Saturday, 28 September 2013

A Rose by Any Other Name?

There's been much ado about a certain moniker that graces the name of some sports teams in the past year or so.  I'm talking about the Redskins.  Of course the most popular team that goes by this name is the Washington Redskins - which just happens to be my favourite NFL team.  Why the Redskins you ask?  Well I'm glad you asked.  It's always kind of interesting when to hear why different people latch onto certain teams specifically when there is seemingly very little connection.  I'm from Canada.  The closest teams to me were the Bills or the Lions.  You think I'd like one of those.  But fate drove me to the Redskins.

It was the summer of 1991 when I first stepped onto the field to play football.  The following spring (1992) I went on a class trip to Washington where I got to see RFK stadium (home of the Redskins at that time).  It was my first journey into the wonderful U.S.A.  Sandwiched right in the middle of these two momentous occasions in my life was the Washington Redskins playing a season for the ages culminating with a Super Bowl victory over the Buffalo Bills.  I also dug their logo of the serene, proud and dignified native.  As a person of aboriginal descent I felt a strong connection to this team because of their name and logo.  I felt it gave me a visible outlet to express my pride in my heritage (as odd as that might sound).  Thus my heart and allegiance were captured.  How was I to know that the next 20 years would be marked by sub-par play, questionable moves, many bitter losses and much disappointment?  Nevertheless I have never stopped rooting for the 'Skins.

Now age has weathered me some.  The losses have mounted and the shine of the 'Skins maybe not as slick as ever.  I'm more culturally sensitive and a better critical thinker as well so I have followed with interest the debate over whether the Redskins should change their racist and offensive name to something a little more politically correct.  Proponents on either side of the argument have strong feelings about their position and seem to have dug their heels in.  The progressive pc side condemns the name because in the past it was used derogatorily towards First Nations people.  The traditionalists lean on the team history claiming that there is too much invested in the name now, moreover the name is meant as a compliment to native people when attached to a sports team because teams pick nicknames that instill a sense of pride and strength in their players and fans.  I find that to be a hollow and somewhat demeaning in a condescending sort of way.

Recently a man from Ottawa filed a human rights claim against the Nepean Redskins, a minor football team.  The team has announced that it will change its name.  The Washington Redskins are facing similar pressure but I don't think they will buckle to the pressure as quickly or easily.  To be honest I'm not sure they should.

To be sure it is a racist moniker...or at least it was.  There's no doubt about it and anyone that claims that it isn't is either hopefully naive, ignorant or in a serious state of denial.  Think about any other derogatory slur for any other minority and think about what the reaction would be if a team adopted it as their nickname.  It wouldn't hold up.  You could make the argument about the Edmonton Eskimos but then I would counter that is another example of accepted racism towards another North American aboriginal group.

And let's not even entertain the nonsense that using the term Vikings is the same sort of deal and since there are no Scandinavians up in arms about the Vikings moniker then there should be no complaints about the Redskins name.  I've heard that argument and it's ridiculous.

So let's own up to the fact that redskin is an offensive term and if left at that, it should be discontinued. We could force the issue, make all teams with the name Redskins change their name and I think that would be perfectly understandable and reasonable. I'm not sure that's the strongest move the native community could make though.  I think there's a better way.  There is still much racism (and dare I say it's accepted) directed at natives.  There are yet many negative stereotypes and connotations associated with natives.

The better way to combat this is to steal the name and its power to hurt.  By reappropriating the name and recasting it to be synonymous with strength, perseverance and pride we can ensure that the plight and subsequent resolve of natives is not forgotten.  The name could serve as a monument lest we forget as well as a signifier that we as a community have risen above the trials that were forced upon our ancestors and are moving forward in strength.

It would be easy to change the name, sweep history under the rug of political correctness and pretend that racism has been eradicated and that everything is hunky-dory, but I'm not sure it would be right.  I like seeing native culture and allusions to native culture woven into the fabric of North American culture.  It's natural.  And while Redskins may not have been the ideal way to do so, I think it is an opportunity for the First Nations community to tell their story and to write the next chapter.

HTTR!!  (Hail to the Redskins!!)

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