When Indians were declared the enemy of King George II in 1755, colonists got an offer of 50 pounds for the scalps of Indian males over the age of 12 as a way to exterminate them.
By 1863, they were more valuable, with a Minnesota newspaper noting that the state reward for a dead Indian had risen to $200. The money would pay “for every redskin sent to Purgatory.”
The country’s tribal leaders, in Washington this week to meet with President Barack Obama, say the word has always been offensive, given the brutal history that surrounds it. And they’re upping the pressure to get the National Football League’s Washington Redskins to change the team mascot, saying the name is clearly racist and doesn’t belong on football gear.
“It’s unacceptable in the 21st century, and I wish the owner of the Washington football team and the NFL would realize that,” said Brian Cladoosby, the chairman of Washington state’s Swinomish Indian Tribal Community. Cladoosby is also the president of the National Congress of American Indians. “You wouldn’t come up to me and say, ‘Hey, Redskin, how you doing today?’ Just like you wouldn’t go up to an African-American and use the N-word.”
While the controversy has smoldered for decades, getting rid of the team name has emerged as a top legislative priority for leaders of the nation’s 566 federally recognized tribes, who’ve asked for Obama’s help in getting Congress to intervene.
They want Congress to strip the Redskins of the team’s name trademark, hitting it in the wallet. That would prevent the team from holding exclusive rights to sell any shirts, caps or other merchandise that uses the “Redskins” name.
“The explicit support of President Obama and his administration would assist in this important effort,” the National Congress of American Indians said in a briefing book given to tribal leaders for Obama’s annual White House Tribal Nations Conference on Wednesday.
The tribes are pushing a bill called the Non-Disparagement of Native American Persons or Peoples in Trademark Registration Act of 2013, sponsored by Delegate Eni Faleomavaega, a Democrat from American Samoa, along with 19 co-sponsors. It would amend the Trademark Act of 1946 and wouldn’t permit any future trademarks that use the term. The bill has little chance of passing anytime soon, having been referred to a committee but not even receiving a hearing.
In a speech in the House of Representatives last month, Faleomavaega said he wanted people to understand why the word had brought “nothing but a stark reminder of the horrors” inflicted on Native Americans.
“What if that scalp belonged to your mother or to your wife or daughter or your brother or sister or your son or father?” he asked.
While Obama has shown no interest in advancing the bill, he reignited the controversy during an interview with the Associated Press last month.
“I’ve got to say, if I were the owner of the team and I knew that the name of my team, even if they’ve had a storied history, that was offending a sizable group of people, I’d think about changing it,” the president said.
The issue flared again Nov. 7, when the Redskins played the Minnesota Vikings and were met by protesters in Minneapolis. Minnesota Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton urged officials who control the Vikings’ stadium not to use the term Redskins, calling it “antiquated and offensive.”
Redskins officials didn’t respond to a request for comment Thursday, but they’ve consistently defended the name and they have the backing of the NFL.
In a June letter to the chairs of the Congressional Native American Caucus, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said that for tens of millions of fans, the Redskins name “is a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect.”
In May, Redskins owner Daniel Snyder told USA Today he’d never change the name. And days after the president spoke out, Snyder issued a letter in which he declined to budge.
“We cannot ignore our 81-year history, or the strong feelings of most of our fans as well as Native Americans throughout the country,” he wrote. “After 81 years, the team name ‘Redskins’ continues to hold the memories and meaning of where we came from, who we are and who we want to be in the years to come.”
Snyder has plenty of support from his team’s fans. A Washington Post poll in June found that 61 percent of the respondents liked the Redskins name and two-thirds said it shouldn’t be changed.
There are indications, however, that Redskins officials may be reaching out to tribal leaders.
Bryan Brewer, the president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, said some top Redskins executives had asked to meet with him next week.
“They want to come to Pine Ridge to meet with me. Why? I don’t know,” Brewer said.
He said he’d encourage the executives to change the name, adding that it’s “not good for the people.”
“If they change it to the Washington Rednecks, where would that go?” he asked. “Or the Whities or the Blackies or something like that. Anytime a name offends some people, that’s not the right name.”
Some tribal leaders say the news media could aid the effort by banning the term, arguing that a double standard is in place that allows racial slurs to be used against Native Americans but not other minorities.
"People get away with tribal racial slurs and they’re not held accountable. Any other slurs out there, people are getting fired," said Jim Peters, a council member of the Squaxin Island Tribe in Washington state.
In the past 35 years, more than 2,000 references to Indian names have been eliminated from high school and collegiate sports teams, according to the National Congress of American Indians.
But the group said that nearly 1,000 such names still existed.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story wrongly described what the effect on the football team would be if it were stripped of its trademark.