Rethinking the “Red” in “Redskins”: A Historical Perspective on Native American Mascot Controversies

By Michael J. Albani

On January 23, 2015, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and Oneida Indian Nation released an ad featuring Minnesota’s football team locked in a tight game against Washington, D.C. While the ad begins with the Vikings ahead 9-0, Washington’s quarterback quickly fakes a pass before dashing into the end zone, whipping the stadium crowd into a frenzy of cheers and applause as he scores the team’s first touchdown. In this triumphant scene, however, something is clearly missing. The logo depicting Washington’s mascot is conspicuously blurred out on all of the players’ helmets. As the game footage fades out, white text appears on screen declaring, “Take it away and it’s still Washington football,” followed by #ChangeTheMascot.

Debates surrounding Native American sports mascots are certainly not new to the United States. Nevertheless, perhaps no team has stirred up more controversy in recent years than the Washington Redskins. The NCAI lambasted the franchise in a 2013 report that replaced its name with either “Redsk*ns” or ” the R Word” because of what it called the “deeply offensive nature of the name of the Washington football team” [1]. That same year, the Inter-Tribal Council of Five Civilized Tribes passed a resolution similarly denouncing the contentious term as “derogatory and racist.” Even Levi Walker – the Odawa Indian who portrayed Atlanta Braves mascot Chief Noc-A-Homa during the 1970s and 80s – revealed in a 2015 interview that he considered the name “a real shot in the face for the indigenous people.”

New Englanders surrounding a Pequot fort and setting it ablaze. Colonial soldiers shoot Native American women and children attempting to flee.
Engraving of New Englanders surrounding a Pequot fort and setting it ablaze (1638). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

One reason why Washington’s football team has likely become such a major target of Native American ire is because its name carries what some scholars argue are particularly grisly connotations. In An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (2014), historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz asserts that during the Pequot War (1636-38), New England’s colonial officials offered bounties for American Indian scalps, and “[t]he settlers gave a name to the mutilated and bloody corpses they left in the wake of scalp hunts: redskins” [2]. Dunbar-Ortiz is neither the only scholar nor the only public figure to articulate this argument. As mascot controversies have gained greater news traction over the 2010s, others have offered up their own supporting evidence to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous media outlets.

While many scholars have investigated the origins of the compound word “redskin,” though, what about the adjective at its core? What about “red”? How and why exactly did Indigenous people across North America come to be conceptualized as “red” before gaining the moniker of “redskin” in many historical documents? Moreover, what can the answer to that question add to contemporary debates surrounding various Native American sports mascots? Luckily, greater insight into these inquiries and many more can be found by placing the histories of contentious athletic brands in conversation with the works of historians like Nancy Shoemaker. Analyzing Native American mascot controversies from a historical standpoint reveals, above all, that taking Indigenous perspectives into consideration when discussing representations of Indigenous people is absolutely imperative.

Not So Different After All

 Catawba map with English text drawn on deerskin.
Catawba map with English text drawn on deerskin for the governor of South Carolina (1724). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

To understand what historians can contribute to contemporary quandaries like Native American mascot controversies, it is perhaps best to begin with an image. Shoemaker opens her book A Strange Likeness: Becoming Red and White in Eighteenth-Century North America (2004) by analyzing a collaboratively created map of Indian Country (above). A Catawba mapmaker drew circles and lines onto a deerskin surface that represented homelands of assorted Indigenous peoples and their bonds of alliance. A British assistant then inserted names for those peoples into the circles in English [3]. In spite of what some would consider insurmountable disparities separating the two groups, this map demonstrates that they both shared relationships with the world around them informed by their experiences travelling through and documenting it. However, as Shoemaker goes onto explain, cartography was only a single instrument Native Americans and Euro-Americans could produce from their “cognitive tool kit that made thinking, explaining, understanding, and acting possible” [4].

The central assertion of Shoemaker’s book is that eighteenth-century Native Americans and Euro-Americans were not, in fact, fundamentally different. On the contrary, they shared a surprising number of cultural commonalities that drove their interactions. “Indian and European similarities,” she states, “enabled them to see their differences in sharper relief and, over the course of the eighteenth century, construct new identities that exaggerated the contrasts between them while ignoring what they had in common” [5]. What this means is that by participating in a multitude of cross-cultural conversations, both groups learned how to either accentuate or downplay certain aspects of their identities, and nowhere is this more noticeable than in the creation of the racial categories of “red” and “white.”

Becoming “Red” in the Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries

According to Shoemaker, the origins of the word “white” as a racial adjective are actually quite easy to trace. She argues that British colonists first employed the label early in the eighteenth century to distinguish themselves from enslaved “black” men and women that they shipped to plantations on Barbados [6]. This vocabulary slowly but surely crept northward until “white” finally overtook “Christian” as the dominant descriptor of Euro-Americans on the North American continent. Indeed, Native Americans utilized complementary color-coded terminology during diplomatic negotiations, also referring to people of African ancestry as “black” and themselves as “red” [7]. Unfortunately, pinpointing when exactly American Indians began to see themselves becoming “red” is a bit more challenging.

The color first appeared as an indicator of race in published form in Systema Naturae (1740) by Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus. By then, however, many Native Americans had already been using it as a self-identifier for decades [8]. Perhaps one reason why adopting racialized terms like “white” and “red” seemed so natural for some Indigenous groups was because they conformed to well established diplomatic metaphors. “For southeastern Indians,” Shoemaker explains, “the ‘white path’ meant peaceful relations between towns or nations. The ‘red’ or ‘bloody’ path meant war…and towns themselves were designated ‘white’ or ‘red’ as a means to delegate intratribal responsibilities in times of peace and war” [9]. The meanings behind these metaphors proved difficult for some Euro-Americans to fully grasp, which some Native Americans considered beneficial to both diplomatic and trade negotiations. Southeastern Indians especially employed a strategy of constructing racial hierarchies in their speeches with white people at the top to make themselves seem more deferential than they truly were [10]. Nevertheless, other Euro-Americans simply “failed to play by the same rules as their Indian allies not because mystifying Indian metaphors clouded their understanding but because they believed themselves superior to Indians and recognized that acknowledging universal laws of international diplomacy would jeopardize colonization” [11]. Indeed, colonization is a crucial theme that Shoemaker stresses because colonial aspirations emboldened Euro-Americans to distort the number of differences they shared with Native Americans until they could finally justify appropriating their land.

As Euro-Americans proceeded to colonize the North American continent throughout the eighteenth century, the appeal of redness as a category of self-identification broadened immensely among Indigenous peoples. First, by referring to themselves as “red”, Native Americans could rationalize the incongruities they identified in white people when it came to points of contention surrounding leadership and alliances. Furthermore, a shared racial identity could be the first step toward forming a pan-Indian confederacy that could effectively resist Euro-American colonization. Shawnee religious leader Tenskwatawa certainly recognized this as many of his sermons were replete with racialized language. In one sermon he delivered through a proxy in the Great Lakes region, for example, he called “Whites” the “Children of the Evil Spirit [who] grew from the Scum of the great water[12]. He even suggested that “Red Children” should reside far away from white people and cease interacting with them.

Cover of The Redskins by James Fenimore Cooper.
Cover of The Redskins by James Fenimore Cooper (1846). Source: Hathi Trust.

While redness may have inspired a strong sense of  pan-Indian solidarity in the late-eighteenth century, it did not take long for white people to appropriate the language for their own purposes. In 1846, for example, American author James Fenimore Cooper published a novel entitled The Redskins; or, Indian and Injun, cementing a place for the word “redskin” in American vernacular if it was not there already. The word continued to appear in popular culture moving well into the twentieth century in works such as the 1929 film Redskin and the 1932 animated short Redskin Blues. It was in the cultural milieu of problematic films such as these that George Preston Marshall decided to change the name of the football team he owned from the Boston Braves to the Boston Redskins. The exact reason for the sudden name change is somewhat shrouded in mystery, but scholar C. Richard King argues that it was not simply meant to honor the team’s newly hired Indigenous coach or players. He reveals, for example, how Marshall admitted, “The fact that we have in our head coach, Lone Star Dietz, an Indian, together with several Indian players, has not, as may be suspected, inspired me to select the name Redskins” [13]. Instead, King suspects that the change, coinciding with the team’s move to Fenway Park, was more of a matter of branding, branding that the Boston Redskins upheld even after they were transplanted to Washington.

Chiefs Before Wahoo

The Washington Redskins, however, are not the only sports team whose mascot has garnered controversy in recent years. In Cleveland, protests of the ceaselessly grinning Chief Wahoo have become an annual tradition on the opening day of baseball season, and have actually resulted in the Cleveland Indians removing the bright red visage from parts of the team’s home uniforms. Formerly known as the Cleveland Spiders and Cleveland Naps, the Indians adopted their present name in 1915, reportedly in honor of Native American player Louis Sockalexis. The research of Ellen J. Staurowsky raises valid questions about the authenticity of the team name’s origin story, but in analyzing the team’s mascot, it is difficult not to identify parallels with Shoemaker’s work [14].

Mohawk "king" draped in resplendent robe and holding a club.
Print of one of the “Four Mohawk Kings” who visited Great Britain in 1710 (1710). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

For every congruent element that Euro-Americans identified in Native Americans, they discovered just as many points of confusion, particularly in their concepts of leadership. Shoemaker discusses how both groups attempted to understand (and ultimately assessed) each others’ leaders based on their own standards of sovereignty.  On one hand, “In trying to figure out whether to call Indian leaders kings or chiefs, European colonists…used absolute monarchy as their frame of reference” [15]. In other words, they considered those who assumed the title of king to possess ultimate positions of power. Many Indigenous diplomats who crossed the Atlantic Ocean seeking audiences with the King of England – like, for example, the thee Mohawks and one Mahican popularly known as the “Four Mohawk Kings” – learned this firsthand as their hosts failed to grasp non-monarchic forms of government [16].

While Europeans attempted to ascribe their own ideals of governance onto American Indians, aboriginal peoples did the same and were equally confounded. “Indians who visited Europe,” Shoemaker states, “were supposed to be impressed by the lifestyle of the upper classes but were instead appalled by it” [17]. They especially rejected Great Britain’s unequal class structure that relegated wealth into the hands of few. Both Native Americans and Euro-Americans certainly understood that sovereign figures were paramount to cross-cultural diplomacy, but misunderstandings emerged surrounding what exactly each other’s sovereigns would and should look like. Nevertheless, “Chief does not seem to have drawn criticism as a prejudicial term and instead may have been preferred precisely because it distinguished Indians as different from their Euro-American neighbors” [18]. Eighteenth-century Native Americans who traveled across the Atlantic Ocean rebuked, above all, the economic model that their European counterparts embraces. One of the major ironies of Chief Wahoo, then, is that while the image sees less exposure on the diamond, it remains fully intact as a subject for merchandising.

Looking Outside the Major Leagues

Neither the Washington Redskins nor the Cleveland Indians have expressed interest in changing their team names or mascots any time soon. However, alterations to Native American sports mascots have occurred outside the realm of professional sports. Consider, for example, the case of Clyde A. Erwin High School in Asheville, North Carolina. In 1996, the school became embroiled in controversy for referring to its girls’ basketball team as the “Squaws” [19]. Again, the racialized and gendered nature of this word dates back to the eighteenth century.

In one of the final chapters of A Strange Likeness, Shoemaker analyzes how Native American men employed gendered metaphors during diplomatic negotiations. This proved somewhat effective against Euro-American men because “Indians and Europeans had some shared meanings to begin with and not, as was the case with kinship metaphors, because they had to build new meanings” [20]. Nevertheless, discussing gender for diplomacy could prove dangerous. The word “woman,” could be deployed as an insult or accusation of cowardice, but it could also be used as a term of endearment for peacekeepers depending on the context of the conversation.

Native American man riding a horse making his wife walk behind him with their baby and luggage in hand.
Postcard exemplifying the stereotype of the Indian woman as drudge. Source: John and Selma Appel Collection of Ethnic Images.

In addition to assessing metaphors signifying relationships of sexual domination and submission, Shoemaker also examines language related to gendered divisions of labor. She summarizes that, “the agricultural productivity of Indian women…was the most visible gender difference between eighteenth-century Europeans and Indians” [21]. Beyond the realm of diplomacy, this distinction gave rise to the stereotypical trope of the “Indian woman as drudge” (see image above) that influenced interactions between Euro-Americans and Native Americans well after the eighteenth century. Anthropologist S. Elizabeth Bird explains, “The squaw is the other side of the Indian woman – a drudge who is at the beck and call of her savage Indian husband, who produces baby after baby, who has sex endlessly and indiscriminately with Whites and Indians alike” [22]. In the early twentieth century, Protestant missionaries in the United States employed this trope to justify what they considered “civilizing” missions into the American West [23]. By the 1970s, Equal Right Amendment opponent Phyllis Schlafly still used it as a point of contrast to support her views on the superiority of married American women’s treatment in the domestic sphere [24]. While the Erwin High School Squaws did relent in changing their name, it was only through the acknowledgement of the historical weight of the word they originally embraced.

More Than Words

Euro-Americans and Native Americans have historically embraced different modes of recording and interpreting words. Shoemaker argues that throughout the eighteenth century, “both Europeans and Indians cultivated the fiction that writing and speaking were core differences between them and that Europeans were better at writing while Indians were better at speaking” [25]. Nevertheless, they shared incredibly similar reasons for wanting to collectively privilege certain forms of communication over others.

A crowd of Native Americans and Pennsylvanian Euro-Americans engaged in negotiations.
Penn’s Treaty with the Indians by Benjamin West (1771), showcasing the importance of oration in cross-cultural diplomacy. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Both, for example, argued that their preferred mediums proved best for recalling the past. Euro-Americans denied that Native American oral traditions could stand a chance against written records when it came to capturing details from history. On the contrary, American Indians developed symbols and mnemonic devices that helped them remember treasured works of oratory with stunning accuracy [26]. In addition, North America’s aboriginal peoples upheld strong oral traditions because public speaking was pivotal in negotiating peace agreements as well as alliances. Considering both the strength and utility of spoken words, then, it should come as little surprised that Native American across the continent have mobilized to oppose the historically loaded names of many Native American sports mascots.

Fans of the Washington Redskins are quick to argue that most American Indians actually have no objection to the team name, frequently citing a 2016 Washington Post survey in which approximately 90% of Native Americans polled responded that the word “redskins” does not bother them. King, however, has questioned the rigor of that survey, asserting that it only “works to minimize and misconstrue anti-Indian racism and its histories, reducing them to personal feelings.” Accusations of errors in data collection seem much more valid when considering competing surveys that Indigenous scholars have conducted. According to a 2014 survey designed and distributed by Lakota sociologist James V. Fenelon, 67% consider Washington’s team name to be a “racist word and symbol.” Among those who share that view are Standing Rock Sioux filmmakers John and Kenn Little who in 2017 have been travelling across the nation with their new documentary More Than A Word that explores in far greater depth than this essay the history and legacy of the Washington Redskins brand.

Indeed, in 2017 there seems to be no immediate end to the debates surrounding Native American sports mascots in sight, but A Strange Likeness and the eighteenth-century story it presents provides some valuable insight to consider in light of this modern controversy. As Shoemaker reveals, Indigenous peoples in the United States have consistently assumed active roles in defining and refining the language they use to identify themselves. Therefore, it is not only reasonable to take into account Indigenous perspectives when using terminology inextricably linked to them. It is morally imperative.

About the Author:

Michael J. Albani is a PhD student at Michigan State University where he studies United States history, Native American history, and women’s and gender history. His research primarily focuses on Native American and Euro-American relations in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Great Lakes region. He also co-hosts Sects Ed, a podcast that carefully explores and shares the history of unorthodox faiths. Follow him on Twitter @MJJAlbani.


[1] National Congress of American Indians, Ending the Legacy Of Racism in Sports and the Era of Harmful “Indian” Sports Mascots (Washington, D.C.: National Congress of American Indians, 2013), 2.

[2] Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014), 64-65.

[3] Nancy Shoemaker, A Strange Likeness: Becoming Red and White in Eighteenth-Century North America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 4.

[4] Ibid., 3.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 129.

[7] Ibid., 130.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 131.

[10] Ibid., 134.

[11] Ibid., 85.

[12] “Speech of Indian Chief to Various Tribes,” in Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collections, vol. 40 (Lansing: Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society, 1929) 128-29.

[13] C. Richard King, Redskins: Insult and Brand (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016), 20.

[14] Ellen J. Staurowsky, “Sockalexis and the Making of the Myth at the Core of Cleveland’s ‘Indian’ Image ,” in Team Spirits: The Native American Mascots Controversy, eds. C. Richard King and Charles F. Springwood (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001), 96.

[15] Shoemaker, A Strange Likeness, 45.

[16] Shoemaker describes the “Four Mohawk Kings” briefly, but a more in depth analysis of them is available in Coll Thrush, Indigenous London: Native Travelers at the Heart of Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press), 68-98.

[17] Shoemaker, A Strange Likeness, 58.

[18] Ibid., 59.

[19] James Arnold Brown, Jr., “The Clyde A. Erwin High School Mascot Controversy” (PhD diss., Western Carolina University, 2007), 3.

[20] Shoemaker, A Strange Likeness, 121.

[21] Ibid., 123.

[22] S. Elizabeth Bird, “Representations of American Indian Women in Popular Media,” in Contested Images: Women of Color in Popular Culture, ed. Alma M. Garcia (Lanham: AltaMira Press, 2012), 271.

[23] Peggy Pascoe, Relations of Rescue: The Search for Female Moral Authority in the American West, 1874-1939 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 56.

[24] Phyllis Schlafly, “What’s Wrong With ‘Equal Rights’ for Women?” Phyllis Schlafly Report 5, no. 7 (1972), 1.

[25] Shoemaker, A Strange Likeness, 76.

[26] Ibid., 64.