feathers and fringe because that is how Indians dress," Brown said. "When they talk about American Indians, they are using the present tense, but they are talking about a culture that was 200 years ago."

Fortunately, Brown and Danser are here to educate. They will be holding a program at Centenary United Methodist Church on Aug. 22 and 23 to help us better understand the stereotypes we associate with American Indians. Details to come later.

"We keep hoping to work ourselves out of a job so we don't have to do the stereotype program anymore," Brown said.

Let's hope that happens soon.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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