A recent call to replace the mascot of the Washington Redskins has propelled the issue of Indian mascots from the margins to the mainstream. At heart is the accusation that the Redskins moniker must be rejected because it is racist and offensive. The issue has gained momentum through high-profile support in public forums, most notably by Bob Costas (Costas on Redskins Name) and conservative columnists Charles Krauthammer (Redskins and Reason) and Kathleen Parker (Redskins Name Is Ready for Retiring). The ensuing flurry has generally focused on the question of whether or not the nickname is offensive, and in whose eyes. Supporters of the mascot cite polls to argue that Redskins is not an offensive term. (See, for example, the videos at CBS Stations Refuse Oneida Indian Ad.) Those who protest the mascot argue that Redskin is a racial slur on a par with others American society has rejected (Fight Against "Redskins" About More Than Just a Name).
Whether or not the Redskin nickname is offensive will be endlessly debated. What cannot be questioned is that the term is a racial slur and has been employed as such for centuries by mainstream society. While the term had relatively benign origins in the colonial era, white society took it up in the 19th Century, as it did other color-coded slurs, as a symbol for the negative stereotypes it attached to the indigenous peoples of the continent. Throughout the history of the United States, "redskin" has been associated with such attributes as "primitive," "savage," "lazy," and "dirty" in American thinking, literature and public discourse. My question is this. Why does labeling Native Americans as "redskins" and caricaturing them through mascots remain one of the few remaining socially-acceptable expressions of bigotry in the United States? And what does this say about mainstream America?
Native American mascots are but one way of the many ways that America "plays Indian." We dress up in Indian clothing and imitate Indian customs. We teach our youth Indian lore in scouting programs and summer camps. We give clubs and social organizations Indian names. We identify ourselves with Native people through sports mascots and through phony rituals at games, with war whoops, war dances, Indian drums, and tomahawk chops. These expressions of playing Indian have a long history (remember the Boston Tea Party?) and are now deeply-embedded in the American cultural psyche.
Mainstream society began to play Indian only when and where Native peoples had been conquered and removed from the land or otherwise from public view. On the frontier, Indians were bloodthirsty savages. Once eliminated, they became noble savages-- romantic figures in a national mythology that cast Settler America as the wave of the future and Native America as a bygone past. Caricaturing the Indian as "the vanishing American" allowed mainstream America to sanitize a history of conquest, deceit, and dispossession and to construct an idealized portrait of our history-- without the troublesome presence of Indians to remind us otherwise. Playing Indian served a supporting function, enabling America to maintain its self-identity as an Old World civilization transplanted and purified in a New World setting. By dressing up like Indians and imitating Indians we, who trace our ancestry to lands outside this one, express our conviction that we belong to this land. And we reinforce our national sense-of-self as an exceptional combination of the Old and the New.
Mascots and caricatures of indigenous people allow us to maintain the fiction. That's why so much heat is generated when Indian mascots are challenged. Doing so unmasks the Idealized Indian of the past and uncovers our national determination to keep real indigenous people invisible in the present. It raises the inconvenient truth that every last non-indigenous one of us is complicit with a massive and longstanding program to exclude Native peoples; we are, all of us, still playing Indian in one form or another. Rejecting Indian mascots rejects the attitudes that reinforce them and the practices that emanate from those attitudes. We should make the Washington Redskins history.