President Obama says if he owned the Washington Redskins he’d think about changing mascots. Ray Halbritter, a representative of the Oneida (NY) Indian Nation, which is pushing for such a change, says “We’re asking the NFL to stop using a racial slur.” Dana Milbank, Washington Post columnist, suggests NFL owners should substitute some comparable “racial epithets and see how they would sound: The Washington Wetbacks? The Houston Hymies? The Chicago Chinks? Or perhaps the New York Niggers? That would be enough to send anybody to the shotgun formation.”
To that list I might add the Seattle Dumb Swedes, or the Tacoma Drunken Irish, in recognition of my people, although, compared to the vitriol of other historical epithets, we got off easy.
You’ll get divided opinions in the ongoing controversy over Redskins, however, which, to me, conjures up a stereotypical western movie image of a white guy in body grease – from Victor Mature to Johnny Depp. Still, a poll in the last decade found only one in ten Indians objected to Redskins, and an AP survey this year found 79 percent in favor of keeping the team name. Besides, Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder has said he’ll never change his red-skinned-brave logo because fans love it.
But how long can he hold out against changing times and moods? Here in the other Washington, after 90 years as the Redskins, Port Townsend High School agreed this year to drop its nickname, despite strong opposition. John Stroeder, a star player for the 1976 PT Redskins basketball team who went on the play for the Milwaukee Bucks, told the school board “If you change the name, I’m done here,” the Port Angeles Daily News reported. “I will take my jersey out of the [high school trophy] cabinet.” The Olympic Peninsula town’s school board is still mulling over a replacement mascot, however, so Redskins prevail for another season.
Same for the Willpinit High School Redskins, over in Spokane County. Except they have no plans to change their mascot. At a school where more than 90 percent of the students are Indian - in the heart of the Spokane Reservation where author Sherman Alexie was raised – they’re sticking with Redskins. Said Tim Ames, superintendent of Wellpinit schools, this week: “I’ve talked to our students, our parents and our community about this and nobody finds any offense at all in it. ‘Redskins’ is not an insult to our kids. ‘Wagon burners’ is an insult. ‘Prairie niggers’ is an insult. Those are very upsetting to our kids. But ‘Redskins’ is an honorable name we wear with pride. … In fact, I’d like to see somebody come up here and try to change it.”
Ames was talking to ESPN.com’s Ricky Reilly, who argued in favor of Redskins, in both Washingtons. He wondered how to tell the Willpinit Redskins the “name they wear proudly across their chests is insulting them. Because they have no idea.”
Ex-Willpinitian Alexie might have one. As the author told Bill Moyers earlier this year, “At least half the country thinks the mascot issue is insignificant. But I think it’s indicative of the ways in which Indians have no cultural power. We’re still placed in the past. So we’re either in the past or we’re only viewed through casinos.”
Reilly’s ‘Skins defense drew the wrath of a dozen critics who called him names and compared him to Rush Limbaugh. Wrote one: “If, as Reilly suggests, some predominately Native American schools view ‘Redskins’ as a point of pride and wish to continue using it, that is fine. That’s different from an NFL franchise, owned by a white man and catering to a largely non-Native American audience, appropriating that culture and distorting it into a crude caricature.”
But even Reilly acknowledged that the nickname, at least in D.C., is doomed. “There’s no stopping a wave of PC-ness when it gets rolling,” he grudgingly wrote, later adding: “The 81-year-old Washington Redskins name is falling, and everybody better get out of the way.”
Not just yet, however. Late yesterday, Redskins owner Snyder reiterated his intention to retain the nickname, romanticizing it in an open letter to fans. “Our franchise has a great history, tradition and legacy representing our proud alumni and literally tens of millions of loyal fans worldwide,” he wrote. The name Redskins “continues to hold the memories and meaning of where we came from, who we are, and who we want to be in the years to come.”
It sounded like something Alexie would say. Just backwards.