Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins claims that the outrage over his team’s name is distracting people from the deeper issues facing Native Americans. He says, “It’s sort of fun to talk about the name of our football team because it gets some attention for some of the people who write about it who need [internet] clicks . . . . But the reality is no one ever talks about what goes on, on reservations.” Snyder claims that his recent trip to a reservation moved him to create the Original Americans Foundation which exists “to work as partners to tackle the troubling realities facing so many Tribes across our country.” The goal of the Christian’s communication is not to avoid offense but to actively impart grace. Speaking in this way requires that we consider the story our words tell.
Snyder claims that the Native Americans he has talked to on reservations are not offended by the term and are big fans of his and other teams with Native American imagery. I have seen a similar perspective promoted by a number of football fans on Facebook and Twitter who claim that 90% of Native Americans are not offended by the name of Washington D.C.’s NFL team. Some Native Americans like Eunice Davidson, a Souix woman living on a reservation in North Dakota, claim that most Native Americans “stand with [Snyder]. We don’t want our history forgotten.”
Jim Enote, the director of A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center, recently responded to such claims:
Some of our own people are unconcerned about the issue of mascots. . . . If you consider yourself traditionally well adjusted then good for you. However, not everyone is so fortunate. Through the ubiquitous power of modern media many Native children are already associating with images that have little to do with their true tribal identity and I believe we should be concerned about that.
What about Native folks that are proud of the Redskins mascot? I still wonder why they could feel empowered by or proud of an image that denigrates Native peoples? Does association with a mascot image that suggests toughness or dominance make them feel better about themselves? Why not be proud of our Native educators, school principals, lawyers, doctors, military personnel, and engineers to name a few. This is 2014; we are not war whooping savages.
While I agree that more Americans need to be aware of the state of our nation’s reservations, I find Snyder’s attempt to shame those calling for name change deplorable and the idea of preserving Native American history through an NFL team tragic. To assert that the name is acceptable because of its lack of offense neglects the power of words and the power of stories. This claim silences the one story that really matters in this controversy–the systematic abuse, silencing, and mistreatment of Native Americans that persists to this day.
Terms like “Redskin” and even “Indian” are misnomers because they misrepresent those they are intended to describe. What makes the term “redskin” offensive is the simple fact that it is a racial slur with a documented history of abuse. The story the term represents is what makes its acceptance tragic, a story of the powerful abusing the disenfranchised. Native American activist Suzan Shown Harjo says Native Americans like Davidson who are supportive of the name, “is really a classic case of internalized oppression. People taking on what has been said about them, how they have been described, to such an extent that they don’t even notice.” I do not think that those in favor of Snyder and his team keeping their name are intentionally approving the historical oppression of Native Americans. However, the fact that those to whom we speak are not offended by our words does not mean they are not damaging. In fact, James argued that what makes our words so deadly is the fact that we have convinced ourselves that they are small and insignificant when the opposite is actually the case (James 3:3-10). Words not only carry cultural meaning, but history and power. They have the power to both to break and reinforce social structures.
Those, like Synder, who claim that the term in question is acceptable because of its lack of offense are making an argument from position of privilege. That is not to say that those who are defending the mascot are being intentionally racist, but rather to point out that they’ve likely never experienced what it’s like to live with very little cultural power. For instance, the thought of a professional sports team adopting the team name “Crackers” or “White Trash” is laughable. It’s just not something we can fathom, and it illustrates a disparity that gospel loving people should readily acknowledge. In a recent interview with Bill Moyers, Native American novelist and poet, Sherman Alexie said, “at least half the country thinks the mascot issue is insignificant. But I think it’s indicative of the ways in which Indians have no cultural power. We’re still placed in the past.” Calling for terms like “redskin” to fall from modern parlance and advocating for Native Americans are not two separate endeavors, in fact the former is critical to the latter. As long as we refuse to recognize how our words have served to silence the stories of the marginalized, we will continue to abuse them.
A gospel-centered perspective on words calls us to speak in such a way that prioritizes the impact of our words on our neighbors over our personal perception of them. Perhaps the greatest lie we have convinced ourselves of concerning our words is that they are not very powerful. James, however said that the tongue is like the rudder of a massive ship; we don’t think about it all that much but it is an incredibly powerful tool (James 3:4). We must recognize that our words are far more powerful than we think, failing to do so means continuing to hurt women and men made in God’s image. For instance, Paul commanded the church at Ephesus to “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).
The goal of the Christian’s communication is not to avoid offense but to actively impart grace. Speaking in this way requires that we consider the story our words tell. Imparting grace means considering whether our descriptions of our neighbors are damaging even if that harm is something they themselves do not perceive. That is not to say we know better than our neighbors what is good for them, but rather to recognize how deeply powerful our words are and that there are far more important questions to consider than perceived offense. When people like Enote, Harjo, and Alexi recognize offense, our response should be to listen rather than to side with the 90% of Native Americans who supposedly take no offense. Gospel-centered speech requires not only acknowledging the position of privilege from which we often speak, but sacrificing that very privilege out of love for our neighbors.