Video by George Fox
“Redskin” is a slang term referring to Native Americans in the United States. In modern dictionaries of American English it is defined with the additional meanings “usually offensive”, “disparaging”, “insulting”,and “taboo“.
The origin of the term is debated, in particular whether the use of “red” referred to skin color or the use of pigments by certain tribes, and also whether the term was applied to natives by Europeans or came from language natives used to refer to themselves. Whatever its origins in the colonial period, many argue that “redskin” underwent a process of pejoration due to the increasingly disparaging use of the term though the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including an association with the practice of paying bounties for killing Native Americans.
Although the term has almost disappeared from common use, it remains as the name of many sports teams, most prominently the Washington Redskins, and the term’s meaning has been a significant point of controversy.
Origin and meaning
It is argued by sociologist Irving Lewis Allen that slang identifiers for ethnic groups based upon physical characteristics, including “redskin”, are by nature derogatory, emphasizing the difference between the speaker and the target. However, Professor Luvell Anderson of the University of Memphis, in his paper “Slurring Words”, argues that for a word to be a slur, the word must communicate ideas beyond identifying a target group, and that, slurs are offensive because the additional data contained in those words differentiates those individuals from otherwise accepted groups. However, in the same sense that nigger originated as meaning nothing more than “black-skinned”, redskin also took on an increasingly negative meaning.
The origin of the term “redskin” in English is debated. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) had cited its earliest use in a 1699 letter from an English colonialist, Samuel Smith, living in Hadley, Massachusetts, which supposedly contains the following passage: “Ye firste Meetinge House was solid mayde to withstande ye wicked onsaults of ye Red Skins.” Based on this source, the OED suggests the term was specifically applied to the Delaware Indians, and “referred not to the natural skin color of the Delaware, but to their use of vermilion face paint and body paint.” Smithsonian liguistics scholar Ives Goddard concluded the letter was a “work of fiction”, saying that the “language was Hollywood…It didn’t look like the way people really wrote.” The OED agreed with Goddard’s findings, stating that the quotation was “subsequently found to be misattributed; the actual text was written in 1900 by an author claiming, for purposes of historical fiction, to be quoting an earlier letter.”
Goddard proposes as an alternative the emergence of the term from the speech of Native Americans themselves and that the origin and use of the term in the late 18th and early 19th century was benign: “When it first appeared as an English expression in the early 1800s, it came in the most respectful context and at the highest level. … These are white people and Indians talking together, with the white people trying to ingratiate themselves”. The word later underwent a process of pejoration, by which it gained a negative connotation. Goddard suggests that “redskin” emerged from French translations of Native American speech in Illinois and Missouri territories in the 18th and 19th centuries. He cites as the earliest example a 1769 set of “talks” or letters from three chiefs of the Piankeshaw to an English officer at Fort de Chartres. The letter from Chief “Mosquito” (French: Maringouin) had the following passage in French: “I shall be pleased to have you come to speak to me yourself if you pity our women and our children; and, if any redskins do you harm, I shall be able to look out for you even at the peril of my life.” (“je serai flatté que tu Vienne parler toimeme pour avoir pitie De nos femmes et De nos enfans, et si quelques peaux Rouges te font Du mal je Scaurai soutenir tes Interests au peril De ma Vie”) Another letter in the set, this from a “Chief Hannanas,” contained the following passage: “… You think that I am an orphan; but all the people of these rivers and all the redskins will learn of my death.” (“…tu Crois que je suis Orphelin, mes tous les Gens De ces rivieres et tout les peaux rouges apprenderot ma mort”).
However in an interview Goddard admits that it is impossible to verify if the native words were accurately translated. Johnathan Buffalo, historic preservation director of the Meskwaki Nation, also known as the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa, said tribal members in the 1800s used “redskins” as a simple term of identifying themselves — just as they identified others as “whiteskins” or “blackskins” — without any derogatory intent.
One of the many linguistic discrepancies is that initial explorers and later Anglo-Americans termed Native Americans light-skinned, brown, tawny, or russet, according to historian Alden T. Vaughan, “Not until the middle of the eighteenth century did most Anglo-Americans view Indians as significantly different in color from themselves, and not until the nineteenth century did red become the universally accepted color label for American Indians.”
The term appeared in an August 22, 1812, meeting between President James Madison and a delegation of chiefs from western tribes. There, the response of Osage chief “No Ears” (Osage: Tetobasi) to Madison’s speech included the statement “I know the manners of the whites and the red skins,” while the principal chief of the Wahpekute band of Santee Sioux—French Crow—is recorded to have said “I am a red-skin, but what I say is the truth, and notwithstanding I came a long way I am content, but wish to return from here.”
The earliest known appearance of the term in print occurred on October 9, 1813 in an article quoting a letter dated August 27, 1813 from a “gentleman at St. Louis” concerning an expedition being formed and to be led by Gen. Benjamin Howard to “route the savages from the Illinois and Mississippi territories[.]” “The expedition will be 40 days out, and there is no doubt but we shall have to contend with powerful hordes of red skins, as our frontiers have been lined with them last summer, and have had frequent skirmishes with our regulars and rangers.”
However, while these usages may have been earlier, they may not have been disseminated widely. (For instance, while the 1812 meeting with President Madison was contemporaneously recorded, it was not published until 2004. Goddard suggests that a key usage was in a 20 July 1815 speech by Meskwaki chief Black Thunder at the treaty council at Portage des Sioux, in which he is recorded as stating, “My Father—Restrain your feelings, and hear ca[l]mly what I shall say. I shall tell it to you plainly, I shall not speak with fear and trembling. I feel no fear. I have no cause to fear. I have never injured you, and innocence can feel no fear. I turn to all, red skins and white skins, and challenge an accusation against me.” This speech was published widely, and Goddard speculates that it reached James Fenimore Cooper. In Cooper’s novels The Pioneers (published in 1823) and Last of the Mohicans (1826) both Native American and white characters use the term. These novels were widely distributed, and can be credited with bringing the term to “universal notice” and notes that the first time the term appears in Bartlett’s “Dictionary of Americanisms” (in 1858) the illustrative reference is to Last of the Mohicans.
In a lecture on the origins and meaning of “redskin”, Dr. Darren R. Reid of Coventry University presents a number of reasons why he argues the term is racist.
To begin with, it is difficult for historians to document anything with certainty since Native Americans, as a non-literate society, did not produce the written sources upon which historians rely. What is cited as Native American usage was generally attributed to them by European writers.
The division of human beings into different races with essentially different, immutable characteristics was evolving during the period of European colonization; thus there were some that did not think of “Indians” as a race at all, but people who could become members of colonial society though re-education. The marker of racial difference became skin color, but many colonials thought of Indians as essentially the same color as Europeans who became “red” through the use of pigments. The use of “Redskin” rather than “Indian” thus marked the speaker as believing that Native Americans are a different race than Europeans in the same way that African people are “black”.
The use of “red” in its various forms, including redskin, by Native Americans to refer to themselves was not original, but reflected their need to use the language of the times in order to be understood by Europeans.
The team logo works together with the name to reinforce an unrealistic stereotype: “It is not up to non-Indians to define an idealized image of what it is to a Native American.”
The “positive” stereotypes allow fans and supporters to honestly state that they are honoring Native Americans, but this is “…forcing your idea of what it is to honour those people onto them and that, fundamentally, is disrespectful.”
A third controversial etymological claim is that the term emerged from the practice of paying a bounty for Indians, and that “redskin” refers to the bloody, red scalp of a Native American. During the entire history of America until the turn of the twentieth century, Indigenous Americans were hunted, killed, and forcibly removed from their lands by European settlers. This includes the paying of bounties beginning in the colonial period with, for example, a proclamation against the Penobscot Indians in 1755 issued by King George II of Great Britain, known commonly as the Phips Proclamation. The proclamation orders, “His Majesty’s subjects to Embrace all opportunities of pursuing, captivating, killing and Destroying all and every of the aforesaid Indians.” The colonial government paid 50 pounds for scalps of males over 12 years, 25 pounds for scalps of women over 12, and 20 pounds for scalps of boys and girls under 12. Twenty-five British pounds sterling in 1755, worth around $9,000 today —a small fortune in those days when an English teacher earned 60 pounds a year. Though the proclamation itself does not use the word, at least one historical association between the use of “redskin” and the paying of bounties can be made. In 1863, a Winona, MNnewspaper, the Daily Republican, printed an announcement: “The state reward for dead Indians has been increased to $200 for every red-skin sent to Purgatory. This sum is more than the dead bodies of all the Indians east of the Red River are worth.” In An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, ‘redskin’ is said not to refer to scalps, but to the bloody bodies left behind by scalp-hunters. This association can evoke strongly negative sentiments. In a 2014 interview after the Trademark decision, Amanda Blackhorse the lead petitioner expressed her opinion: “The name itself actually dates back [to] the time when the Native American population was being exterminated, and bounty hunters were hired to kill Native American people… So, in order to show that they made their kill, they had to bring back a scalp or their skin
At the end of the day the term Red Skin is offensive and shouldn’t be used! However, Conrad’s Indian Headdress logo doesn’t represent Red Skin! As a life long resident of the Conrad community going back to 1954 I am here to tell NEVER in all these years students of Conrad have revered their mascot and even Red Skin as something honorable. The ignorance of the situation of no knowing the true meaning of Red Skin falls on the adults of yesterday as in school leaders during the adoption of Conrad Red Skins! Call it pure unintended ignorance of students back then. However, they were not malicious! Conrad students and alumni take pride in their logo and mascot. Well that was up until now! The logo as it is should stay as is “or” at best as I suggested to district leaders be add to Conrad’s school crest and make the crest the new logo.
Like many in this community I know the district administration runs agendas behind the school board’s back! The administration has lying down to an art. Example being the board was told DCPA website was up to date, when in FACT is is not! Folks all has been predetermined by the district administration! My call is the board will vote to scrub all signs of the Indian connection to Conrad. But always remember, when you drive and walk throughout what is Red Clay the odds are you’ll be stepping on unknown graves of the rightful owners of this community, American Indians. Kenny, when you pray prior to your Thanksgiving feast just remember, the first Thanksgiving when settlers and native American sat-down and broke-bread. Then go on to think about how the settlers went on to massacring of native Americans, men, women and even children. Perhaps we should scrub the term Thanksgiving of the school calendar and forbid students from posting pictures and displays of the first Thanksgiving. TRUE THANKSGIVING A Day of Mourning: Roy Cook, Editor
To understand an American Indian perspective on Thanksgiving, you need some information and some new viewpoints. Perhaps it might be best to remove all signs of American Natives from Red Clay! Perhaps it will clear Red Clay’s conscious. But the dirty soul will still exist. The history and heritage of Red Clay and the surrounding community is anchored is the past and if Red Clay wants to honor that perhaps we should require a course in local history!