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The Redskins and a people's past that remains too present

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Is it possible to brand a race? Dan Snyder is willing to bet the estate on it. The owner of the Washington Redskins has adorned himself with his finest pair of marketing pants and declared that he will not change his football franchise's name in the foreseeable future.

For Mr. Snyder, the team's name has transcended its racist connotations and has morphed into a flag of pride for those who follow it. In a letter to his fans, he waxes nostalgic about being born a Redskin. He fondly recalls his first game with his father and the chilling experience and atmosphere. But the question has to be asked for those who weren't born "Redskins" but actual Native Americans — can an entire history be rewritten on a feel-good whim at the behest of sports fandom? The trials of Native Americans are not a dust covered relic from ages ago, but rather just yesterday in our country's timeline. And as the Boston Braves changed their name to the Boston Redskins in 1933 — 43 years after the Wounded Knee Massacre — Native Americans were still suffering at the hand of racism and discrimination.

Mid-20th century saw the Redskins flying high. Throughout the late '30s and early '40s, the newly minted team played in five NFL Championship games (1937, 1940, 1942, 1943 and 1945), winning two of them (1937 and 1942). But as the Redskins were riding a wave of victory, the institutions tasked with erasing every ounce of "red" from Native Americans were just beginning to reform.

Boarding schools for Native American children were used as a tool of forceful assimilation. The schools originally came into being in the late 1800s — the first being established by Army officer Richard Pratt, who once said that "all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man." The schools flourished in part because Native Americans were barred from attending public schools, and the tactics used were often forceful. Standard administration included forcibly beating the native language out of the children and replacing the children's native name with one that was Euro-centric. Numerous children were raped and found dead.

Boarding school policies would improve gradually beginning in the 1930s after the government commissioned report "The Problems of Indian Administration" was filed in 1928. The report criticized several aspects of Indian education at the time, such as the overcrowded schools and reliance on student labor. Many associate the vicious upbringings in boarding schools with the problems of domestic violence and alcoholism so prevalent in the Native American community.

After their early football excellence, the Redskins would wallow in mediocrity for much of the '50s and '60s. Come the '70s though, the 'Skins would find themselves as pigskin golden boys under coach George Allen. The team would plow through the decade making multiple playoff appearances and would even participate in Super Bowl VII (ultimately losing to the perfect-season Miami Dolphins).

Simultaneously, the American Indian Movement was fighting it's own battle of equality for Native Americans. AIM members, lead by Dennis Banks, used tactics such as protesting and site-occupation to make their voices heard. And as history repeats itself, tensions would come to a head back where it all ended before — Wounded Knee Creek. A 1973 protest conducted by AIM at Pine Ridge reservation would explode into a full-fledged siege when U.S. marshals and other federal officers waged a shootout with the AIM protesters who had retreated to the Wounded Knee Massacre sight. The firing would last 71 days, with two Native Americans shot to death.

So given the history of Native Americans in this country that coincided with the Redskins' history, the question being asked should not be whether it's appropriate for the team to use as its name a racial slur but whether it's proper to use a race's identity to begin with. Even in the modern age that we live in now, Indian reservations are racked with suicide and poverty. Is it proper to co-opt the identity of a people who have suffered and been demeaned by so many for the purposes of filling seats and selling shirts?

The story of the Native American is long, and to have it lost and eroded into the identity of a sports franchise should be seen as a slap in the face, as it would be to any other race who had their history and struggle condensed to a decal on the side of an athlete's helmet.

Mitchell MacNaughton is an artist and writer living in Baltimore. His email is mitchell@macnaughtonillos.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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