Like many of my fellow West Virginians, I’m a mongrel. Had I been asked by my teachers to do a project on my cultural heritage, as is required in some courses in my school system, I would have had a difficult time producing anything that clearly defined my lineage. Unlike my husband, who knows with certainty that his father was Polish and his mother was Scotch-Irish, I only have vague notions of my parents’ ethnicity.
My dad often said that we had “some Indian blood,” and in the days of my childhood when the cowboys were far more popular on television and in stories, he seemed just as fond of the Indians. He particularly liked the Cherokees, who are native to Southern Appalachia and whose blood flows in many descendants of settlers in the Appalachian and the Great Smoky Mountains. In the few trips Dad took out of West Virginia before he followed my siblings to Richmond, he visited Cherokee, North Carolina to play in high stakes Bingo games and won $20,000 the last time he played. But he was almost as proud of the picture he had taken with an Indian in full headdress as he was of the money he had won there.
I’ve always felt conflicted, then, when the subject of the name of Washington’s football team resurfaces, as it does each year. This week, the mayor of Washington expressed a wish to see the team move back to the city and change its name because the mascot has become a lightning rod as the worst of the offensive team names. Subsequently, Washington Postcolumnist Mike Wise suggested that if quarterback RGIII had more character, he’d take up the cause of getting the team to change its name. I commented on the article, thinking about what I was like as a 22-year-old and wondering if Wise had thought about himself as a 22-year-old when he wrote the article. That’s a pretty heavy burden to place on someone so young.
At the same time, I’d just finished reading Sherman Alexie’s award winning novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, largely autobiographical, in which he talks about leaving a reservation in Washington state to attend a school that would more likely pave the way for him to go to college. In numerous interviews, Alexie talks about the lack of education and the epidemic alcoholism among Native Americans on reservations and speaks proudly of the fact that his children have never seen an Indian consume alcohol. I admire Alexie tremendously, and while his life is very different from my own, like me, he worked very hard to have a better life than his parents had.
This week, before the mayor’s comments and the Post column, I read a comment from Alexie in an interview on the subject of mascot names. He pointed out that full Indian headdress was part of Native American religious rituals and wondered whether we would tolerate having a priest mascot who ran around the court or the football field in full ceremonial robes. That may be the best argument I’ve heard yet for changing team names.
I love Washington football. But as a teacher of language, I’m always bothered when language offends. So I looked up the derivation of the word “redskin” on Dictionary.com and discovered that, while the first definition lists it as slang that is often offensive, one of the definitions calls it an old-fashioned term that derived from a tribe of Indians that painted their faces with red ochre—not because of the color of their skin.
And since I usually try to bring my blog posts back to where I began, I decided to check the derivation of the word “mongrel.” Imagine my surprise when I discovered that one of the definitions, though not the first, listed it as a taboo term for a person of mixed race.
Isn’t that interesting?
So I’ll continue to cheer on the team I love. But it will always bother me that someone is offended by the mascot of what I consider to be the real America’s Team—not that other one that we defeated handily in the last regular season game—the one that so proudly calls itself by the name of the white people in hats and chaps and spurs who played a part in nearly making Native Americans extinct.
So, as usual, this issue is more complex than the two opposite sides. I wonder what my dad would have thought?