After Hurricane High School won the state baseball championship last week, the front page of the next day’s Gazette-Mail featured a picture of their smiling fans, holding a sign that said, “Let’s go Hurricane Redskins.”
Were the fans — and is the local high school — touting a racial slur?
Depends on who you ask.
Three days after Hurricane’s baseball title, a group called Change the Mascot aired a one-minute long commercial during halftime of the NBA finals.
“Mother, father, son, daughter, chief. Apache, Pueblo, Choctaw, Chippewa and Crow. Underserved, struggling, resilient. Squanto, Red Cloud, Tecumseh and Crazy Horse. Rancher, teacher, doctor, soldier. Seminole, Seneca, Mohawk and Creek,” the ad’s narrator says, over images of American Indians. “Native Americans call themselves many things, the one thing they don’t...” The narrator and montage then cut off and the screen cuts to an image of a Washington Redskins football helmet.
“This wouldn’t be acceptable to any other ethnic group, so why should it be acceptable to Native Americans?” said Joel Barkin, spokesman for the Oneida Indian Nation, a tribe based in upstate New York that organizes the Change the Mascot campaign. “It is a slur. This is a term that was used historically to denigrate and put down Native Americans.
“Think about the word. You’re referring to the person’s color of skin and then using that as a mascot.”
The debate over the Washington football team’s mascot goes back decades and has only increased in recent years. There were national protests in 1988, after the team won the Super Bowl, and again in 1992, after another Super Bowl victory. At least 12 media organizations have policies against using the word, according to a Pew Research study. Bill Simmons and Peter King, arguably the country’s two best known sports writers, have both stopped using the word.
But locally, where American Indians constitute just 0.2 percent of Putnam County’s population according to the most recent Census, there has never been much fuss directed at the Hurricane High School Redskins.
“It’s never been mentioned, as far as I know there’s never been an issue,” said Putnam County superintendent Chuck Hatfield. “And I’ve been here for 41 years.”
At Parkersburg High School (nickname: Big Reds, mascot: Big Red Indian, county American Indian population: 0.2 percent) it was an issue discussed at several school board meetings about 12 years ago, Principal Pamela Goots said.
“There were probably more people of Native American heritage that came out to support the Parkersburg High School mascot than were against,” Goots said. “We don’t portray the Indians in a caricature type of thing, like the Cleveland Indians, they felt that we did it very respectfully.”
Dictionaries are unanimous in deeming “redskin” offensive.
“American Indian; usually offensive,” is Merriam-Webster’s definition.
“A North American Indian; slang: often disparaging and offensive,” writes dictionary.com.
“Old fashioned for a native American; offensive,” says the Cambridge Free English Dictionary.
“An American Indian; dated or offensive,” says Oxford Dictionaries.
“An old-fashioned informal name, now considered taboo, for a Native American,” says Collins English Dictionary.
A group of 49 U.S. senators (47 Democrats, two independents) recently wrote to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, asking him to urge Washington to change its name.
“Tribes have worked for generations to have the right to speak their languages and perform their sacred ceremonies,” the senators, including Sen. Jay Rockefeller, wrote. “Yet every Sunday during football season, the Washington, D.C., football team mocks their culture.”
Sen. Joe Manchin was one of only four Democratic senators who did not sign the letter.
“The senator feels, on the Redskins front, that is an issue between the fans, the ticket holders and the owner,” said Manchin spokesman Jonathan Kott. “This is just not an issue the Senate should deal with.”
Kott said that Manchin felt the same way about Hurricane High School’s mascot, calling it an issue for parents, kids and teachers, and not something he should weigh in on.
Nationally, there are dozens of tribes and American Indian organizations who are vocal in condemning the Washington football team’s name.
“We are so many things, but we are not your mascot,” reads the home page of the National American Indian Congress, the country’s oldest and largest American Indian organization.
But locally, the state’s two major tribal groups are more hesitant.
“I don’t believe anything is done deliberately to try to be offensive about it, it’s more of a lack of knowledge about what’s offensive to Indians,” said David Cremeans, the president and principal chief of the Native American Indian Federation, an inter-tribal group with about 4,500 members in West Virginia. “I use it as a tool to educate people that sometimes you don’t even realize what you’re saying.”
Wayne Gray Owl Appleton is the principal chief of the Appalachian American Indians of West Virginia, which, with more than 5,000 members, is the largest Native American group in the state.
Appleton said he didn’t mind Hurricane High School’s mascot and was even planning on writing a letter to the high school to congratulate them on their baseball championship. He pointed to high autism rates, low graduation rates, diabetes, alcoholism and drug addiction as the serious problems facing American Indians.
“These are big issues, and, in terms of arguing about the name Redskins, that’s a 50-cent issue,” Appleton said. “In our council, it’s like hey, let’s deal with child abuse, let’s deal with poverty, let’s deal with a lot of other things. Even if this was much more egregious, it ain’t worth the effort.”
Reach David Gutman at email@example.com or 304-348-5119.