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The Real Origin of the ‘Washington Redskins’ Nickname

redskins-change-name

Think Progress think they have a gotcha with “The 81-Year-Old Newspaper Article That Destroys The Redskins’ Justification For Their Name.”

As challenges against the name of the Washington Redskins have persisted for more than four decades, the teams ownership and management has held on to a consistent story: that the team changed its original name — the Boston Braves — to the Boston Redskins in 1933 to honor its coach, William “Lone Star” Dietz, who maintained at the time that he was a member of the Sioux tribe.

But in a 1933 interview with the Associated Press, George Preston Marshall, the team’s owner and original founder, admitted that the story wasn’t true.

“The fact that we have in our head coach, Lone Star Dietz, an Indian, together with several Indian players, has not, as may be suspected, inspired me to select the name Redskins,” Marshall said in the AP report.

[...]

If Marshall didn’t choose the name based on Dietz or the presence of Native Americans, what was his reason? As Olbermann notes in his report, the team chose its original name — the Boston Braves — because it shared a field with Boston’s baseball team by the same name. Marshall explains the AP story that he gave up the name “Braves” because it was too easily confused with the baseball team, and he chose “Redskins” to keep the Native American imagery as the team moved away from the Braves and into Fenway Park, the home of the Boston Red Sox.

Until recently, that story was more commonly told than the one about Dietz. In 1972, freelance writer Joe Marshall wrote a story on team nicknames in a promotional program from a game between Washington and the Atlanta Falcons. Joe Marshall didn’t reference Dietz in his story, instead writing that the team wanted to “change names but keep the Indian motif”

[...]

In that sense, it seems obvious that the name “Redskins” was chosen more as a marketing ploy than anything else, a way to tweak the team’s name without changing the image it had established. Regardless of the original motive, however, this much is clear: the story the team and NFL have used to justify the name’s existence as a “badge of honor” is not true, and the man who founded the team refuted it himself more than 80 years ago.

To my mind, this does more to debunk the notion that the “Redskins” name was intended as a racial slur than to debunk the notion that it was intended to honor American Indians. It’s well documented that George Marshall was a racist, even by the standards of his day. Yet, while it wasn’t the motivation for the “Redskins” name, he did employ four Native American players and a head coach who purported to be, even if he apparently wasn’t, one. Whether they found the “Redskins” moniker offensive isn’t covered in the report but it strikes me as unlikely.

Further, this reminds me that the team previously had a different nickname that referenced the American Indian, one that it shared with the local baseball team. That team moved on to Milwaukee and later Atlanta but retains the “Braves” sobriquet. It’s notable, too, that the football Braves only used that nickname for their inaugural season.

Now, unlike my co-blogger Doug Mataconis, I’ve come to believe not only that the Redskins should choose another name but that it’s only a matter of time until they’ll be forced to do so.  It’s really irrelevant whether the intention in 1935 was to honor American Indians, slur them, or if it was just a marketing movement made without a care in the world what they thought. The fact of the matter is that, in 2014, a growing number of people, Native Americans or otherwise, now find the term offensive. Eventually–and I’d guess within a decade–pressure from corporate sponsors or the loss of trademark protection for the brand will mean the Washington Warriors or Washington Federals or some other follow-on franchise will be fighting for old DC. The only real question is whether the new nickname will retain a link to the American Indian branding heritage (I’ve seen mockups of a Warriors helmet based on the 1965 to 1969 Redskins unis) or dispense with it altogether.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. I think I’d say that my position isn’t so much that they shouldn’t change their name, as it is that they shouldn’t be forced to change it until they believe its in their interests to do so. Although I suppose the people who feel strongly about this will see that as a distinction without a difference.

    I will say that the team does not seem to be handling the Public Relations of this controversy well at all. They had two major gaffes this week related to a social media campaign gone wrong, and an effort to gain support form a tribal leader in Harry Reid’s home state. Given that the polling tends to show the public is against a forced name change, you’d think they’d be better at defending their position.

    In any case, whatever the name, as long as they lose as many games as possible to their NFC East opponents, I’ll be happy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 3

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Fair enough. While “Redskins” is more obviously offensive than “Indians,” “Chiefs,” or “Braves,” I’m not sure on what legal principle we’d strip the trademark rights of one and not the others. “Seminoles” might be a different case, in that at least FSU is doing so in cooperation with the tribal government.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  3. PD Shaw says:

    When football was introduced to the colleges around the 1890s it was considered a roughneck Indian sport, and the collegiates looked down on it. A lot of teams took Indian names, the reason for which had something to do with Wild West shows and the idea that all Americans have “Indian” in them that either needs to be strengthened or destroyed. Most Indian stories are myths.

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  4. Tyrell says:

    Off topic comment deleted.

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  5. superdestroyer says:

    If the Washington Redskins do change their name, I suspect that the Atlanta Braves will be the next team of the list for the social activist.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 4

  6. James Joyner says:

    @superdestroyer: At least the Braves no longer use cartoonish Native American caricatures. I’m guessing the Indians’ Chief Wahoo is the next big target.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  7. Grewgills says:

    I haven’t heard anyone say that the choice of team name was to intentionally slur native Americans. The argument has, as far as I have heard, always been that in 1935 they simply didn’t care if it was a slur.Times have changed and attitudes have changed (somewhat).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  8. stonetools says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Freakin’ traitor! ;-).

    Just don’t pick the name Washington Generals. It’s too closely associated with them always losing to the Harlem Globetrotters.

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  9. superdestroyer says:

    I suspect that some right of center state rep or state senator will try to make a name for himself by trying to change the name of either Utah, Illinois, or either of the Dakotas. If Indian names are bad, then maybe Utah should rethink the name of their state and change it to something that is based on European Culture so that the state universities can have the proper mascots.

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  10. Grewgills says:

    @superdestroyer:
    Are you really so freaking ignorant that you can’t see the difference between a tribal name and a racial slur?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  11. superdestroyer says:

    @Grewgills:

    You may want to go ask the University of North Dakota or the University of Eastern Michigan. Both used to have tribal names but were forced to change. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Native_American_mascot_controversy#College_nickname_changes

    Or you could ask the University of Illinois that had to remove any reference to indians for their team mascots.

    IN the long run, the entire push about team names is just a demonstration of political power and the ability of force others to change they way they think. North Dakota should have responded to the controversy surrounding the University of North Dakota by changing the name of the state since the use of Indian names is considered hostile and abusive.

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  12. Grewgills says:

    @superdestroyer:
    Yes, because native Americans are such a powerful political force. You really need to step out into the real world a bit rather than digging deeper into your conspiracy mongering.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  13. Moosebreath says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    “I think I’d say that my position isn’t so much that they shouldn’t change their name, as it is that they shouldn’t be forced to change it until they believe its in their interests to do so. Although I suppose the people who feel strongly about this will see that as a distinction without a difference.”

    I am not one who feels strongly about this, but I see your position as caring solely about perceived harm to the rich team owner, and not comprehending that there is harm being done to non-rich Native Americans.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  14. James Joyner says:

    @Moosebreath: That’s not a fair characterization. Daniel Snyder’s property rights in the trademark “Washington Redskins,” which has a decades-only legacy, a massive fanbase, and for which he paid handsomely, trump the rights of whichever Native Americans find said nickname offensive under law. There’s no right not to be offended.

    But my position on “Redskins” has evolved along pretty much the same lines as my position on flying the Confederate battle flag: regardless of whether the intent is to offend, it’s rude to knowingly offend large numbers of people in order to communicate a message that can be just as effectively communicated through non-offensive means.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  15. Moosebreath says:

    @James Joyner:

    “Daniel Snyder’s property rights in the trademark “Washington Redskins,” which has a decades-only legacy, a massive fanbase, and for which he paid handsomely, trump the rights of whichever Native Americans find said nickname offensive under law.”

    That’s a nice conclusion, but one that people can easily disagree with.

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  16. James Joyner says:

    @Moosebreath: One can disagree with whether they should. That they do is a matter of fact under American law.

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  17. Moosebreath says:

    @James Joyner:

    “One can disagree with whether they should. That they do is a matter of fact under American law.”

    I can accept that (though of course the state of the law can and does change over time). However, Doug’s original comments which I responded to used “should”, not “does”.

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  18. bill says:

    wow, still beating this dead horse. who really cares about their name aside from a few uberly sensitive guilt ridden white people and a lessor amount of needy “indians”? last i heard there was a substantial amount of indians who liked the name and association.
    as long as they beat the cowboys and lose to my Giants i really don’t care, nor does most of America.

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  19. Grewgills says:

    @bill:

    last i heard there was a substantial amount of indians who liked the name and association.

    Where did you hear that?

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