On Bob Costas’ sudden, 30-year-late pronouncement that “redskin” is a “slur”
– Even after admitting that 1) most Native Americans weren’t bothered by the name of the DC football team in the slightest, and 2) that those who use the name now naturally don’t intend it as a slur –a fact made all the more clear in that it is, when coupled with “Washington”, a referent that attaches itself to the professional football team, not to the Trail of Tears or Wounded Knee. If you missed his gloriously treacly lecture, you can watch it now:
So in essence, in a brief, sanctimonious bit of politically correct airtime shoehorned unnecessarily and infuriatingly into a halftime program during Sunday Night Football, Bob Costas — who waited 30+ years into his sportscasting to career to realize how offended he was by such a “slur” (and yet, only several days after the man who sat in Reverend Wright’s church listening to diatribes against both Whitey and the Jews decided to chime in — coincidentally, no doubt!) — made a two-fold argument: 1) that he would be offended for the stupid Natives who were either too stupid or too confused to feel the outrage for themselves, requiring a pasty white champion to speak for them; and 2) that even though we know those who refer to the team, the Washington Redskins, don’t intend it as a slur — having not used it in reference to anything other than the football team, which is comprised of no Native Americans to my knowledge — they nevertheless could, and if they did, then it would be a slur, even though they don’t, so it really isn’t — except always potentially. And we must guard against future thought crimes by demonizing current usages. To preserve the dignity of those who have in significant numbers rejected the call for them to express unified ethnic outrage.
All of which is typical of the liberal imperialist mindset — which seems lost on them, so busy are they accusing America itself of being an imperialist or colonialist nation.
I think that it is well established that redskin is taken by most people today to be disparaging. What is more interesting is whether it has always been so, as Harjo et al., as well as various others, claim. One interesting piece of evidence is the origin of the name Washington Redskins. In 1933, George Preston Marshall, the owner of the team, which was then located in Boston, renamed it the Boston Redskins in honor of the head coach, William “Lone Star” Dietz, an American Indian.³ When the team moved to Washington in 1937 it was renamed the Washington Redskins. George Marshall clearly did not consider the name disparaging.
– So. There’s your intent, right there. But to the politically correct rabble rousing identity politics industry, such things matter little. Having declared the term derogatory, they then cite how the term is believed to be derogatory as proof that it is. Which is the kind of thinking that works with leftist language thieves, but that significantly fails with intentionalists.
But what about the intent prior to the naming of the team to which the sign now attaches, and the signifier refers? Surely there must be so horrific slur about which George Marshall was unaware — and so the post-structuralists and textualists were well within their rights to declare that “reasonable people” could refer back to prior usages, that, to borrow from Derrida, the signifier is haunted by the ghost of all its signifieds, an arcane way of saying that every possible meaning of a word that has had many is legitimately available at all times, despite context, intent, or anything of the sort. (This is very similar to the argument Think Progress made concerning the late Tony Snow’s use of “tar baby”)?
And while I would argue that, even were that the case, the usage intended by Marshall, coupled with the contemporary referent as a professional DC football team, not a barbarian scalper with his eyes on annihilation of the white man (as seen from the racist perspective often attributed to the white men who don’t follow the President’s — or Costas’s — ostentatious and opportunistic grasp at easy grace), make distant, prior iterations of the term insufficient to trouble contemporary usage, the beauty of all this preposterous posturing is that I don’t have to. And that’s because it turns out the term is merely the English translation of a term of self identity used by Natives themselves.
The term redskin of course goes much farther back than 1933. The details of this history have recently been explored by Ives Goddard of the Smithsonian Institution, in a paper conveniently available on-line. Some of the evidence is available in greater detail on Goddard’s web site. You can read speeches by the Meskwaki chief Black Thunder and the Omaha chief Big Elk in which the expression redskin is used, and early nineteenth century examples of the Meskwaki usage of terms meaning redskin and whiteskin.
I won’t review the evidence in detail because Goddard’s paper is short enough and accessible enough that if you are interested you should read it yourself. I’ll just summarize it. Goddard shows that the term redskin is a translation from native American languages of a term used by native Americans for themselves. Harjo’s claim that it “had its origins in the practice of presenting bloody red skins and scalps as proof of Indian kill for bounty payments” is unsupported by any evidence.? The term entered popular usage via the novels of James Fenimore Cooper. In the early- to mid-nineteenth century the term was neutral, not pejorative, and indeed was often used in contexts in which whites spoke of Indians in positive terms. Goddard concludes:
Cooper’s use of redskin as a Native American in-group term was entirely authentic, reflecting both the accurate perception of the Indian self-image and the evolving respect among whites for the Indians’ distinct cultural perspective, whatever its prospects. The descent of this word into obloquy is a phenomenon of more recent times.
So to call “redskins ” a slur, one must, like Costas, our President, and a host of other language looters on the academic and activist left, discount it’s origination as a tribute to a particular Indian, but one must further argue that the actually slur itself was invented and perpetuated by Natives self-identifying.
But no worries, all you stupid drunk noble savages too ignorant to champion yourselves: Bob Costas, who is so white he could go naked for Halloween as a blizzard, will to the work for you.
After all, that’s what caring liberals do for the poor wretched souls they presume to lord over for their own good.