This song makes my head hurt, and other organs, too.
Hail to the Redskins!
Braves on the Warpath!
Fight for old Dixie!
Run or pass and score -- we want a lot more!
Scalp 'em, swamp 'em -- We will take 'em big score
Read 'em, weep 'em, touchdown -- we want heap more
Fight on, Fight on -- 'Till you have won
Sons of Wash-ing-ton. Rah!, Rah!, Rah!
You never heard of Corinne Griffith. Good. She wrote this trash. She was the wife of the original racist Washington owner, George Preston Marshall. Such a guy. Put in his will that his foundation could do nothing for integration. Once commissioned a team symbol that looked like a sun-scorched, hawk-nosed Paul Bunyan in a loincloth. Now we get Marshall’s latest successor, Daniel M. Snyder, who insists the racial slur in the song’s first line is not a racist slur and it will forever be the team’s nickname because, hey, it’s an honor for‘em.
Heaven help us. We heard the team's fight song last week when RGIII, Alfred Morris and Tony Romo conspired to defeat the Cowboys. If we’re not careful, we’ll hear it again this week when Washington opens in the NFL playoffs. The song has been corporately cleansed -- gone is old Dixie, murderous intent and cowboy-movie IndianSpeak. But the first line remains the same, and it ought to go.
While we’re at it, we should also get rid of Florida State’s “tomahawk chop,” which turned last week's Orange Bowl into a parade of loons And now comes the news that the Atlanta Braves have replaced the “A” on their batting-practice cap with the original team logo, the “Screaming Savage.” He’s an Indian warrior with his mouth wide open. Apparently he’s screaming to go on the warpath and take him heap more paleface scalps.
Let me ask: Why do we do this to Native Americans?
I’m guilty enough to be thrown under the bus. Thousands of times, when Joe Gibbs was a kid, before Joe Theismann did prostate infomercials, when billionaire owner Jack Kent Cooke arranged the world to his liking -- thousands of times in hundreds of columns for The Washington Post, I arranged the letters r, e, d, s, k, i, n, s into a word that’s offensive to lots of people. I was mindless. I never thought of the word as anything more than a way of identifying a collection of football players.
I did it in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, too. I wrote about Dale Murphy, Bob Horner, and Ted Turner back in the Screaming Savage days and I didn’t even know the Screaming Savage existed because I cared only about what bone Horner had broken that day.
Why do we do this to people who cared for this continent until we brought gunpowder to bear against arrows?
I never thought what I did was an insult because I never thought of it at all. I only cared what happened in the game. Did Mark Moseley kick his 24th straight field goal? Did Murf put another one in sub-orbital flight? The rest of it -- the symbols, the spectacle, the entertainment -- you could have it, I didn’t want it.
That changed in 1989, which was the year Prime Time arrived in Atlanta. Neon Deion. A three-ring circus, all bling-sparkly. Deion Sanders joined the Atlanta Falcons, which would have been fine if he’d come from Oklahoma. But he came from Florida State and brought with him the tomahawk chop. He wound up playing both football and baseball in Atlanta. The city’s stadium became the center of the tomahawk chop universe. Tens of thousands of fans chopped and made a faux-scary woooohaa-woooooohaa noise that they hoped would pass for an Indian war chant.
They loved it.
I hated it.
You could ignore the abstract stuff, the static, silent symbols. But the tomahawk chop was concrete. It was done by thousands armed with red foam “tomahawks.” I saw it and I heard the incessant, irritating chant/hum. That’s when I moved from detesting the hyper-egomania of Neon Deion to understanding why I detested the sports world’s whole Indian exploitation thing.
The U.S. government with its treasure and arsenals had waged war on Native Americans for two hundred years. They had driven survivors off land the Native Americans’ ancestors had cared for across centuries. Then the white folks who owned sports teams picked the remains of the Native Americans’ culture for symbols they could put to their cash-register use. They created a caricature of Indians as screaming savages busting heads with tomahawks in the name of a ninth-inning rally. The truth had been turned upside-down. Native Americans, the victims of U.S.-sponsored ethnic cleansing, were being portrayed as the killers.
Not that white folks knew it, or, if they knew it, would admit it. They said they were honoring the Native Americans. Snyder has made only one public speech in which he dealt with the team’s nickname. In 2001 he told the National Press Club that the racial slur was not a racial slur. He made three points about it: 1) It will remain the team’s nickname, 2) It is a bow to tradition, competitiveness, and honor, and 3) It is not meant to be derogatory.
So Snyder said what white men with gunpowder have always said to Native Americans. Trust me; I’m on your side.
The nickname is a racial slur, and there are two things we can do about it. We can ignore the depressing truth, as I did for a long time. Or we can say it has been used so long and so casually that it has lost any real meaning; that it is, in fact, shorthand for a bunch of sweaty jocks. What we cannot do is what Snyder would have us do. We cannot say it’s not a slur.
In 2001, the United States Commission on Civil Rights called it “disrespectful and offensive to American Indians and others who are offended by such stereotyping.” In 2004, the director of the National Museum of the American Indian, W. Richard West Jr., called it “simply pejorative.” In 2006, a legal challenge by Native Americans called it “a derogatory, denigrating, offensive, scandalous, contemptuous, disreputable, disparaging and racist designation ...”
About here, if you’re a tomahawk chopper, you may run out your numbers. A 2004 report by the University of Pennsylvania’s National Annenberg Election Survey showed that a small percentage of Native Americans, 9 percent, found the Washington nickname “offensive.” Ninety percent found it acceptable.
You can have your survey. I’ll go with mine. It’s a racial slur, according to 100 percent of people hanging onto the keys of this typing machine.
Did you see what my colleague, Gwen Knapp, did the other day? She wrote a column about Mike Shanahan and Washington’s sudden rise in the NFL. Not once did she use the team’s nickname and the column made great good sense, anyway. When I asked if she’d done that before, Knapp said she’d never made a crusade out of it because she didn’t really have much to say.
“The word ‘ick’ doesn’t make for much of a column,” she said.
It’s just that she dislikes that nickname more than Chiefs and Braves.
“It’s gross,” she said.
I’ll write about Washington a lot. I love RGIII. He’s the daredevil who threw himself off a ledge in the sky and landed on his feet. His running mate, Alfred Morris, came from nowhere to be the NFL’s best story, or at least right behind RGIII, Adrian Peterson, and Chuck Pagano.
But what about that nickname? I liked what the writer Gregg Easterbrook once did. He called Washington the “Chesapeake Bay Watershed Indigenous People.” Clunky, and headline writers would fall dead, but it was respectful. So it had that going for it. I’ll keep thinking.