Proud Indians are right in asking offensive Redskins to call an audible

John Steadman

January 22, 1992|By John Steadman

MINNEAPOLIS -- Much of what the American Indians are doing to salvage their self-respect is falling on deaf ears. The Washington Redskins should be willing to find another nickname, if only to placate a race that has unfortunately been abused, ravaged and treated as third-rate citizens.

Anarchy and civil uprisings, burning cities and defying authority, can never be condoned but it does get attention. The Indians have offered only peaceful protest so America prefers to ignore their plight and the cause they espouse.

It's not as if they want anything from the federal government, or are attempting to take back the land that originally belonged to them. All they ask is what they believe to be demeaning references placed on sports teams be changed.

You know, Braves, Indians, Warriors, Chiefs, Seminoles and other similar tags. Members of the American Indian Movement haven't attacked the National Football League and its Super Bowl headquarters but their "quiet" rebellion obviously isn't working.

If other minorities were being maligned, it would take the NFL about five minutes to make an apologetic correction. But since they are Indians, the attitude seems to be that if they are ignored then maybe they'll get tired and fade far away.

The Indians, headed by their national director Clyde Bellecourt, accuse Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke of "racist and ignorant remarks." It goes back to a letter Cooke sent in 1988 to Minnesota's Concerned Indian Parents, who objected that the Washington football club was known as the Redskins. The children felt insulted.

"I find it difficult to accept your statement that the name 'Redskins' is racist, derogatory and demeaning to American Indians," commented Cooke. "I am totally out of sympathy with your project."

How would Cooke, or any other white man, know how Indians feel? The Redskins were founded as the Boston Braves in 1932 and became the Boston Redskins the next year. They remained as such until they changed their address to Washington in 1937.

In Boston, for publicity purposes, the Redskins often posed for pictures with painted faces. And their coach in 1933-1934 was William "Lone Star" Dietz, a full-blooded Indian. Upon moving to Washington, the Redskins' Band was frequently led by an "Indian" on horseback.

The "Hail To The Redskins" song, written by Corinne Griffith, wife of club owner George Preston Marshall, with music by Barnee Briskin, had a line that read, "Scalp 'em, Swamp 'em." The "scalp 'em" was later changed to "beat 'em" in the lyrics so obviously it was an admission of guilt that needed to be rectified.

Ironically, the NFL's first president was America's most famous of all Indian athletes, the legendary Jim Thorpe, a Sac and Fox, now a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, along with another Indian, Joe Guyon, a Chippewa.

The part they played in the NFL is a matter of pride to their modern ancestors but they insist that nicknaming teams after Indians is humiliating. They want the practice terminated.

Maybe you don't understand or agree but unless you're an Indian there's no way to personalize what they perceive as an indignity. The NFL, the history book tells us, once had a team made up of Indians playing under the name of a dog kennel.

That was in 1922 and 1923 when a team called the Oorang Indians, based in Marion, Ohio, represented a dog kennel that raised airedales. Were they telling us then that the Indians were some kind of dogs?

Back to the Redskins. They have a poor record for sensitivity. Their former owner, George Preston Marshall, was an admitted bigot. His club was the last to hire a black player and Marshall was outspoken in his dislike for Catholics, Jews and blacks, which didn't leave him much room for human tolerance.

Marshall once criticized the Baltimore Colts' management for allowing Lenny Moore to speak at an Advocate Club luncheon in Baltimore. He was livid and resentful because Moore was asked to address a predominately white audience.

Cooke and the NFL should address the Indian issue. Suppose, hypothetically, that Italians, Germans, Chinese, Irish, Jews, Scotch or Swedes disliked teams being called after their nationalities? It would be changed with the next tick of the clock.

But, no, the American Indian is refused the same consideration because a billionaire white man, enhancing his fortune with a football team that trades under the name Redskins, refuses to grant them the human courtesy they deserve.

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