Google “Redskins” and you will sift through four pages of game recaps and analysis and Robert Griffin III updates before you finally find someone disgusted by the name of the team. The periodic furor over the name Redskins, which many perceive to be racist, can be drowned in footballisms with just one win. One more victory and it’s temporary amnesia.
In the same turn it doesn’t appear to bother many people that two baseball playoff teams make reference to our continent’s indigenous people. The Cleveland Indians and the Atlanta Braves are both very good teams, almost good enough to make us forget Cleveland’s toothy red-faced caricature Chief Wahoo mascot, or Atlanta’ rock-on-a-stick tomahawk logo and the fans rhythmic hand gesture cheer called the tomahawk chop, sometimes performed in unison with a supposed native-style musical chant that sounds like it was written for a cowboys and Indians Saturday matinee.
I wrote about this issue last week, but my information was incomplete. The problem, as with many racial issues, is perspective. My indignance over these slights comes entirely from my experience as a person of European descent. I feel the insult on behalf of someone else, someone I don’t know or understand, someone with a entirely different ethnic heritage. And I see the issue through glasses tinted by my inherited guilt, writing this column as I do on land that just a few generations ago rightly belonged to the people I hope to protect from names like “Redskins.” Like most of the people weighing in on this issue, there is a good chance I don’t know what I’m talking about.
So last week I emailed Wendell George, of the Entiat people, one of the 12 tribes of the Colville Confederation, author, great-grandson of Chief Chilcosahaskt, former Colville Tribal Council member and CEO of Colville Tribal Enterprises. I knew from reading George’s Raven Speaks column on our Community Connections page that he had a point of view that contrasts with conventional wisdom. He responded:
“The name Redskins is probably inaccurate, as we don’t have a sunburn, but this does distinguish us as a separate group. In other words, we are not ignored.
“The effect on us depends a lot on the attitude. You can say redskins in a derogatory manner, or in honor. That is true of any name-calling. My dad, Moses, was called “chief” many times. He didn’t mind if it was well intentioned, but was highly insulted if it was meant to be derogatory. So, it was more the intent than the word itself.”
Some cartoons like Chief Wahoo can be demeaning, he said. Others, like Wenatchee’s own famed Indian caricature, not so much.
“The Skookum Indian is from an era that actually recognized and honored Indians. The Skookum apple packing house had the Skookum Indian sign before Office Depot. I owned an orchard on the reservation called Chief Joe Orchards upriver from Chief Joseph Dam. We belonged to the Skookum apple packing co-op. When they moved they asked us if we would like the Skookum Indian sign. We considered it but eventually decided such a big sign wouldn’t fit at an orchard so isolated as ours.”
As for sports mascots, George can defend them. The Moses Lake Chiefs, for instance, honor the namesake chief of the Sinkuise, on whose aboriginal grounds the city and high school sit. The Atlanta Braves use the name honorably, althought the tomahawk chop has got to go. In 1972 George was chairman of the Governor’s Indian Advisory Committee, and wrote to Stanford University asking it to keep the name “Indians,” which he said the school adopted in honor.
Some protests against Indian mascots are taken up in ignorance, said George, or to get attention. “Tribal Councils do not normally get involved with this issue. There have been councils that have supported the Indian mascot names and tried to save them. This is usually to no avail though, because the decisions have always been made by non-Indians. They usually do it on some sort of guilt trip and try to right an imagined wrong.”
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at email@example.com or 665-1163.