It’s an awkward fact of life in Washington, DC, that we are home to both the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Washington Redskins. One attempts to preserve the Native American cultures that weren’t eradicated by conquest; the other is both a symbol and result of the same eradication. These two worlds collided this past week when the museum hosted a day-long symposium about Native American sports nicknames. In a packed auditorium, panelists and audience members took the local team to task, calling their name “ugly,” “offensive” and “a racist slur.” Former Colorado Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the only Native American senator in US history, said from the stage, ”If you want [your mascot] to be a savage—use your own picture.” Not one person either in the audience or the crowd defended the use of "Redskin,” because, as one fan of the team said to me, “it really is defending the indefensible.”
Despite repeated requests from the museum, the Redskins refused to send anyone to make the case publicly that the name is anything other than a self-evident slur. Like their owner, the ham-fisted, rabbit-eared Dan Snyder, they celebrate the moniker only when no one is present to challenge them. Since purchasing the franchise in 1999, Snyder has maintained that the name "Redskins” was a “tribute,” as former team Vice President Karl Swanson said, “derived from the Native American tradition for warriors to daub their bodies with red clay before battle.” This is not an argument they felt confident making at the Smithsonian because the laughter would have cracked the Capitol dome. The team name was the brainchild not of an anthropologist who advised on the fierce honor of the “red-clay warriors” but of team founder, segregationist and Dixiecrat George Preston Marshall.
Senator Campbell said that he asks people, “How would you feel if the team was called the Washington Darkies?” George Preston Marshall would have felt euphoric because he adored minstrel shows and fetishized the confederacy. As Thomas G. Smith wrote in his book Showdown: JFK and the Integration of the Washington Redskins, when Marshall proposed marriage to his future wife Corrine, he did so “amidst fragrant honeysuckle while a group of African American performers [dressed like house-slave extras from Gone with the Wind] sang ‘Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,’” a song that speaks lovingly of how slaves love to see affection between their “Massa and Missus.” The Redskins were named for the minstrelsy Marshall adored and, as the southernmost team in the league at the time, to appeal to Dixie. They were also, surprise, the last team in the NFL to integrate.