As words go, it’s long past time to retire the slur “Redskins.” Often touted as a source of pride for sports teams – usually by fans who show it with silly “spirit dances” and tomahawk “chops” while wearing fake feather headdresses and sloppy face paint – it’s an insult to American Indians.
We know it. Hundreds of high schools and universities know it. The NFL, with its ongoing legal fight over the Washington Redskins, doesn’t want to hear it. A federal judge has hinted at it. But it took Gov. Jerry Brown to finally do something about it.
On Sunday, the governor signed Assembly Bill 30 by Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, banning all public schools from using the word as a name for a sports team or a mascot. The law affects four high schools in Calaveras, Merced and Madera counties. And as long as the schools pick a new name, they’ll be able to keep any team uniforms bought before 2017.
But still, it’s a bold step given that California is the first state in the nation to make such a statement. It’s an acknowledgment of the pain and anguish that many American Indians feel over past atrocities and persistent stereotypes and discrimination, as powerfully illustrated when the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation of Yolo County helped fund the Change the Mascot campaign aimed at the NFL and its franchise in Washington, D.C.
Not everyone gets that, of course.
Mayor Dennis Brazil of Gustine, home of the Gustine High School Redskins, vowed on Facebook to keep fighting the law all the way to the Supreme Court. And Ronald Seals, superintendent of the Chowchilla Union High School District, told the Los Angeles Times that lawmakers “are taking away something loved and respected in this community.”
All four schools became “Redskins” in the 1920s and 1930s, years before American Indians gained full voting rights in all states in 1957. The name, the schools say, is merely tradition. But tradition doesn’t justify mocking and carelessly adopting parts of another culture, even if the intention isn’t to offend.
The fact that people have a hard time understanding that is proof that as a state – and, hopefully, as a country – we must do more than ban the use of words that insult American Indians. We must teach students a more complete and culturally sensitive view of history.
We applaud Sacramento State for doing just that.
In response to a confrontation between a student and a history professor over whether what happened to American Indians was “genocide,” the university has decided to hire an assistant professor of Native American history and add a minor in genocide and Holocaust studies to its Ethnic Studies Department.
These are the kinds of lasting, real-world measures that expose words like “Redskins” for what they really are: not a source of team pride, but hate.