(noun) usually offensive : American Indian
Note the “usually offensive” — a warning from one of the more neutral arbitrators of American English, Merriam-Webster. “Redskin” is a pejorative term, and should be used with caution, if at all.
And yet that term, and all of its sordid history, comes to play each and every football season as Washington’s team takes to the field. And this week, the Supreme Court refused to involve itself in a 17-year legal battle between the NFL franchise and a group of indigenous Americans who find the use of that mascot, well, offensive.
Unfortunately, Native mascots aren’t limited to the professional leagues. Gross stereotypes — “redskins” and “savages” and “squaws” — persist in K-12 environments, too.
More than 10 years ago, in the pages of Teaching Tolerance magazine, Barbara Munson, a member of the Oneida Nation, called on schools across the nation to abandon "Indian" team names, mascots and logos in their athletic programs.
“We experience it as no less than a mockery of our cultures,” Munson wrote then. “We see objects sacred to us — such as the drum, eagle feathers, face painting and traditional dress — being used not in sacred ceremony, or in any cultural setting, but in another culture's game.”
Since then, some progress has been made. Schools, districts and even state boards of education have voluntarily retired caricatures of Native peoples and traditions from their sports fields. Still, hundreds of schools — more than 70 in Virginia alone — continue to hold onto these mascots, choosing to teach children that stereotyping, and cultural appropriation, is a-okay.
The Supreme Court’s refusal to involve itself in the NFL dispute may signal to some that the use of Native mascots is perfectly legal. Even if that’s the case, it does not mean the practice is acceptable.
This month — American Indian Heritage Month — is a particularly good time to get honest about what’s in a mascot and to recommit ourselves to the abolition of Native mascots both on school campuses and in the professional leagues.