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My grandmother was from Washington D.C., which meant she was a die-hard Washington Redskins fan. She would get excited when they were doing well. When they were doing poorly, she would call them the “Dead Skins”, which is surely an intolerable slight to zombies in 2020.
Of course, as her team’s logo has been erased, I have been thinking about my grandmother this morning, an FDR Democrat who spent her early life surviving the Depression, raising children, and then holding down the home front while her husband fought a war in the Pacific. (She was a horrible human since she also owned a Redskins blanket?)
I shared a bedroom with her until I went to college. When she was dying, I stared at her hands in the hospital because I wanted to remember them the most: those strong hands that were inked copper by years lived in the Southern sun picking cotton, those small hands that matched her short stature and petite frame, those warm hands that used to stroke my hair when I was a child, guide me across the street, wipe my tears when I fell down.
But I am also thinking about Native Americans and the Washington Redskins logo that was so familiar to me in my youth. To be honest, I don’t know the history of the actual artwork, but as far as I can remember, there has been a man in feathers who looked noble and wise painted on the football field where war was regularly simulated on Monday nights on our living room television.
Like other teams that have Indians serving as mascots, the Washington Redskins were never trying to denigrate any tribe or say that a man was “less” because he was of a different race when making an Indian the face of the organization. Rather, there was a celebration of positive attributes of Native Americans, which might have been derived from a stereotype–a positive stereotype–needed to gather people into a family of fans: courage, skill, loyalty, intelligence, pride.
That’s probably why Navajo Code Talkers defended the logo in the past, don’t cha know.
But the name and the logo are too “problematic” now, so they must go, and I wonder about this because Native Americans are not really front and center in the culture. They are trotted out whenever there’s a pipeline dispute, and the strange reservation system that helps keep Indians the poorest minority in the United States can be politically exploited. But what happens when their faces are removed from athletics? When “cowboys and Indians” are no longer played by kids? When does Turner Broadcasting stop showing “offensive” Westerns?
If we remove Elizabeth Warren from the equation, indigenous peoples make up only 1.6% of the US population. Many have assimilated to the degree that they may be proud of a tribal heritage but still interact with others as just regular American citizens. What do most people know about them at all unless regularly playing the slots on reservations? (Even gambling becomes less of a draw to Native lands because states have figured out gambling is big business.)
As the Pilgrim story becomes more and more “problematic” because Howard Zinn wanted third graders to know that Pilgrims were really genocidal maniacs, I suppose the narratives around even Thanksgiving will start to fade faster and faster as well. (Who hasn’t heard of the college student coming home from Berkeley as a woke Vegan who refuses to eat turkey or partake in any oppressor-driven celebration of murrrrr-derrrrr?)
Remove what actually were positive associations of Native Americans on the field, and we will think more and more about Indians as an “oppressed victim” only, if we think about them at all, which is another way to get us back to the “noble savage with no agency” trope, which seems to me to be a bit… regressive. Far from being honored as a people, tribes are simply being erased from popular culture.
So this brings me back to my grandmother.
If I could speak with her ghost today, I might say, “Granny, the Washington Redskins lost their battle.”
With one of those soft, capable hands, she’d move a lock of my hair behind one ear and give me the look of someone as knowing and wise as the old Indian’s face that has just been obliterated in the name of social justice.
“My dearest girl,” she’d say, “don’t be so surprised… That’s what the Dead Skins do.”Published in