The United States Patent Office recently denied the NFL’s Washington Redskins the trademark for the team’s name because the moniker is considered offensive. For the record, I am the biggest Washington Redskins fan on the planet but yet the name even causes me to wince.
However, I’m quite certain that when the executives of the football club sat down to discuss the team’s name in 1933 they did not purposely set out to offend Native Americans. As a matter of fact, the team was called The Boston Braves before moving from Fenway Park in Massachusetts to Maryland.
It seems to me just about anything can be considered offensive. People have a knack for `cherry picking’ what insults them and give credence to selective hypocrisy but they do not dig beneath the veneer.
It was Leif Erikson who founded North America in what is now Newfoundland five hundred years before Columbus. Erikson encountered the Beothuk Indians and remarked they had red skin. I believe the Icelander was making an observation not a deliberate slight. Of course, back then native North Americans had not been subjected to the European punitive measures still to come.
Both professional and amateur sports teams choose and chose tribal names to honour the courage, heritage and pride of said tribes. That is so obvious but yet in light of the maltreatment of Native North Americans by governments, these team names have come under greater scrutiny while more serious, longstanding issues remain unaddressed.
It could be argued that if the Washington Redskins are forced to change their title then it is a direct slap in the face to Native North Americans. One of many reasons can be found in the State of Oklahoma. `Okla humma’ is Choctaw meaning land of the red people. Surely that is offensive, is it not? Still, keep in mind that in 1866 Choctaw Chief Allan Wright suggested the name to the United States Federal Government. The last time I checked the State of Oklahoma is still referred to as Oklahoma. Further, twenty-six of the fifty American states are named for Native Americans. Is this not incredibly offensive or incredibly honourable? In the past it was honourable but in the present it is a disservice.
What this debate boils down to is individual perception and epochs. Personally, I find the word `coloured’, when referring to African Americans, to be offensive. Yet, the NAACP is an acronym for the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. Therefore, is the word coloured innocuous when used as part of a name? How can the Washington Redskins nom de guerre be offensive yet the NAACP isn’t?
How far does political correctness go? Eventually, perhaps the CFL will have to change the Edmonton Eskimos name to the Edmonton Indigenous Persons of the Northern Circumpolar Region. Will there be a time when we will have to change the name of our nation’s capital? Ottawa comes from the Algonquin word `Odawa’ meaning traders.
If governments and citizens want to begin the process of reparations then maybe they should start by giving back all the land that was stolen from Native North Americans instead of purely concentrating upon trivia like the names of sports teams, states and cities.
It is difficult to know exactly when words become offensive to the masses. What might not have offended years ago may do so today. Time changes the sensibilities of the human race yet one hopes common sense prevails. Ergo, there is an unwritten rule in stand-up comedy and that is you can make fun of your own heritage but not another.
What about Canada’s glorious game of hockey? The sport was invented by the Mohawks. Is it not offensive that our national pastime is a direct result of First Nations? Did we pay the Mohawks for the rights to the game? Did we ask their permission? What about television rights owing to the Mohawks worldwide for hockey?
I’m being facetious of course but the point is do we not have bigger problems with Native North Americans than names? It is easy to show solidarity with indigenous people over the Washington football name controversy; it is tougher to tackle the string of broken treaties and deplorable living conditions that many still endure.
Written by: Ben Guyatt
Ben Guyatt is a stand-up comedian and a published author. Visit his website at www.benguyatt.com and follow him on Facebook. He also hosts The Ben Guyatt Show every Sunday at 9 pm on AM 900 CHML.