The Word 'Redskins' and Natives: We've Earned the Right to Use It How We Want

When my dad says it, it's endearing. When I see it on the back of a jersey, it's irritating. Yes, I'm talking about the word "Redskins" and no, I'm not particularly troubled if that's a double standard.
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When my dad says it, it's endearing. When I see it on the back of a jersey, it's irritating. Yes, I'm talking about the word "Redskins" and no, I'm not particularly troubled if that's a double standard. What I am is angry. Angry that Washington's football team just continues to play with a racial slur on their shirts, and angry that so many Americans remain complacent.

My dad calls us 'skins. He uses the word all the time; for example, last summer he hired an artist to repaint an antique sign -- a family heirloom that once welcome visitors to "The Diamond Z Ranch: RB Luger & Sons." On the sign was a faded outline of a man on a horse. My dad instructed the artist, "Don't make that jockey a white guy. Paint him brown. Make him a 'skin." He's proud of his heritage.

"You're a 'skin, my girl. You're tough," he used to say to me when I'd call home from my college on the East Coast, lonely and exhausted.

I grew up all around North Dakota -- my homes are on two Reservations, the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Tribe and the Standing Rock Lakota Nation. Both my reservation's high schools have teams with Native names: The Belcourt Braves and the Standing Rock Warriors. My mentor writes a column called "The Thing About Skins." We use these words amongst ourselves.

Here's the thing: My dad doesn't say 'skins' when he's around non-Natives -- then, he calls us Lakota. He understands that there are some words to use around friends, words that are safe to use around people who understand us and our culture and not safe to use around people who don't -- who have in fact been working at systematically destroying that culture for the better part of 400 years.

So when Dan Snyder and his fake Redskins claim they're honoring us, they're wrong. Respect requires knowledge, and most people -- including them and their fan base -- are ignorant when it comes to Native culture and people. Unless your standards for respect are really, really low, you can't possibly respect us to the degree that you are claiming. You don't know enough about us. You haven't taken the time to learn.

Pro-Redskins folks love bringing up the fact that Native people on the reservations, when polled, often say that they are cool with Indian mascots. This is true. I've witnessed it. I know a ton of people on the rez who are pro-mascot. I sure was until I spent enough time around non-Native people and began to realize how they look at us. The rez is a world where Indians are universally respected. Leave that world, and you've got another story. Kids on the rez who use the Indian team names are not at risk of hurting themselves by stereotyping themselves. Off the rez, people actually believe the stereotypes.

A lot of this mascot controversy is about ownership, too. People like Dan Snyder take real issue with the fact that WE (Native people) OWN OUR NAME. Not him. We own our image. We own the dialogue surrounding it. We should have the right to control it. People always get mad about Indian casinos, land disputes, hunting and fishing rights, natural resources. Whenever Natives own something, the rest of the world looks at us like we're taking advantage of them or like we're tapping into some type of special privileges. How dare we exercise our tribal sovereignty or demand dignity and respect for our people?! We should be the only people with rights to these Indian monikers because we are the only people who deserve to use them.

And honestly, I'm tired of it. I used to be really diplomatic about answering other people's questions about Native life -- even when those questions would offend me. But I'm getting to a point where I can't do that anymore, and I think that a lot of Native people like me get tired of being held responsible for teachable moments.

Just the other day, I met a person who asked me if I get paid thousands of dollars a month just because I'm Native. The formerly more patient me might have taken the time to explain that there are a small percentage of Native people who receive per capita payments from lucrative Casinos that happen to be advantageously located near urban areas, but most of us, including me, come from economically disadvantaged communities. But I couldn't be bothered -- just like so many non-Natives can't be bothered to learn anything beyond archaic stereotypes about our culture and history. I just said, "That's a stupid question and an unfair stereotype. I don't feel like talking about that right now."

One thing I've come to realize is that it's socially acceptable for non-Native people to be ignorant about Native culture. And this is the primary reason why I am adamantly opposed to the Redskins and any other Native American mascot use by non-Native teams. If there were a pervasive understanding of Native people and Reservation life in this country beyond the dehistoricized, decultured version that we see in sports team logos and other kitschy relics, I might be more okay with it. But there's not.

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