One common standard is simply whether people are offended. That’s the standard that trademark officials applied to the Redskins case. Of course, not everyone will find the same things offensive. Even as the American Indian Movement has organized protests outside Redskins games, team owner Dan Snyder has called the name a “badge of honor.”
A different standard is whether a team can find a native group that approves of the name. Even the Redskins have cited some Native Americans who say they aren’t bothered by that particular word. The Blackhawks have the support of the Chicago-based American Indian Center, which has received grants from the team. But this is tricky. The center’s director, Andrew Johnson, who is Cherokee, told me the center held a town hall meeting where many Indians denounced the team name as racist. He said native culture requires “respect” for those different opinions.
There’s also a public wellness standard: The American Psychological Association declared a decade ago that Native American names and mascots created a “hostile learning environment” for native students. But clearly some teams aren’t persuaded.
So here is a new standard. Do we learn anything from the team name? Does the name teach us anything we want to pass on about this country, its history, and its people?
If people learn the story behind a team name, they can make an informed decision about whether they approve or not. Indians are part of the American fabric, and it’s not automatically bad to include them in pop culture. The Chicago Blackhawks at least have a case to make, even if it’s one that needs to be weighed against other factors.
With other teams, it’s more complicated. The Kansas City Chiefs say they’re named after a former Kansas City mayor whose nickname was “Chief,” but they also use the native image of an arrowhead in their team logo. The Atlanta Braves’ story is awkward. The team is in Georgia, where streets, shopping malls and a county are named for Cherokees, but actual Indians were evicted almost 200 years ago.
Could the Redskins meet the standard?
They’d have to complete a sentence. “It’s important for Americans to think about the word redskin because …” If Redskins fans can complete that sentence and feel proud of it, they’d have a better case for keeping the team’s name.
I asked a Redskins spokesman for the “redskin” story. He pointed out the work of the scholar Ives Goddard, who argued in 2005 that “redskin” was used in colonial times by some Native Americans themselves. They were trying to define the racial difference between Indians and encroaching whites. But the same scholar records the expression used by Indians in an oddly negative way (“I am a red-skin,” one confessed, “but what I say is the truth”), and by whites in a patronizing way (President James Madison referred to “my red children”). It’s not surprising that “redskin” evolved into a word that simply diminishes the people it describes.
Do the Redskins want to hang their identity on that? If so, their name will tell a story that stretches far beyond football, whether their fans want it to or not.
* The photo caption on this article originally misspelled the painter George Catlin’s surname as Carlin. We regret the error.