Two weeks ago, California became the first state to ban the term “redskins” from being used as a mascot name in public schools when Governor Brown signed the California Racial Mascots Act. Enforcement will begin January 1, 2017, and the state government will be financially responsible for helping schools with mascots that currently use the term “redskin” transition to a different mascot.
The association between “redskin” and Native Americans has disputed origins, but one of its historical roots comes from New England in 1755. British Lieutenant and Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony Spencer Phips issued a proclamation on behalf of the British government to “embrace all opportunities of pursuing, captivating, and killing and destroying all and every of the aforesaid Indians.” Colonists who returned with the scalps of slain Native Americans in the area were rewarded with money from the government and were paid by the scalp. Considering the term “redskin” is a racial epithet rooted in the genocide of indigenous people in the United States, there was not much debate among staff members that a bill like this should have been passed a long time ago.
The purpose of naming sports teams after a slur aimed at indigenous groups of people in North America seems a bit unclear to us for several reasons. The argument made in favor of naming teams after Native Americans is that having mascots with names related to indigenous American culture and history is a way of honoring them today. However, if Native Americans do not want their culture referenced to mascots because it infringes upon the sanctity of their traditions, then the public should respect that. Should it be necessary for the government to be the authority to enforce that respect, then this would be one of the few instances in history where the United States government would be aiding the causes of indigenous Americans. The idea that naming a team “redskins” is supposed to somehow honor Native Americans seems rather misguided. Is this supposed to make up for the systematic wipeout of the hundreds of tribes already established in North America before any Europeans arrived here?
Implementing a ban on the slur “redskin” from being used as mascots in California public schools is a straight-forward way to tackle offensive depictions of Native Americans. The debate on this issue is not so much if this bill should have been passed but more so if other terms should be banned as well. Since a slur regarding indigenous people in this country is being banned, why not other stereotypical images related to these people? Why not also get rid of team mascots like Chiefs, Blackhawks, Eskimos, and other mascots that sport red face and stereotypical imagery of indigenous people? While the term “redskin” is a definite slur and Chiefs, Blackhawks, and Eskimos are not, it is still offensive to appropriate the image of indigenous people for a mascot.
A question that also came up among staff members was if then, we should ban the usage of any groups of people used as mascots (in example, Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish or the Minnesota Vikings). However, it is not fair to equate the experiences of different racial groups to each other, as each group has different historical contexts regarding how they ended up in North America. In this particular case, regarding the history of Native Americans, these people were physically removed from their lands, massacred, and forcefully relocated for hundreds of years at the hands of the United States government.
One final thought on the issue is, why does this ban only apply to public schools in California? Considering the national controversy surrounding the name of a certain Washington D.C. football team, we believe other states should follow suit and pass similar bans on this slur. Hopefully, California’s ban will make a statement loud enough to result in a wider federal ban.