It is hard for some people to imagine now, but there was a time, not long past, when the use of derogatory and crude racial terms was ordinary, everyday stuff. They were mostly innocent, repeated without thinking, but hurtful and often intentionally insulting. You probably know the terms, so there’s no sense listing them here.
Enlightened, awash in our collective guilt, we have purged our language with a vengeance, and are much the better for it. In a little more than a generation we have gone from near Huckleberry Finn talk to a society where it is preferable to refer to “people of color” but the racial description “colored” is suspect as a vestige of past wrongs.
We may be hypersensitive to racial slights, but hypersensitivity is far better than insensitivity. In such a world at this, it is hard to see how Redskins can last much longer as a name for a professional football team. Perhaps mascots less rooted in the racial language of the past will survive, the Chiefs, Warriors, Indians, Blackhawks, Braves and such, but they will face pressure, too. It is much safer to name your team after some vicious animal.
Resentment of native mascots comes in waves. The latest harumph began when Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray wondered how the city’s NFL franchise could move to a new stadium in the district without a name change. Intensely loyal fans with a great emotional investment were often furious. Former players proud of their accomplishments defended it. The team owner Dan Snyder absolutely refused to change. There is a great value in a trademark, for any business, but especially for a sports franchise.
Tribes protest. Publications refuse to refer to the team as the “Redskins.” The Washington Post editorializes in favor of a name change. The issue may fade, especially if the team starts winning, but the issue will rise again, and eventually it will be time to change.
Not all who could be offended by Redskins are. Colville tribal member Wendell George in his Raven Speaks column on our Community Connections page Wednesday, recalled meeting former Washington quarterback Mark Rypien. “I took the opportunity to ask him not to let them change the team name from Redskins. It was an honor to have that name to recognize that Indians still existed. Otherwise, we are ignored.” He recalled attending Nespelem School, on the Colville Reservation, its school board mostly if not all tribal members, which played under the mascot “Savages.” “We were proud to be called Savages, including those who weren’t Indian,” said George.
I recall in a previous wave of indignance over Indian mascots we called Nespelem and asked if they had any plans to drop the name Savages. The superintendent said no. Many in the community looked on the name with pride. They changed in 1997, when the Savages became Eagles. The district explained that although the name Savages was valued by many, it was time to move on. It was time.
And in Wenatchee we have our Skookum Indian, the cartoon character that sits atop Office Depot and winks at passersby. Most people know the Indian was the symbol and valued trademark of a great fruit cooperative that had a warehouse at Ninth and Wenatchee Avenue. Once the Indian was part of a larger billboard on the roof of a hotel on Orondo Avenue, and became a beloved symbol of the city. Many held it in great affection. In the late 1990s the city’s Advisory Committee on Cultural Relations said the Indian was racist and insulting and should be removed. The owners declined. Office Depot agreed to keep the Indian on its building. Many people in Wenatchee love it still. Many who came to town after the Skookum warehouse was torn down and the cooperative name was merged away, have no idea why it’s there. It doesn’t look like a precious landmark. It looks like a cartoon.
Someday, it will be time.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at email@example.com or 665-1163.