Resistance to the Washington Redskins team name has ebbed and flowed over the years, but thanks in part to letters from 50 senators to the team’s owner, Dan Snyder, and last week’s decision by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to rescind the team’s trademark registration, the campaign to get rid of it has renewed urgency.
Snyder has shrugged off complaints about the name, even claiming that “redskins” is a “badge of honor.” Team president Bruce Allen, protesting too much, says the name “has always been respectful of and shown reverence toward the proud legacy and traditions of Native Americans.”
But momentum appears to have turned against the preservationists. The trademark decision sounds like an infringement of free-speech rights, but it asserts a degree of pressure in any case. An ad opposing the name aired during the National Basketball Association Finals to great fanfare. Current and former National Football League players have criticized the name. And not surprisingly, many Indian tribes and organizations don’t share Allen’s interpretation. This is all to the good.
But even if the NFL and Redskins brass come to their senses and rename the team, a greater symbolic injustice would continue to afflict Indians — an injustice perpetuated not by a football club but by our federal government.
In the United States today, the names Apache, Comanche, Chinook, Lakota, Cheyenne and Kiowa apply not only to Indian tribes but also to military helicopters. Add in the Black Hawk, named for a leader of the Sauk tribe. Then there is the Tomahawk, a low-altitude missile, and a drone named for an Indian chief, Gray Eagle. Operation Geronimo was the end of Osama bin Laden.
Why do we name battles and weapons after people we have vanquished? For the same reason the Washington team is the Redskins and my hometown Red Sox go to Cleveland to play the Indians and to Atlanta to play the Braves: because the myth of the worthy native adversary is more palatable than the reality — the conquered tribes of this land were not rivals but victims, cheated and impossibly outgunned.
The destruction of the Indians was asymmetric war, compounded by deviousness in the name of imperialist manifest destiny. White America shot, imprisoned, lied, swindled, preached, bought, built and voted its way to domination. Identifying our powerful weapons and victorious campaigns with those we subjugated serves to lighten the burden of our guilt. It confuses violation with a fair fight.
It is worse than denial; it is propaganda. The message carried by the word Apache emblazoned on one of history’s great fighting machines is that the Americans overcame an opponent so powerful and true that we are proud to adopt its name. They tested our mettle, and we proved stronger, so don’t mess with us. In whatever measure it is tribute to the dead, it is in greater measure a boost to our national sense of superiority. And this message of superiority is shared not just with U.S. citizens but with those of the 14 nations whose governments buy the Apache helicopters we sell. It is shared, too, with those who hear the whir of an Apache overhead or find its guns trained on them. Noam Chomsky has clarified the moral stakes in provocative, instructive terms: “We might react differently if the Luftwaffe were to call its fighter planes ‘Jew’ and ‘Gypsy.’?”
If the native tribes did not stand a chance, it does not imply lack of resistance or of courage. Whatever courage they had, the U.S. military is not heir to it. If honor matters to the members of our armed forces, they will agree.
Perhaps the senators outraged by the Redskins name could turn their letter-writing pens on the Defense Department next. When that’s done, there is the more important step, when these senators, and their constituents, choose not only to be offended on behalf of Indians but also to be partners in improving their lives. War and forced removal have been replaced by high rates of unemployment, poverty, substance abuse, illness and disability; by inadequate housing and education; by hate crimes, police harassment, disenfranchisement and effective segregation. Being a Native American means living, on average, more than four years less than other Americans. The violence is ongoing, even if the guns are silent.
So, sure, rename the football team. But don’t stop there.
Simon Waxman is managing editor of Boston Review.