Yesterday I quoted a column by George Will, which concluded with the absurd implication that because “Oklahoma” is derived from a compound of two Choctaw words which taken together mean “red people,” Pajama Boy and his ilk are engaging in liberal fascism etc. by trying to force the Washington football franchise from changing its now-offensive name. That post links to an article which demonstrates conclusively that George Marshall, who changed the team’s nickname to Redskins from Braves, was an 180-proof racist in regard to African Americans. The article, however, also strongly implies that Marshall made this change because the word redskin was more offensive to non-racist sensibilities than the team’s former name.
The commenter Bloix pointed out in comments that there seems to be no real evidence for this implication, or for the article’s assertion that the origin of the name is connected to the practice of scalping:
The linked article does not explain the history of the name. It merely observes, accurately, that George Marshall was a racist who hated black people. The history of the name is this:
In 1930, Marshall bought a failing team, the Newark Tornadoes, and moved it to Boston. At that time, pro football was a marginal sport, far less popular than baseball (and college football, horse racing, and boxing, for that matter), and teams generally couldn’t afford to build their own stadiums. Marshall’s team played at the ball park of the then-Boston baseball Braves, and Marshall gave the team the same name – it was common for football teams to take the name of the baseball team whose park they played in.
After one season, the team left the Braves’ field and moved to Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox, and Marshall needed to change the name. He decided to stay with the Indian theme he’d started with Braves, both for continuity and because his coach, Lone Star Dietz, claimed to be part Sioux. The name Redskins had the added advantage of echoing the name Red Sox.
That’s the origin of the name. Although Marshall hated black people, there’s no indication that he had any animosity towards Indians, and as noted he hired a coach who he believed was part Indian (there’s evidence today that Dietz was not Indian, but Marshall wouldn’t have known that). There was a strain of Southern racism that had romanticized views of the noble red man, and Marshall may have shared those attitudes.
It’s worth noting, IMHO, that today the Redskins have many loyal fans from the African-American community of DC, and that the Redskin logo is, so far as I am aware, the only logo in any major sport that depicts a dark-skinned person respectfully. You can travel around the DC area in football season and you will see dozens of people prominently displaying – on hats, jackets, sweats, and car stickers – a portrait of a handsome and dignified man whose skin color is the same as theirs.
BTW, the claim that “redskin” originates from scalping or skinning is false. It is absolutely true that some state and local governments offered bounties for Indian scalps, but there are no instances of the use of the word “redskin” in that context.
It’s been established the origin of the word “redskin” is first found in early 19th century translations of Indian statements in meetings and negotiations with whites (both in English and in French, where it appears as peaux rouges). For example, when representatives of a number of Indian tribes met with President Madison in the White House, one of the Indian chiefs made a statement that includes a phrase translated as “red skins.” Not surprisingly, the Indian leaders had no word for Indians collectively, and they settled on the term meaning “red skin” in their various languages. So the word originated in statements made by Indians to refer to themselves in dealings with whites.
James Fenimore Cooper picked it up and put in the mouths of his Indian characters — entirely respectfully –in his Leatherstocking Tales (e.g. “The Last of the Mohicans”) and from there it entered the vernacular of ordinary Americans. The negative implications did not originate with the word, but with people who later adopted the word.
I’ve linked to the leading article on this issue in comments on this blog in the past. Anyone interested can find it easily – it was written by a Smithsonian Institution anthropologist and linguist whose name escapes me.
The article Bloix references is here.
There are of course excellent reasons for changing the franchise’s name, but the claim that George Marshall changed the team name from Braves to Redskins because the former wasn’t racist enough for him is apparently not one of them, and I should have considered Tomasky’s argument to that effect more critically before linking to it.