Teams’ ‘respect’ for Indians is only Skin-deep

After a couple decades during which public opinion has waxed, then waned in its superficial indignation, the U.S. Supreme Court has finally spoken:

There ain’t nothin’ wrong with a little well-intentioned racism when it’s cloaked in the glamour of the NFL and used against a minority that has traditionally gotten the short end of the stick from America the Beautiful.

Without comment, the court recently declined to hear an appeal of a lower-court decision that allows the Washington REDSKINS to go right on using this trademarked moniker, regardless of how offensive it is to some of those extra-sensitive Native Americans who have seen the term historically applied to denigrate them. (As in, “The only good redskin is a dead redskin,” or “That dirty redskin heathen shot that kindly settler with a confounded arrow,” and so on, the jargon of B-grade Westerns from my and many others’ childhoods.)

And, after all, polls have found that only about a fourth of the country’s American Indians find the term insulting or degrading.

But some of that one-quarter initiated a court action in 1992 that would have stripped the NFL franchise of the trademark protection that gives it the exclusive right to use the term and market all sorts of merchandise. It wouldn’t have prohibited the corporate owners from continuing to use the name, but anyone else also could have sold jerseys, blankets and all the other parapnernalia that makes the company huge amounts of cash. The idea was to wound them bad enough in the pocketbook that they would adopt a new name in self-defense.

After several years of litigation the group, led by activist Suzan S. Harjo, won a decision from the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, which ruled the name could be considered offensive to Native Americans. (Trademark law forbids registration of names that “may disparage . .. persons living or dead . . . or bring them into contempt or disrepute.”)

Their victory was short-lived, however, and the football team’s legions of lawyers convinced a federal judge to overrule the board’s decision, saying the plaintiffs hadn’t produced enough evidence that the name was so insulting it didn’t deserve trademark protection. The judge also said the activists had waited too long to make their complaint, and in the meantime, the Washington team had spent millions marketing itself.

So once again the almighty dollar (or should I say wampum?) trumped all other considerations.

Even former U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who proudly identifies himself as a Native American, had a 180-degree change of heart on the matter doing his time representing Colorado. (Campbell is more Portuguese than Indian, but never mind, he’s entitled to call himself a REDSKIN if he wants, by Pemmican!)

When the REDSKINS were riding high in the mid-1980s and going to the Super Bowl, he defended their name, saying the team used it “with respect,” whatever that means. Then several years later Campbell, who had also changed political parties — from the Democrats, who had elected him, to the Republicans, who happened to be in power at the time – condemned the use of the name, and tried to make the team’s use of federal land on which to build a new stadium conditional on it adopting a new one. (He had no success, but it was in keeping the tenor of the times, always an important consideration to such a political animal.)

Of course, the ‘Skins’ aren’t the only pro sports team to use this continent’s original inhabitants as their mascots. There are the Atlanta Braves, with their fans making the obnoxious “Tomahawk Chop” gesture during baseball games to signify just how merciless and bloodthirsty they and their team are, and the Cleveland Indians, whose mascot, Chief Wahoo, is an equally demeaning stereotypical cartoon character with a feather sticking from his head and a nose the size of Toledo. (Hey, it’s all in good fun.)

At the college level, there are the Florida State Seminoles, who have a (non-Indian) guy in a war bonnet riding a horse around during their football games, apparently to show just what savages they are underneath that thin veneer of civilization. (Not to mention the so-called “scalpers” who lurk around the perimeters of all major sporting events and charge the desperate several times the face value of tickets to get inside.)

During more liberal times in the last century, several college and high school teams with derivations of the Native American label switched appellations. For instance, Stanford University’s Indians became the Cardinals, thus allowing their red uniforms to remain relevant, and many high schools across the country underwent similar metamorphoses when threatened with lawsuits or pressured by taxpayers. (On the other hand, the Lamar, Colo., high-school team sticks with “Savages,” but has scrapped its crude portrayal of a Native American.)

The fact that so many of these supposedly “respectful” teams used unflattering caricatures of Indians when they first developed their mascots seems to undermine the notion that they were intended to honor the natives. As the web site (for American Indian Sports Team Mascots) states, “Many, if not most, of these types of ethnic icons were selected at a time when American Indian people were. . . portrayed by the popular media. . . as unrelenting, sneaky, and especially warlike. It therefore seems that when many ‘Indian’ sports team tokens were first chosen it wasn’t because of ‘honorable’ characteristics but because of qualities that would strike fear into and intimidate opponents. . . .” And, respectful or no, the notion of having a race of people as a mascot — unless your team consists of people of that race — seems peculiar at the very least.

Just try to imagine what the reaction would be if a sports team adopted as its name the Darkies, Chinks or Honkies — or, as suggests, the Nuremberg Hebrews. No one would dream of doing such a thing, of course, but the phony concept of the indigenous Noble Savage provides cover for a singular exception to what defenders would no doubt dismiss as political correctness, the catch-all phrase they use to mock complaints about any affronts to minorities that aren’t “all that bad.”

Perhaps someday, in more enlightened times, Americans will indeed get beyond political correctness and go all the way to human correctness. But if that ever happens, you can be sure there will no longer be an NFL that ranks making money as its MVP (Most Venal Priority).

David Grant Long writes from Cortez, Colo.

From David Long, December 2009.