Say what you want about President Obama, his sense of taste and sensitivity is matched by few in public office. Earlier this month in an interview with the Associated Press, President Obama said that if he were the owner of the Washington Redskins and he knew the name was “offending a sizable group of people,” then he would “think about changing it.”
Joining the president’s sentiments is NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who had previously shown support for the team’s mascot but has lately changed his tune a bit. During halftime of Sunday night’s broadcast of the Redskins-Cowboys game, sportscaster Bob Costas also weighed in, calling our capital’s team name “an insult, a slur, no matter how benign the present-day intent.”
I have been very critical of President Obama these last few years, but thankfully there is finally something that I can agree with him on! And due to the president’s progressive credentials, I hope that he will lead stubborn Redskins owner Dan Snyder by example.
A Tomahawk axe, derived from Powhatan tamahaac, was a hatchet used by Native Americans all over the continent. In popular culture, it is generally used to portray the supposed savagery of Indians, as a caricature, and to rally Braves at Turner Field in Atlanta (now talk about offensive!).
For the rest of the world, the American government’s version is an incredibly expensive representation of empire and hegemony, a hatchet from the sky that vaporizes towns on the president’s whim. Where is the outrage over this name?
If this were the only one, it might be easy to understand. But the list goes on. The U.S. military has named helicopters after Apache, Blackhawk, Chinook, Chamanche, Iroquois, and Kiowa tribes. The “Collateral Murder” video leaked by Chelsea Manning starred the Apache versions, giving a slight glimpse into what these helicopters are used for. And all of these weapons systems are at the president’s disposal.
If Robert Griffin III’s aerial attack needs a new name, then so does the president’s.
Why there is such silence over the use of Native American names for tools of death, destruction, and conquest when compared to a silly sports team? Since Native Americans themselves seem to be fairly disinterested in the matter, part of it undoubtedly stems from a culture of politically correct hysteria, where mostly white, guilt-ridden liberals pine over how racist and intolerant everyone else is. Bob Costas may shed crocodile tears over the use of the name Redskins, but I am sure he won’t think twice about cashing his check for covering their games.
But it runs much deeper than that. A society so acquiescent to militarism is not only destructive but also leads to a dangerous ignorance of history. Calling our sports teams Redskins and Indians may spark outrage today, but there is a reason much of our offensive military weaponry is named after Native American tribes: to the victor goes the spoils.
After the Civil War, the Union Army immediately looked west and began a military campaign that only can be described as deliberate genocide and ethnic cleansing of the Plains Indians. General Sherman, who boasted about employing “total war” against Southern cities, used the same tactics in his proposed “final solution to the Indian problem.” Decades later, it nearly was final, and the rest were gathered into concentration camps.
It is also interesting to contrast the violent and genocidal relationship the U.S. government had with Native Americans to the mostly peaceful cooperation regular Americans had with them. The Great Northern Railway, a private railway system running from Minnesota to Seattle, was built without government subsidies by negotiating and purchasing land, not by razing and stealing it. Early Americans, especially Quakers, regarded Native Americans as human beings deserving of respect and traded with them voluntarily in the free market.
Native Americans were the first people to be conquered by the U.S. government, and their names that now grace military hardware serve as a type of sick ode to this launching pad for further military adventurism, domination, and empire. A century later, nearly every single country in the world has experienced the wrath of an Apache helicopter or Tomahawk missile to the cheers and patriotic flag-waving of Americans on the home front.
But don’t you dare call a sports team the Redskins! Can’t you see how offensive it is!?
Yes, it is outdated and arcane. But so is the mindset behind militarism and an aggressive foreign policy. These are relics from the days of monarchs, not hallmarks of a supposed constitutional republic dedicated to liberty.
And if you ask me, given the U.S. government’s record of war, debt, and authoritarian laws, the Redskins should be ashamed of Washington, not the other way around.