Would you call your school team the Whiteskins or the Blackskins or the Yellowskins? Of course not. Perish the thought. So why is Redskins OK? The answer is, it’s not OK.
In Sanford, the school board will likely decide in May whether its team will continue to be called Redskins, or be changed to a nonracist name. Tradition might be one argument for keeping the name Redskins. But some traditions should be relegated to the trash heap of history.
Until the later 20th century, Maine Indians did not have full voting rights, even though they could — and did — die in service to their country. In the early 1900s, you could find signs that said “Indians need not apply.” Who among us did not hear phrases such as “the only good Indian is a dead Indian?”
A sports team adopting the image of a fierce Indian warrior is not as benign as it might seem. Using a fighting Indian as a mascot is stereotyping people that were more about peace and sustainable living than conflict. Maine tribes maintained a reverence for the land that we invaders seem reluctant to embrace.
Let’s be honest: We didn’t just “settle” Maine as so many town signs proclaim, proudly displaying a date. We pushed the native people off the land because we wanted it for ourselves.
French missionaries converted Maine Indians to Catholicism; English aristocrats claimed tribal lands in the name of their king.
As one tribal member put it to me, only half in jest, “The French stole our souls, the English stole our land.”
For many years, Wiscasset High School and its sports boosters stubbornly clung to the racially insensitive team name of Redskins. Finally, last year, the school relented and the name will be dropped. Hooray. A public school is no place for condoning prejudice.
We know where it came from. Years ago, it conjured up, for white folks, the stereotype of a fierce Indian warrior — someone who could beat the other team into submission. Or scalp you. Indians were not like us, so it was OK to caricature them. They were fair game in a culture that failed
to acknowledge we nearly exterminated Native peoples so we could take their land for our own. Even in Old Town, which includes the Penobscot Indian reservation, the high school waited until 2006 to change its name from “Indians,” with an Indian mascot.
When Caitlin Walsh was a student at Wiscasset High School in 2003, she wrote: “I was asked to be on a committee that was tasked to investigate the name Redskins and come up with options about what to do with our name. I firmly believe that the name is derogatory and outdated, and
that it needs to be changed.”
Here in Maine, thanks to a Passamaquoddy tribal representative to the Legislature, public places can no longer use the name Squaw. If squaw is offensive, and we know that it is, we shouldn’t use it. It’s not such a hardship to change a name. It’s understandable that people are sentimental about old names and old teams, but that is no reason to be stuck in the prejudices of the past.
Some critics gripe about “political correctness.” This isn’t political. This is about respect and equality. This is about values that we claim are the birthright of all Americans.
We have a lot to learn about Native people, and getting rid of stereotypes is a good start. I have a copy of a poster printed by a colonial governor and it offers rewards for the scalps of Penobscot Indians in Maine. Who was scalping whom?
We need to recognize Indians as our brothers and sisters, and to do that we must reject stereotypes and caricatures. As one Indian woman said to me a long time ago, “I am a human being first, an Indian second.”
After Sanford, maybe the national football team, the Washington Redskins, will wake up and follow Maine’s lead.
Steve Cartwright of Waldoboro spent more than five years working with Native American tribes in Maine, writing and editing a newspaper called Wabanaki Alliance. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.