By Mónica Teresa Ortiz
“Displays of hatred are even more obscene and denigrating than exhibitionism.” – Jorge Luis Borges
In a 2009 interview with Democracy Now!, Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano responded to news of Barack Obama’s presidential victory with the following advice: “I would like that Obama, who has now tremendous, historic opportunity, that he never forgets that he’s now going inside the White House. The White House will be his house in the time coming, but this White House was built by black slaves. And I’d like, I hope, that he never, never forgets this.”
Galeano calls to mind our nation’s collective ability to forget the past, despite the importance of remembering it so we can engage our present to change our future.
See, the White House resides in our nation’s capital, seat of our national government, and the architectural manifestation of what some call “post-racial America.” It is also home to an NFL team whose name and mascot are embroiled in a controversy that appears to forget its origins.
I heard Native American writer Sherman Alexie speak a few weeks ago on a panel about race and ethnicity. Alexie said if Dan Snyder, owner of Washington’s NFL team, its fans, sports writers, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell continue to refuse to change the derogatory name that refers to an entire people who were massacred in the name of manifest destiny, that act is tantamount to a “celebration of a history of genocide.”
The Oneida Indian Nation tribe has launched a radio campaign called Change the Mascot, asking that the name of D.C.’s NFL team be changed. Oneida Nation representative Ray Halbritter offered Snyder the opportunity to speak in front of the tribe, inviting Snyder to say the “R” word in front of them. Goodell and Snyder are of the opinion that the Washington moniker “honors” Native Americans.
Clyde Bellecourt, co-founder and director of the American Indian movement, views the name differently. Bellecourt recently appeared on Democracy Now! and explained the origin of the Washington football team’s namesake, saying, in part:
“If Snyder knew where the word ‘Redskin’ comes, truly understood it, I think he would make that change—a man knowing what a holocaust is and what genocide is. Goes all the way back to Governor Kalb [ phon. ] in Newfoundland in the 1500s. When they started their Western expansion, the Indian people were in their way, so he put out a bounty on Indian people. It was perfectly legal to kill Indians then. And they were bringing them in by the wagon loads… It became too cumbersome financially to bury them. So he said, to prove that you killed an Indian, now that’s all you had to do was bring in their skull. And they said they were bringing them in by gunny sacks, bushel baskets, bringing wagon loads to collect their bounties.”
Bellecourt went on to explain the rules were soon amended, requiring a “lock of hair” to prove that an Indian had been killed. Soon, babies and children were being scalped for the purpose of collecting bounties on them. Bellecourt continued:
“Henceforth, there’s been over 60 tribes that have been totally erased from the face of the Earth, no longer exist. And Dan Snyder should understand that, being Jewish himself. There are Jewish people still here, but there are tribes that have been totally decimated. And that’s where the word ‘Redskin’ comes from. And we’re demanding that that change. The ‘R’ word is no different than the ‘N’ word, and Little Red Sambo has to go.”
Bellecourt’s right. I do not claim indigenous heritage, but as a queer woman of color, I stand in solidarity with the movement to change the name. I also think Galeano is correct. We have to remember our histories and not forget our origins. As a culture, we must break borders and stand with other struggles, in recognition that while it may not be OUR struggle, it is still a struggle. As Australian Aboriginal Elder Lilla Watson said, “If you’ve come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Any person who has borne the weight of vernacular violence, experienced a form of microaggression or outright aggression on multiple levels, at multiple times, in multiple spaces, here or in other parts faraway, knows a slur when it’s uttered or printed, no matter how it’s packaged or presented.
And we need to change our language.
I grew up in Texas in a family full of Dallas Cowboy fans. I am a natural enemy of that NFL team based in Washington D.C. Folks in my family don the blue and grey star logo of the Dallas Cowboys with conviction and puro pinche pride. I grew up believing the holy trinity consisted of Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman, and Michael Irvin, the three NFL Hall of Fame Dallas Cowboy players who won three Super Bowl championships from 1992 to 1995.
I also grew up hearing “queer” and “faggot” slung around as a slur and leveled down as a tool of oppression. I grew up in the 1990s, and the word “queer” had not yet been fully co-opted by the LGTBQ movement. Especially not in the Panhandle of Texas. Probably not even now, fifteen years later. It remains an epithet.
Pejoratives such as “queer” and “faggot” have been tossed my way a lot since then. I just wanted to be transparent about objectivity. I am not the most objective person. The perpetuation of violent language is often dismissed by our culture and our media, reducing the impact of the whip upon our bare consciousness, though our flesh is still shredded.
I may be a Cowboy at heart, but even this cowboy knows the ‘R’ word is a slur, plain and simple. It’s a word derived from violence and accepted into our lexicon because it’s the name of a football team.
And America loves its fucking heroes.
When discussing this topic in The Nation, Dave Zirin wrote, “The percentage of Native Americans in the United States is roughly 0.8 percent of the population. Before Europeans landed on these shores, it was—shocker—100 percent. Without massacres, displacement, and depopulation, there would be no way a team could think of getting away with the name ‘Redskins.’ And here’s a handy rule of thumb: if your team name exists only because there was a genocide, then you might need a new team name.”
I hope that the movement to rename Washington’s team results in the elimination of one more act of linguistic terrorism. The D.C. Council voted on a resolution recently calling for a name change, on the heels of respected NBC sports broadcaster Bob Costas’ on-air remarks that the name is undeniably a slur, as well as President Barack Obama recently implying he would change the name.
But hey, I am just a Cowboys’ fan.
I am not objective.
Go on, defend the 82 year old name of that Washington football team.
Celebrate every touchdown.
Paint your faces like Indians.
Do those tomahawk chops.
It’s not like we’re a nation that embraces violence, right?
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Mónica Teresa Ortiz is a writer born and raised in Texas. She lives in Austin.
Get BGD creator Mia McKenzie’s debut literary novel, The Summer We Got Free. It’s the winner of the Lambda Literary Award.
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