Roots of “Redskins”: Savages, Saints, Saviors in the American Psyche

The root of “Redskins” is the ideological stereotype of the initial savage of Hispaniola, the fearsome enemy icon of the colonial conquests, the Hostile other of the Plains wars, and finally the caricature of the once feared but now mocked dangerous Other, compliant in being released in the gladiator’s arena and told what an “honor” it is that the dominant spectators have chosen this image over the animals and undead violent gangs from the past.

While we are indeed concerned with the team name and its mascotry function, what remains central to any analysis of its importance to the broader society, is that the root of genocide and conquest, is the real reason behind the masked popularity and indeed, a desperately deep need to revel in the inferior status of the indigenous, the Native, the Indian. In other words, it is an expression of the supremacist discourse of racism.

By mocking the image, the dominants feel released from any guilt or thought of how their society came to be, or what may have happened to those peoples who preceded them in the lands they now call their own. This is why it is only in America, the “land that never was yet” according to Langston Hughes, where the image of the defamed and destroyed original people becomes so central to their popular professional sports teams.

The other reason is simple – the “Noble Savage” as the antithesis of the Hostile or Uncivilized Savage, is still a savage, is still the unreconstructed Other that needs to be obliterated in the national psyche as having any legitimacy, buried in its final phase as the painted Redface, theatrical dancing and prancing to the cheers of an audience in its self-absorbed orgy of monocular and militaristic patriotism. The terrorist enemy of today is rooted in the savage of yesterday.

Full denial of the genocide of the indigenous, requires an all-encompassing narrative, which the Redskins terminology provides in naming, and icons such as the Wahoo illustrate in a comfortable and cartoonish dehumanization of the first peoples of the land. Thus in their twisted version of how the New World came to be, these sports fans are “honoring” the savage warrior of the past, celebrating their conquest, and defining terrorism only in the violent actions of the Other, never in the “homeland” itself. Indigenous activists, scholars and leaders therefore will not, must not be satisfied if there is a name change of the Washington team, encouraging as that might be. Because the background narrative, the root “savage” of the 17th and 18th centuries linked to the redskin of the 19th century, is all about who is civilized and who is primitive, and operates to deny genocide and distort the defense of Native Nations into a civilizational discourse.

California is a case in point. The mission-forming priest Junipero Serra was the spearhead of Spanish conquest in the region, forcefully “converting” Native peoples into subordinated people at missions, where their labor built the system and provided profits for expansion. Catholic hierarchies also took advantage of the Natives coerced into the missions, as a rationale for taking lands and creating new governance that did not recognize indigenous societies or social structures. Soldiers would garrison forts and out posts for “security” and to enforce the laws, religious and secular. In many cases there was also sexual predation, often of young children. Because of these severe conditions, with high death rates and low life expectancies, nearly all missions experienced uprisings against the injustices. After they were put down, there were executions. Within a few decades, accompanied by disease and changing habitats, the numbers of native people dropped more than half, then again by half, with a demographic collapse termed genocidal or cultural genocide.

Fast forward to 2014, when relatively small numbers of surviving California Indians are bolstered by much larger Native populations from elsewhere in the United States, and by sovereignty battles often leading to economic development because of Indian Gaming, with support for telling their own stories. Historians had dubbed Father Serra as the “founder of California” and represent him as bringing people to Catholicism and Christianity, underscoring ideas of uncivilized primitive people needing religious and social guidance. These were found in museum installations, such as the one at the Huntington in 2013, where he was praised as a “savior” to the Native people.

Thus it is Western man, the priest, the scholar from great universities, the unimpeachable source who tells us how to perceive Redskins names or terms. This is higher order supremacist thought, but it’s still supremacy racism, just veiled in academic language, that obscures its deep condescending tautology of savage versus civilized savior. This ideological dualism is displayed every day in the mainstream media, with college classes seeing who is a Savior, and in saying who is a Hero in wars and rumors of wars.

Note the new movie “American Sniper” where a disgruntled Texan cowboy who grew up hunting animals in “the wild” joins the military after seeing bombings of U.S. Embassies and an Al Queda attack on the Twin Towers, becoming a SEAL sniper deployed to Iraq where he looks to kill “bad guys” and “savages” in order to save lives of his fellow soldiers, and ultimately “Americans” back home. There is wild cheering at many movie theaters at the killing of the made-up mythical “Mustapha” sniper and end of the movie, where the sniper is seen as a great hero, misunderstood at home and unable to reconcile his killing overseas. There are two huge issues to be aware of in the book, the movie, and the public American psyche that has made this the most popular January box-office movie of all time, and up for many academy awards.

First, obviously, is its use of “savage” for an enemy of the United States, or for all Americans back home, which is applied to all people from the enemy icon nations and cultural groups. Savage has its origins in the Papal Bull used to justify Columbus’s second journey and invasion, leading to the greatest genocide of its time, the Holocaust of Hispaniola, and used to justify ongoing genocides of the Spanish and English colonial conquests, finally moving into the U.S.A. fighting “merciless Indian savages” in its Declaration of Independence, and similarly in every war and killings in the 19th century, morphing into use of Redskins to underscore racial construction. Both terms are used in the build-up to Wounded Knee in 1890.

Fast forward again through its use in every non-western conflict of the next two centuries, (See The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire Building by Drinnon), to the initial briefing by General Schwarzkopf to the first Iraqi invasion, that U.S. forces were going into “Indian Country” to take out and destroy “Hostiles” (Hostiles was put into official language in the 1876 prelude to U.S. re-invasion of Lakota lands under the rubric of “Indian Country” emerging from treaty technical terms of 1830’s genocidal Indian Removals). Thus the pejorative charged term Terrorist related to Hostiles that emerged from “savage” enemy icons, used to destroy people in their own lands fighting for their own nationalities, has a consistent place in the American arsenal of seeking out and killing the Other opposed to western civilization. If not for the geography and new fears of being charged with racism, they might as well have used Redskins.

Thus the dark-skinned Mustapha character, completely fictionalized, realizes the rough “honoring” and hating of the uncivilized, “savage” enemy in the name of civilization and the good guys. His name could just as easily be Crazy Horse, Geronimo, Tecumseh, Metacom (King Phillip), Po’pay or even Anacoana, leaders of indigenous resistance movements. Without discounting the heroic endeavors of Chris Kyle, we observe how his simplistic acceptance of the enemy icon as “savage” underscores centuries of very similar military conquests, and resonates with a supremacist American creed that “honors” its enemies in Crazy Horse Saloons, or in paratroopers yelling Geronimo as they jump, (replicated in Operation Geronimo to kill OBL terrorists they earlier feared were hiding among the “tribals”) and so on it goes.

The second use is found in the dark side of the American Sniper who has returned “home” to find his massive killings haunts him, and so he makes up incredible stories of brave stands against a homeland “enemy” of black carjackers whom he kills, or of sniper killing up to thirty civilians from the New Orleans superdome when they were supposedly looting or causing mayhem. If he lived in real “Indian Country” we could easily assume both the stories and the realities would be of killing the first savages, the Indian. The book and film, and all media stories resonate with Cowboys and Indians, Good Guys and Bad Guys, Savages and Soldiers – that simply underscore the ideologies of supremacy firmly rooted in Redskins.
Our Homeland Security, itself a misnomer for all natives, becomes the guiding principle of reducing and eliminating the savage, the uncivilized, the potential Hostile from the Friendly Indian, the assimilated and fully colonized repeater of hegemonic histories that never include the Holocaust of Native Nations, terrorism toward indigenous communities, which never bring up the horrific death rates of the Mission system followed by outright genocide in the state of California, that discount the massive killings of so many communities from Mystic Lake to Wounded Knee, that refuse to see the reconstituted Savage as Hostile Other in the wars of the twentieth century.

Rather, in benign neglect and intentional cultural destruction, the American psyche (especially white American psyche) becomes comfortable in brave discoverers, saintly priests, and with heroic soldier-saviors who protect a racialized US from the dangerous hostile Other, a terror to civilized society that will torture and kill and raze villages to the ground to protect its settlers from the savage, embodied in a dancing Red-faced racist Wahoo and a capital team named Redskins. It’s time to change from the caricature of the conquered Wahoo and Redskin racist naming to imagery of respect and words of honor, a true recognition of First Nations and Indigenous Peoples.

James V. Fenelon is of Lakota/Dakota Indigeneity, is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for Indigenous Peoples Studies, United States Navy veteran, and co-author of Indigenous Peoples and Globalization (Paradigm, 2009).

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