Redskins Controversy

The name of the Washington Redskins football team has long been controversial with many claiming, with more than a little justification, that the term redskin is racist and offensive. Recently, sportswriter Frank Deford weighed in on the controversy in a Sports Illustrated article. Leaving aside his opinion on the issue (he favors changing the name), Deford made the following claim in his article:

It’s important to understand that "redskin" does not refer to skin color. It’s not like, well, I’m a whiteskin and Shaquille O’Neal is a blackskin. A redskin was a scalp taken by Native Americans as bounty. The red in redskin is blood red. But the Nation’s Capitol’s football team adamantly holds onto its name.From SI.com, 25 May 2005

Deford could not be more wrong on this. The term redskin does indeed refer to skin color. The OED2 dates redskin to 1699.

Ye firste Meetinge House was solid mayde to withstande ye wicked onsaults of ye Red Skins.
--From S. Smith, 1699 (in H.E. Smith’s Colonial Days)

The use of the adjective red to describe Native American skin color is even older, dating to 1587:

Hee maketh some folkes whyte, some blacke, some read, and some Tawny; and yet is hee but one selfesame Sunne.
--From Arthur Golding, Mornay’s Woorke concerning the trewnesse of the christian religion, 1587

This use of red to describe skin color predates the practice of scalping among Native Americans by nearly a century. The OED2 dates the verb to scalp from 1676 and the noun meaning a scalp taken as a Native American bounty to a year later.

Laying him for dead, they flead (or skulp’d) his head of skin and hair.
--From Narrat. New-Eng., 1676

Two or three miles further they came up with some Heads, Scalps, and Hands cut off from the bodies of some of the English.
--From William Hubbard’s A narrative of the troubles with the Indians in New-England, 1677

Deford may be on the side of the angels in this argument, but he does no good by repeating contentions that are not based in fact.

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