Some Native American plaintiffs in the long-running dispute against the proprietors of the Washington Redskins’ football name and logo want the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their case.
Here is a question: Would Indians be mascots if they’d won?
Before we consider an answer to that question, let’s first shoot off a relevant tangent.
One of the originating and persistent interests of this blog is Cobell v. Salazar – the Individual Indian Money Trust Fund suit against the Department of the Interior and its Bureau of Indian Affairs – which “seeks reform of the trust system, and an accounting of money ostensibly held in the trusts.” However, the now thirteen year old case long ago established that no accounting is possible and that the system will not reform itself. Then Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez testified to congress that as much as $200 billion might be owed to individual Indians for whom land has been held in trust for now over 120 years. Yet just last month government lawyers argued that plaintiffs are owed nothing.
I wrote about the case last year in “Aboriginal Sin,” in the March-April issue of Tikkun. You can read background at the Trust Fund Litigations link at the upper left of the page. You can also go to the Trust Fund website.
The IIM Trust Fund suit epitomizes both the historical reality and the current state of social justice and recognition for Native Americans. The trust funds (there are Tribal trusts too, subject, now, of separate litigation) were established at the end of the “Indian Wars” era, and are a direct link to, and thus a contemporary continuation of, historic U.S. policy toward Native peoples. That the funds have been so evidently misappropriated over the past century, and that the Department of the Interior has sought to obfuscate this reality for thirteen years and argue that American Indians are owed nothing, demonstrates clearly that the same dishonest and exploitative behavior that characterized nineteenth-century policy toward Native Americans describes twentieth and twenty-first century policy as well. Few Americans are aware of the trusts or their history or of the ongoing abuse and theft they represent. And that raises a question: how many would care?
Which returns us to that first question. The suit that is the subject of the ICT story is not the first to be brought in this area. Periodically, because of such suits – and actions on a more local level, against school athletic teams – the subject gains a degree of national attention. Some non-Natives are automatically sympathetic: of course, there shouldn’t be such team names. No Washington Redskins anymore than a Los Angeles Kikes, Washington Niggers, New York Spics, or Cleveland Bohunks.
Those less sympathetic generally argue from two positions. One is that of an apparently deep fatigue (so arduous has been the burden) with what is sometimes referred to (for instance, now, in the conservative opposition to the Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor) as “identity politics.” This is a fatigue generally ironically experienced mostly by those who have never been the victims of the original identity politics, namely racial or ethnic discrimination. (Ah, but give them credit; they are born again.) And there is no group identity that has been longer both under attack and disregarded on this continent than that, collectively, of the various Native nations.
The other position – less explicitly presented but quite apparent – is that of the sports fans who don’t want their hallowed traditions messed with. Team names, statistical records, stadium rituals are all part of the mythic regalia of an athletic Valhalla. You want to disrupt all that for – the Indians? Of course, few would say exactly that, so one defense of current practice with regard to the Washington Redskins is that “Redskin” is not a derogatory term like those others I used. Sports Illustrated, of all publications (how curious) conducted a poll in 2002 that offered results indicating that an overwhelming majority of Native Americans did not object to the term. In 2004, the Annenberg Public Policy Center produced a similar poll.
Setting aside any consideration of the particularly problematic nature of polling what is, at this point, a very demographically complex Native population, one has first to note that there still, nonetheless, appear not to be athletic teams named the Los Angeles Semites, Washington Negroes, New York Hispanics, or Cleveland Slavs. And we might point out as a reasonable and parallel historical argument that, hey, the Indians signed all those treaties, didn’t they? It was all on the up and up. They agreed to it!
Besides (goes the further argument), we’re paying them a compliment. We’re honoring them (but not those Semites, Negroes, and, well, you get the point) for their courage and dignity and similar such encomiums. One has to wonder, if the Native population had managed to hold off and limit the European advance on the continent in any significant way, had achieved any measure of victory – at far greater cost to non-Native life, as is the nature of war – would the present-day fans of Redskin “courage” and “dignity” be nonetheless similarly enamored? One tends not to ennoble one’s conqueror. The defeated don’t make pets of the victorious.
Check the major American dictionaries: “Redskin” is defined as a derogatory term. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the American Counseling Association, and the American Psychological Association have all adopted resolutions opposing the use of Native American images as athletic symbols and mascots. Yet there remains something essential that most Americans do not get.
A few weeks ago, we spoke with Chad Smith, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma:
For generations now, what is the language or frame of reference we’ve accepted? Because of American history, it is based upon color. It’s very simplistic. Those are fairly shallow criteria…. There are a lot of other barriers that the United States and the American people don’t even recognize as a barrier. A very clear one is the Washington Redskins…. If we look in D.C. today, here is the capitol, here is the class of people who really should understand American history…but have so little understanding that the Washington Redskins – half the congress goes to those games, and you can go to their offices and see those derogatory caricatures.
The dominating mentality of the conqueror persists, little altered by time. The ownership of the Washington Redskins and its executive leadership condescend to praise Native Americans as they belittle them, by exercising a power that only the dominant can wield over those subject to that power – in this case, the force of an arrogant cultural disregard masking unremitting greed. So it was in previous centuries; so it is now. Twice in the nineteenth century the Cherokee had their Tribal lands removed from them because, beneath all the subterfuge, the government and whites simply wanted them for their own economic interests. An underlying truth in the case of the Washington Redskins is that a change in the team’s name, affecting branding and team identification, would have significant economic consequences for what is currently the second most valuable team in the National Football League.
Until now arguments in court have centered on trademark law and the timeliness of the plaintiff’s applications. This is how it has always been. But if there were a Los Angeles Kikes or a Washington Niggers, all quaintly dressed up in their most becoming cultural stereotypes, how long ago would growing popular outrage have forced the issue beyond the bounds of the blind technicalities of law?