C. Richard King, Redskins: Insult and Brand. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016. Pp. 256. 12 Illustrations, notes and index. $24.95 Hardcover.
By Andrew McGregor
In October 2014 I had lunch with Billy Mills. Though we keep in touch, I hadn’t seen him since 2011. He was on campus giving a talk — one similar to the nearly 300 he gives per year — and hanging out with Native American students. Mills is widely known within the Native American community as an inspirational Olympic hero, activist, and advocate for Indian Youth. He was happy to see me because our reunion gave him the chance to ask me a question he’d be thinking about. He wanted to know what I thought about the Native American mascot issues, and particularly the increased pressure on Washington and the NFL. I’d studied Jim Thorpe and him in my master’s thesis, exploring issues of Indianness, policy, and representation. He wondered where I stood the mascot issue and how I relate it to that history.
His question was ill-timed. I’d just taken a big bite of my salad, and was unable to immediately answer. As I chewed, his wife, Pat, cautioned that the issue gets him worked up. Unlike most of his other activism, Mills’ position on Native American mascots has forced him to come face to face with racism. Indeed, a year prior he joined a group to protest Daniel Snyder and the Redskin name before a Minnesota Vikings game. At the demonstration, and others he’s been a part of, Mills recalled being cursed, spit on, and called epithets such as “prairie n*ger.”
Pat was right, Billy does get visibly agitated when discussing the team name. The name serves as a constant reminder of a brutal period in American history. As Mills explains, the name symbolizes a Native Americans holocaust where 12 to 23 million Indians died, many violently. The impact of this representation as well as the actions of those continuing to embrace and defend the team name, troubles Mills. In an age of political correctness and trigger warnings, the team name stands in firm opposition, allowing racism to live and breathe. Native American youth — the focus of his life’s work — are susceptible to this impact as they struggle with self-esteem in a world that tells them they are unwanted.
I was never able to give Mills my full answer. Native American mascots are a difficult issue to discuss because of their contentiousness. If I were to have that same discussion with Mills today, I’d simply tell him to read C. Richard King’s new book, Redskins: Insult and Brand. It explores the contentiousness of the fight to change the team’s name. Much of the book is guided by a desire to expose the anti-Indian racism in America that Mills (and others) has tied to the team. As a veteran scholars of the mascot issue and Native American participation in sport, King is able to parse the rhetoric, deconstruct the myths, and add both context and nuance to long-held ideas.
The book often feels like a point-counterpoint outline of all of the different stories, arguments, opinions, and rationales offered to keep the name. This is an effective strategy for students and general readers wishing to dig deeper into the issue or who have heard bits and pieces of the debate, but are unsure what to believe. Readers will be familiar with many of the stories they find in the book, but also shocked or surprised as the discover a fuller picture. King carefully considers both sides of the issue and how each has shaped debates of the team, logo, and fan culture. Where possible he offers the real facts and truths, decoding the conflicting histories that have been deployed by those on both sides of the fight. In short, King’s book offers the most comprehensive discussion of the activism, history, and use of the word Redskin by Washington D.C.’s professional football team.
While the book has a contemporary feel given its connections to current debates over the Washington team name, it also address change over time. King goes to great lengths to tell the “origins” and histories of both the debate over the team name, and the team name and logo. He adds context while debunking many of the (mis)uses of history. This takes places in the first three chapters of the text, two of which are aptly named “Origins” and “Uses.”
From there, the book turns to other impacts of this history and its retelling by fans and the team. Chapter 4, “Erasure” hones on the dehumanizing affects of the racial slur on indigenous communities. The fifth chapter, conversely, looks at how the name has created a specific “Sentiment” among Washington fans, which often relies on nostalgia, emotionally tying them to the team and the attending rituals of the NFL experiences. King notes, however, that this nostalgia works in the opposite direction too. Indeed, psychology has increasingly pointed to the real dangers and impacts of racial slurs and mascots on Indian people, making attending a game a traumatic experience.
This trauma is often overlooked because most Americans view racism in a black/white binary. Racial issues beyond this binary are often framed in different terms and connected to other “problems” in the United States. This allows American to continue to be emphatically racist without the guilt or the shame of being called racist. King labels these attitudes “new racism,” which encompasses colorblind ideas and the belief that racism is over. Under this framework, questions of identity and culture replace biology and race to employ the same discriminatory practices. Yet, King suggests that in many ways this new racism is not new because it has long been used in anti-Indian rhetoric. Only now, however, has anti-Indian racism become more apparent because of these new similarities.
This framework is helpful for understanding more recent problems with the team name. Chapter 7, “Ownership,” explores the idea of who owns a culture and identity. The question of who owns Indianness needs to be considered. Pointing to the recent voiding of Washington’s trademarks, King suggests that this is an important victory. It exposes systemic white privilege and entitlement that continue to reify aspects of colonialism. As King eloquently writes, “racism and entitlement: the capacity to take and remake, the prerogative to brand and bully, the privilege to own and erase” are legacies of colonial power that continue to live on today.
Chapter 8 explores questions of authenticity and appropriation, particularly in respect to dishonestly assuming and performing identities. Chapter 9, “Opinions” builds off of these questions, specifically in terms of trying to understand the often conflicting opinions and attitudes of Native Americans. While some are certainly “fake” or “bought” there remains disagreement among Indian people. King wades carefully into the debate discussing the problematic nature of polling, the impossibility of absolutes, and misuse of opinion.
The remaining two chapters “Change” and “Ends” explore the goals and efforts to address anti-Indian racism in regards to Redskin name. Taking an optimistic tone, King explains that change offers opportunity. Fans and Indians alike can harness the debate to “rethink, rename, replace” the name. This sometimes involves taking ownership by refashioning existing logos and merchandise. In other cases, communities of fan comes together with Indian leaders to imagine a possible future, creatively envisioning new names, logos, and revenues.
The final chapter, begins with Billy Mills and his trip to Minneapolis to join the National Congress of American Indians protest. King points to this event, along with a Super Bowl XLVIII commercial, as “two of the emergent ways American Indians and their allies have devised to raise consciousness, shift the debate, and ultimately force the Washington professional football franchise to change its names, logo, and brand” (165). The end, of course, is not yet in sight. But these event, along with King’s new book, go a long way in continuing the fight for honor Native Americans and come to terms with our racist past and work to eliminate our racist present.
Redskins: Insult and Brand is more than a polemic against the Washington Redskins. It is a history of language and activism, a cautionary tale of the (mis)uses and (mis)interpretations of history, a careful consideration of the complexities and nuances of racism in America. King offers an authoritative and comprehensive examination of the term Redskin from all angles. While the text endeavors to, and successfully does, set the record straight, the book is likely to be summarily dismissed by opponents because King does not shy away from expressing his personal beliefs. Instead, he seems to hope that his book will convince doubters and opponents to change their minds. This is a noble goal, and one I personally hope he achieves, but it blurs the line between activism and scholarship, which may make some readers/scholars uncomfortable. Regardless, it is an important and must-read book for understanding the Redskins controversy.
Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Purdue University and the founder of this blog. His master’s thesis explored the lives and representations of iconic Native American athletes, Billy Mills and Jim Thorpe. You can reach him via email firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @admcgregor85.