Copyright © 2014 by Ralph Couey
Written content only.
In 1988, the National Football League franchise located in Washington DC won Super Bowl XXII, thumping the Denver Broncos 42-10. Washington was quarterbacked by Doug Williams, the first African-American QB to not only play in, but win the Big Game. It was also the first of what would be countless public demonstrations and protests concerning the team's nickname, "Redskins."
The nickname, many believe, is a word born out of racism dating back to the first time white Europeans pushed into the tribal frontier. The issue is rapidly coming to a head, with the National Patent Office stripping the team of their copyright on the name. Across the country, two sets of voices are being raised, one which demands that this term be banned from not only the NFL, but all teams in all sports. The other set of voices contends that in the modern context, the term is much more closely related to the team and not to that group of people who have come to be called "Native Americans."
Football aside, I have a bit of a problem with that term. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a native American because human life did not arise here spontaneously as it did in Africa some 200,000 years ago. Over the millennia continents have drifted, and sea levels have fallen and risen. This created pathways of migration. Everyone here on these three continents (North, Central, and South America, respectively) came here from someplace else, mainly across the Bering land bridge beginning about 16,000 years ago, by the latest estimate. I prefer the term "First Americans." It is more accurate, plus it retains the honorific of them being the first to take possession of these lands.
This is not the first time that politics has impacted a team name. In the 1950's during the virulent anti-communist Joe McCarthy era, the Cincinnati Major League Baseball team, in trying to steer clear of any ideological taint changed their name from the "Reds" to the "Redlegs." Apparently nobody knew that the original Redlegs referred to the roving bands of anti-slavery terrorists who roamed the border states before, during, and after the Civil War.
There are a lot of other teams closely monitoring this controversy, namely every team that carries a name even remotely associated with First Americans. The likely next target will be the Kansas City Chiefs.
While the team and it's passionate fanbase have used the name in its First American context, the name actually refers to Kansas City Mayor H. Roe Bartle, whose nickname was "Chief", and the one primarily responsible for bringing the team from Dallas to KC. The original team logo...
...portrayed a First American in ceremonial headdress racing across six midwestern states with a football in one hand and a tomahawk in the other. This was a quick and dirty adaptation of the original Dallas Texans logo which showed a cowboy, complete with 6-guns, racing across the state of Texas.
After 1963, however, the First American logo disappeared from official team use and was replaced by the simple arrowhead...
...familiar to all football fans now. The logo, interestingly enough, was an adaptation by Chief's owner Lamar Hunt of the San Francisco 49'er logo, with the interlocking letters inside an arrowhead instead of an oval. The arrowhead itself, by the way, has been dated back to Europe, Africa, and Asia as much as 60,000 years ago, a part of the armory which included bone knives and stone axes. So the current logo is more reflective of the legacy of homo sapiens in general and not a single iteration of it.
But fans still show up at games wearing First American regalia, including the feathered headdress, which I understand would irritate those who revere it as a sacred symbol of wisdom and leadership, and doing the tomahawk chop. I suppose that, given the anthropological information I've already discussed, it might be more appropriate for fans to wear animal fur, bad wigs and Neanderthal masks. Oh, but then you'd have to deal with PETA...
However one may feel about the use, or misuse, of the name Chiefs, it is important to note that within the family of fans known as the Chiefs Nation, any relation to First Americans is done first of all because First Americans have earned the reputation as an honorable and noble people, long on courage, and never reluctant to defend their homes and families. Chiefs fans recognize it as portraying strength, not only physical, but mental and spiritual as well. If any of them truly felt otherwise, they definitely would not cheer so loudly -- all 130 decibels of sound.
Beyond football, there is another thing to consider. The word "Chief" is used in many ways in a lot of different environments, and if the football Chiefs have to give up their name, a lot of other titles will have to go as well. There would no longer be a Chief of Police, or Fire Chief. In business, a different title would have to be crafted for Chief Executive Officer, and his cohorts, the CFO, CIO, and CAO. The President could no longer be the Commander in Chief, or have a Chief of Staff. Every media outlet in the land has a Bureau Chief and an Editor in Chief. The military would have to do away with Chief Petty Officers, Chief Warrant Officers, and Chief Master Sergeants. Sea-going ships would no longer have a Chief Engineer. And when the Supreme Court met to adjudicate cases, they would no longer be led by a Chief Justice.
I respect the feelings of those who have a problem with the name Redskins. As much of a football fan as I am, even I understand that attaching color to skin crosses some kind of line. But before people go hog-wild and attack every name of every team in every land, we should take the time to carefully and intellectually consider the contextual etymology of the term in question.