The same day that Hillary Clinton became the latest prominent politician to call for a change to the name of Washington’s professional football team, news broke of a new web site that seeks to make the case for keeping it. RedskinsFacts.com presents itself as a grassroots effort from “Redskins Alumni” to defend the name from critics by presenting facts that support the case the team has made for maintaining the name the franchise has used since 1933.
Slate was quick to note that the web site appears not to be an organic, grassroots project but an astroturfed public relations campaign backed by D.C. crisis communications firm Burson-Marsteller. Any preliminary idea that the franchise isn’t playing a role in the site seemed quickly dispelled Wednesday when the RedskinsFacts.com logo popped up on backdrops during interviews with coaches and players at the team’s training camp.
Regardless of who is behind it, the site attempts to portray facts of the debate over its name. It features historical references for both the name and iconic logo, videos of support from Native Americans, and news clippings that fight back against the significance of a recent U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ruling that the name is “derogatory” and show even more support for it among former players and coaches.
On its “About Us” page, the web site lays out its purpose: “We know the debate over the name ‘Redskins’ has been contentious for years, and we don’t seek to inflame or antagonize anyone. We’re simply interested in presenting historical evidence to fair-minded opinion leaders on both sides of the issue so ongoing discussions can be constructive.”
And it certainly features some facts about the name and its history. Still, it manages to repeat many of the lines the Native American activists who have targeted the name for decades often challenge, and, as any public relations effort will do, leaves out many other facts that run counter to its own message. Here are six instances in which the new web site presents “facts” without telling the full story:
1. The origin of the word “Redskin.”
What RedskinsFacts.com says: “More than a decade ago, in the authoritative linguistic survey ‘I Am A Red-Skin: The Adoption of a Native American Expression (1769–1826),’ Ives Goddard — the senior linguist and curator at the Smithsonian Institution — concluded that the word ‘redskins’ was created by Native Americans, and that it was first used as an inclusive expression of solidarity by multi-tribal delegations who traveled to Washington, D.C. to negotiate national policy towards Native Americans. ‘The actual origin of the word (redskin) is entirely benign,’ Goddard is quoted as saying.”
What it doesn’t say: It is true, as Slate pointed out last year, that according to Goddard’s research the word originated with and was used by Native Americans to differentiate themselves from whites. But historical documents have shown that by the second half of the 19th century, whites had co-opted the term and began using it in a
derogatory manner, including in bounty notices calling for the killing of Native Americans. One such notice appeared in the September 24, 1863 edition of the Winona (MN) Daily Republican. It read:
THE State reward for dead Indians has been increased to $200 for every red-skin sent to Purgatory. This sum is more than the dead bodies of all the Indians east of the Red River are worth.
When it comes to its current usage, dictionary definitions are virtually unanimous that it is no longer and “entirely benign” term. Over time, the Oxford American dictionary says, “redskin lost its neutral, accurate descriptive sense and became a term of disparagement.” It now calls it “dated” and “offensive.” Merriam Webster identified the term as “often contemptuous” as early as its 1898 Collegiate version. Today, it says the word is “usually offensive.”
2. The identity of William “Lone Star” Dietz.
What RedskinsFacts.com says: “On the inaugural Redskins team in 1933, four players and then-head coach William Henry ‘Lone Star’ Dietz identified themselves as Native Americans.”
What it doesn’t say: Dietz was the second coach in franchise history and indeed identified himself as a Native American, as the web site states. Historical accounts, however, show that Dietz almost certainly was not Native American. Dietz, according to historian Linda M. Waggoner’s biographical account published in 2013, was born to German parents. Waggoner also found that Dietz was charged by the FBI in 1919 with attempting to dodge the World War I draft by falsely registering as an Indian; he later served 30 days in jail related to the charges. Dietz claimed to be Native American particularly after attending the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, but Waggoner’s account paints him as a man who created an “astoundingly anachronistic” — and fake — Native American identity.
The team and its defenders have in the past cited Dietz’s heritage as the reason founder George Preston Marshall chose the name. The site does manage to avoid repeating those claims, which were debunked by a 1933 Associated Press article unearthed in May that featured Marshall explicitly rejecting the idea that Dietz inspired the name.
3. Polling on the issue.
What RedskinsFacts.com says: “The Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania surveyed Native Americans nationally and found 90% of respondents said the name was not offensive.”
What it doesn’t say: The Annenberg Policy Poll, which the team and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell routinely cite, is 10 years old. It also relied on self-identified Native Americans rather than those registered with tribes, which could have created big problems: the U.S. Census Bureau in 1990 reported that “almost 40% of the people who self-identified were not members of any tribe,” according to American University’s Washington College of Law. American’s examination of the poll found other potential problems, including its small sample size, and others have highlighted problems with it too. A 2014 survey of Native Americans, in which Cal State-San Bernardino professor James Fenelon conducted personal interviews in order to verify Native American identity, found that nearly two-thirds found it offensive (that poll too has a relatively small sample size, pointing to the difficulty of polling the issue).
4. Other uses of “Redskins” in the sports world.
What RedskinsFacts.com says: “A Washington state high school votes to keep their Redskins mascot despite the USPTO ruling since the name is a source of pride for the members of the Wellpinit community. School board member, James Williams, said, ‘We decided last night that we weren’t going to change it. Talking to a lot of community members, the majority of the community don’t want it changed.’”
What it doesn’t say: Many teams, including some on reservations, do still use names like “Redskins” or other varieties of Native American mascots and imagery. But over the last 40 years, many of those names have also faded away. States like Minnesota and Oregon, among others, have conducted full reviews of teams with Native American mascots and have changed many of them, and the NCAA passed its own policy against such names in 2005. The exact number that used to exist, as well as the number that still do, is hard to pin down, but activists say that there are now fewer than 1,000 uses of Native American names, images, and mascots at all levels of sports, down from more than 3,000 in the early 1970s. So while it’s easy to find schools like Wellpinit that want to keep the name, it’s just as easy to find those like New York’s Cooperstown Central High School, which voted in 2013 to quit using it.
5. The history of the controversy.
What RedskinsFacts.com says: “Former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs led his team to three Super Bowl titles and is now joining the fight to keep his team’s name. In an interview with USA Today, Gibbs said, ‘Never once did I hear anybody ever say anything negative about the name Redskins,’ Gibbs said about his time with the team. ‘It was always prideful, it was courage involved. We have a song, ‘Hail to the Redskins,” and so everything, everything, about that name has been positive for me and my past.’”
What it doesn’t say: A common line from people defending the name is that the current fight over it is a new one that only arose in recent years, and intentionally or not Gibbs’ sentiment echoes that line of thinking. It may be true that Gibbs never heard a negative word about the name while he was coaching the team from 1981 to 1992, then again from 2004 to 2007. But that doesn’t mean negative words weren’t spoken. By the time he took the job, the National Congress of American Indians had formally opposed the name for more than a decade. In 1992, Native Americans in Minneapolis staged a protest against the name before Super Bowl XXVI, which Gibbs’ team won. Later that year, Native Americans led by activist Suzan Shown Harjo filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office against the name. The appeals process in that suit was still going on when Gibbs joined the team for a second stint as coach, and another trademark lawsuit was filed in 2006. Washington Post sports columnists called for a name change at various times throughout Gibbs’ tenure with the organization, as did other columnists across the country.
6. The significance of the name.
What RedskinsFacts.com says: “We believe the Redskins name deserves to stay. It epitomizes all the noble qualities we admire about Native Americans — the same intangibles we expect from Washington’s gridiron heroes on game day. Honor. Loyalty. Unity. Respect. Courage. And more. On this page, you can read more about the storied history of the Redskins identity.”
What it doesn’t say: While the team might believe the name “epitomizes all the noble qualities we admire about Native Americans,” empirical research suggests that uses of names like this one (and other forms of Native American stereotypes in sports and culture) have negative psychological and sociological effects on Native Americans. A study from Dr. Stephanie Fryberg, a psychologist, found that such stereotypes, including the “Redskins” name, have harmful effects on the self-esteem and self-identities of Native American youths. Dr. Mike Friedman, in a 2013 report commissioned by the Oneida Indian Nation (which is running a campaign against the name), also documented psychological problems caused by such stereotypes. The American Psychological Association passed a resolution calling for the “immediate retirement” of Native American names and mascots in 2005. The American Sociological Association followed in 2007, saying that “social science scholarship has demonstrated that the continued use of Native American nicknames, logos and mascots in sport harm Native American people in psychological, educational, and social ways.”