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What’s In a Name?

Each and every year, I begin the school year in AP United States History with a study of “First Contact.”  We examine documents describing Columbus’ encounter with the Tianos Indians, we study the relationship between the Jamestown residents and the Powhatan tribe, and we consider the impact of King Philip’s War, a conflict between New England tribes.  As the weeks go by, we examine the tension between westward-moving colonists and Native Americans on the “frontier.”  We read the words of Chief Pontiac, who attempted to rally the Huron Indians to stop the encroachments of colonists.  And we look at the political structure of the Iroquois confederacy, a well-organized coalition of tribes in Upstate New York.  

At every turn, I attempt to provide a nuanced version of the story, one in which Native Americans have some agency, and are not simply primitive savages with no understanding of the value of their land and the threat that European colonization held.  I seek, as much as possible, to provide a way for my students to access the experiences of Native Americans, and I try to complicate the traditional view many students hold, one in which all Native Americans have the same economy, patterns of living, dress, and habits.  I would never, ever, refer to a Native American as a “Redskin” in my classroom.  This would be disrespectful, offensive, and just plain wrong, and I can’t imagine an other educator using such a term.  “Redskin” is not an honorific, or a term that represents a proud history.  Just as I would never teach about Reconstruction by calling African Americans by the “N” word, or teach about the Chinese Exclusion Act by calling Asians “yellowskins,” there is no place in my classroom for a term that shows such disregard for another human being.  

Despite my lessons, however, most weekends my students go home and have an opportunity to cheer for the Washington, DC football team.  I won’t dignify the name by using it here…but suffice it to say there is nothing honorable about the team’s name, uniform, mascot, or the fans wearing headdresses.  
President Obama knows it, NFL Commissioner Goodell knows it , and I believe that deep down, team owner Daniel Snyder knows it.  Snyder has really dug in his heels, making the story more about his stubbornness than about a real discussion about the impact of the name.

NFL leaders and the Oneida Nation plan to talk soon about the name, but I would argue that you don’t have to be a Native American to be offended by the term.  We all have a duty to make sure that all Americans are treated with respect and dignity.

A few weeks ago, I watched the film “42” with my two children. In one scene, when Jackie Robinson takes the field, the stadium erupts in chants using the “N word.”  My daughter watched this scene, dumbstruck, and then joined in and said the “N word.”  She had no clue what it meant, and we quickly explained why the word wasn’t acceptable and how it was being used to harass and hurt Robinson.  Julia has grown up in a society where, as a white child, she doesn’t even know the “N word,” yet she can chant the “R word” at the television screen during a football game.  It is time for a change.  Now.  



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