The controversy surrounding the name and logo of the Washington Redskins troubles Purdue professors and the Native American community on campus.
Hall of Famer and former Washington coach Joe Gibbs recently referred to his team’s name as “prideful.” Gibbs served as the head coach from 1981 to 1992 and more recently from 2004 to 2007. During that time, Gibbs said he never heard anything negative about the name, until now.
“It was always prideful, it was courage involved. We have a song, ‘Hail to the Redskins,’ and so everything, everything about that name has been positive for me and my past,” Gibbs told the Associated Press.
According to Kory Cooper, an assistant professor of anthropology who specializes in Native American cultures, the name’s historical roots convey the brutality the ethnic group faced at the hands of Europeans and, eventually, Americans.
“The term redskins refers to a time where you could actually get cash for turning in scalps of Native Americans. Scalping was practiced prior to the arrival of Europeans but it wasn’t very common,” Cooper said. “It wasn’t until Europeans showed up and they started offering cash for Native American scalps. Native American mascots are a problem in general, but the term redskins is especially offensive because it’s a link to the violent past against Native Americans.”
He noted this practice went on in the 1700s and well into the 1800s.
In the U.S., there is no other ethnic group used as a mascot in either professional or high school sports. Cooper attributes the nonchalant use of Native American names and imagery to the fact that “racist stereotypes of Native Americans have been so deeply embedded in our culture that we don’t even think about them.”
However, Gibbs and other supporters of the name maintain it’s used to honor Native Americans. The team’s famous unofficial mascot, Chief Zee, played by Zema Williams, is an African-American man who has attended games since 1978 dressed in a red faux “Indian” costume, including a feathered war bonnet and tomahawk.
Felica Ahasteen-Bryant is the director of Purdue’s Native American Cultural Center and a member of the Navajo Tribe. Her friend from a tribe located in South Dakota explained to Ahasteen-Bryant that each feather in the war bonnets, such as the one Williams dons, is presented as a gift. Therefore, it takes years to accumulate each feather, so to her friend and her tribe, it’s very disrespectful whenever someone “parades” around in the headpiece.
“I’m from the Navajo Tribe so I can’t speak for everyone, I can only speak from my experiences and the traditions that my tribe does. (However,) a lot of people say (these mascots are) ‘How we honor Native Americans,’” Ahasteen-Bryant said. “If you want to honor us, then promote education. Don’t run around like a princess wearing war bonnets.”
Cooper compared the use of Native American mascots to other ethnic groups to demonstrate the morality issues associated with the issue.
”Say I’m a millionaire and I bought the Indianapolis Colts and I renamed it the Indianapolis Niggers. I named it that because it was an honor of all the hard work slaves did when they were slaves and black people say ‘Well, I don’t feel honored by that’ and I say ‘Well, you can’t be offended because I’m doing it in your honor,’” Cooper said. “So, at some point, you have to pay attention and listen to what people are saying. If they’re not honored, then the argument saying that it’s in their honor falls short.”
Stanford graduate Ellen Gruenbaum, the director of Purdue’s anthropology department, remembers when the her alma mater faced similar scrutiny as the Washington Redskins for its former nickname “Stanford Indians.” After objections from Native American students and a vote by the student senate, the University changed its nickname from “Stanford Indians” to the “Stanford Cardinals.”
“Stanford was very proud of honoring the Native American heritage, and we had a Native American who used to do a dignified dance as part of our University’s image at games,” Gruenbaum said. “It was not originally intended to be disrespectful, of course. But, as we have come to have a better sense of how there might be unintended consequences, in terms of the dignity and respect of Native peoples, why not make a change (to the Washington Redskins)?”