C. Richard King is Professor of Ethnic Studies at Washington State University at Pullman and the author and editor of several books, including Team Spirits: The Native American Mascot Controversy and Unsettling America: Indianness in the Contemporary World. His new book, Redskins: Insult and Brand will be published March 2016.
It may be that Americans will remember July 2015 as marking a turning point in the creation of a more inclusive society, rooted in mutual respect and dignity. Indeed, recent public discourse, legal proceedings, and legislative debate have focused on the history and significance of symbols.
Earlier this month, the South Carolina State Legislature has debated something many thought sacrosanct, the flying the Confederate flag on the grounds of the state capitol. After a sometimes contentious debate, both the South Carolina House of Representatives and Senate approved its removal. Long embattled, the Southern Cross again became the center of public concern following the killing of nine African Americans at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston; the white gunman had posed with the flag at historic sites, advocated white supremacy, and hoped his actions would incite a race war. The entanglements of violence, race, and identity in his action rightly prompted many to underscore similar articulations in the historic uses of the battle flag. After all, it long masked hate as heritage, put African Americans on notice of their “proper place”—past and present, and was originally enshrined atop the capitol in Columbia as a declaration of defiance to civil rights and integration.
At the same time, in Virginia, Gerald Bruce Lee, a federal judge, upheld a decision by the US Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB), stripping the Washington professional football team of several of its trademarks. In his ruling, he concurred with the TTAB that they were disparaging to American Indians.
Like the Confederate flag, the team name and logo derive from a larger history of violence. They have long masked hate as honor, put American Indians on notice of their proper place—past and present, and have a deep connection to defiance to civil rights, as George Preston Marshall sought to fashion his team as the darling of Dixie and fought integration to the end. In contrast with the origins stories propagated by the organization, the team name has deep connections with violence and as a racial slur embodied popular and overwhelmingly negative sentiments about indigenous peoples, finding usage in actions designed to dispossess, displace, and destroy them individually and collectively. The team moniker came into existence when this history of violence was romanticized as the winning of the West. Since its inception, the team has traded on the public fascination with, and desire for, things Indian, especially noble warriors, and has profited on them through traditions and imagery rooted in stereotypes and myths. They used Native Americans as the raw material for their brand, taking from them as they pleased to make a commercially viable and culturally meaningful set of symbols, which have been duly trademarked and copyrighted.
The franchise, of course, is not alone in this mixture of appropriation, adoration, and antipathy—what might be best described as anti-Indian racism. No, its actions reflect a deep tradition central to accepted understandings of national origins—how the country came to be—and to representations of history and society in US popular culture. Indeed, I would argue the cornerstone of this history and its continuing legacy is the assertion of ownership over Indians. It is at once the foundational articulation of whiteness and the foremost enunciation of settler privilege. The Washington professional football team offers amongst the purest and and most profitable expressions of this pattern of white/settler entitlement.
For more than four decades American Indians have sought to make plain the manner in which the team and its traditions dehumanize and disparage them to no avail. The team has repeatedly rebuked efforts at dialogue and appeals for change. In 1994, then owner Jack Kent Cooke took a defiant public stance: “As far as I’m concerned, it’s a dead issue. I’m not even interested in it. The name of the Redskins will remain the Redskins.” Nearly two decades later, current owner Daniel Snyder spoke with equal intransigence: “We’ll never change the name,” he said. “It’s that simple. NEVER—you can use caps.” In doing so, they have given voice to the sentiments of many fans and supporters.
Suzan Shown Harjo, lead plaintiff in the first case against the franchise and the NFL in the 1990s recognized that one of the most powerful ways of challenging the anti-Indian racism, settler privilege, and which entitlement anchoring the franchise and animating its fans was to question their ownership of the team name and Indianness as protected by trademark and legal statutes. Central to this in turn was documenting the violence embedded in the team name and the manner in which it continues to injure and exclude. While initially victorious, this lawsuit was overturned on appeal. Now, in Black Horse et al. v Pro Football, Inc , the federal appeals court has endorsed the TTAB ruling that voided six trademarks registered after 1967.
The decision should underscore for us the centrality of ownership and entitlement—material, social, and symbolic—to the ongoing struggle against the team and its traditions. As anthropologist Alan Boraas notes “The term redskin is offensive to many Native Americans and Americans. It’s an intentional use of a slur by the non-Native power structure to subjugate and marginalize. Use of a derogatory name sends the message “we can use a name that offends you and you can’t do anything about it.” Read in this light, Judge Lee’s ruling is only a first step. Real change necessitates not only removing stereotypes, but working through against anti-Indian racism, white privilege, and the legacies of conquest, including genocide, dispossession, and cultural appropriation.
Americans are in the midst of reckoning with some of their most beloved and embattled symbols. Whether these engagements foster real change remains to be seen. The widely held belief among whites that the Confederate flag represents “Southern pride” and the strong continuing support for the moniker of the Washington professional football team suggest that even after these important legislative and legal turning points we have a long way to travel to achieve equality and dignity for all Americans.
-C. Richard King