“Just tell the Oneida crowd we know how excruciatingly painful it must be to have to hear “Hail to the Redskins!” but are confident they have the moxie and the manhood to deal with it.” — Pat Buchanan
If a name offends a minority of people should it be changed? The Washington Bullets changed their name in the 80s when the city was known as the murder capital of the country. The owner, Abe Pollin, didn’t want to reinforce the image of violence that plagued the city in those days. Of course, as soon as the name was changed to the Wizards there were grumblings from conservative Christians about witchcraft and sorcery. The change of name was definitely for the better, but it brought no magic to the team’s win-loss record.
The Washington Redskins first played as the Boston Braves in 1932. The owner, George Preston Marshall, changed the name to the Boston Redskins in 1933, and when the team moved to Washington, DC in 1937 they kept the name but changed the city. Along with the Kansas City Chiefs, the Atlanta Braves, and a handful of college sports teams, these names have drawn criticism for decades.
In the case of the Redskins, team owners from George Marshall to Jack Kent Cooke have resolutely refused to change the name. Dan Snyder, the current owner, is even more adamant. In a letter to USA Today, May 2013, Snyder said, “NEVER—you can put that in caps.”
Pat Buchanan, former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and one-time presidential candidate, wrote a column mocking Oneida Indian Nation leader Ray Halbritter, who said in a letter to Snyder, “Native Americans do not want their people to be hurt by such painful epithets.”
Buchanan thought this was both absurd and intolerant on the part of Halbritter and his supporters. He quoted an unnamed source who admired the Native Americans because they fought bravely, stood their ground, and didn’t whine when they were attacked by Europeans bent on taking their lands and killing them off. Naming a football team or any team after Indians, said Buchanan, shows real respect for these proud people. Halbritter should suck it up and realize that we mean no harm—it’s actually a compliment.
Furthermore, where would the censuring stop? If Halbritter took offense at Snyder’s intransigence what should be done about Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence which called Native Americans “merciless Indian Savages”?
Should the statue of General William Tecumseh Sherman be pulled down because he wrote to Ulysses S. Grant calling for the extermination of all Indians—men, women, and children?
Should the face of Teddy Roosevelt be blasted off Mt. Rushmore for disputing Sherman’s opinion that the only good Indian is a dead one? T. R. was more sensitive than that: “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”
Buchanan’s argument followed a familiar tactic of reversing the charges: if Halbritter accused Snyder of disrespecting Native Americans he himself should show some tolerance and respect. I’m sorry you took offense; I meant no harm.
W. James Antle III, writing in The National Interest,
took a different line. He argued that polls taken over the years do not show a majority of those polled in favor of changing the name. He admitted that institutions should sometimes “change even cherished customs and traditions out of respect for others.” But that would require, he said, “mutual respect, a desire to let other communities keep what is important to them without powerful reasons to the contrary.” There aren’t enough powerful reasons as yet, according to Antle. We must keep the fundamental difference clear between doing what is right and “doing something at the behest of the politically and culturally powerful.”
So who has the power here? The Native Americans’ request to cease and desist with offensive names is overruled because a majority of people polled don’t think it’s important. Yet, if the Native Americans got their way that would be bowing to the whims of the politically and culturally powerful.
Have some patience, says Antle. Chill out. Perhaps the tide of public opinion will shift in your favor some day.
More likely, he concludes, the activists will wear everyone down with their incessant complaining, and the important people, the ones who have important things to worry about, will decide it’s not worth the bother. What a shame that would be, giving in to such pressure.
Buchanan and Antle and those who buy these specious arguments believe that these matters are too trivial for serious consideration. They cling to their stereotypes, formed in their youth, in which the cowboys and Indians fought across their Sunday TV screens—and the cowboys always won. To admit that Native Americans have the right to be treated like any other self-respecting ethnic, religious, sexual or racial group would be to grant them power which they don’t deserve. After all, we won and they lost.
It’s a Catch-22: teams adopt these names because they admire the toughness of the Indians in fending off genocide, but if the Indians complain they are wimping out and betraying their noble heritage. The team owners won’t listen to them because they lack power, but if they were to get power they would be uppity. The harmony of the Union demands that such groups be kept in their place.
Let us restate the obvious: people like Buchanan and Antle have the right to speak their minds. They get paid good money to do so. Those who wish to believe them can line up and pay the admission price for the show under the big tent. But times change and so do ideas and values. They may yet realize they were on the wrong side of history, but by then they will be as anachronistic as cowboys-and-Indians westerns.