Analyzing the roots of the Redskins name, and its implications
By Ian Cummings
Development of the term “Redskins”
The term “Redskins” has early roots in both colonial context and Native American context, to some extent, and those early roots are not as contentious. In a thorough study of the term’s history, Nancy Shoemaker, a professor of Native American history at Connecticut University, wrote that Native Americans, in some capacity, referred to themselves as “red” and “Red-Skin” as early as the 1720s.
The association of the color red by Native Americans was used as an identifying tool amidst contact with Europeans, but Shoemaker asserts that, in its early years, the use of “red” to describe Native Americans was more often used by Native Americans themselves than European settlers. Shoemaker eventually reasoned that Native Americans used the term “red” to contextualize themselves, in relation to white Europeans.
It’s worth noting that not all Native Americans described themselves in this way; Shoemaker makes the distinction that the association to the color red was primarily indigenous to the southeast region of the United States. But elsewhere, there have also been affiliations with vermillion war paint and red-earth origin stories.
A strong correlation slowly developed over time, and European use of the color association increased exponentially. There was no malice in the early use of the term, but over time, as relations between Native Americans and Europeans deteriorated, a derogatory connotation was formed. Shoemaker details this in the following quote:
“Appearing in the novels of James Fenmore Cooper, captivity narratives, and dime novels, ultimately to be taken up by tobacco advertisers and national sports teams, the noble ‘Red Man’ and the brutal ‘Redskin’ evolved into demeaning and dehumanizing racial epithets.”
At the peaks of conflict between Native Americans and the United States, the term “Redskins” was used in ads offering rewards for scalping Native Americans. By 1898, the Webster’s Dictionary definition of “Redskin” described the word as “often contemptuous”, and in western cinema in the early-to-mid 1900’s, “Redskins” were often the antagonistic, adversarial figures by default.
Some proponents of the name will say that the word was originally used by Native Americans. This is true. Some will say that it was at times a term of respect between Native Americans. This is also true in some contexts.
But the term, much like other derogatory expressions that began rather harmlessly, ultimately underwent a development, which saw it become a slur in use by oppressive forces, forever pairing it with the suffering of Native Americans. As noble as the term’s origins may have been, one cannot selectively prioritize that over what the term ultimately became.