How the Washington Redskins got their name

Blame it on the “captivity narratives” written by bored pioneer housewives

WINNIPEG, MB, Jan 9, 2014/ Troy Media/ – It all started with “captivity narratives” that were written by bored housewives during North America’s pioneer days. The men were out on the trail, and the children were away at the local, one-room schoolhouse. There had been reports of Indians in the area.

Quite often, that bored housewife let her imagination get carried away. She writes a story about being kidnapped by those Indians, ravaged and raped, until she is finally rescued by a hero white man. Sometimes referred to as early pornography, captivity narratives thrilled and titillated the early settlers and led to the development of “dime novels,” and to misleading stereotypes of local indigenous peoples as “scalping heathens”.

Dime novels were paperback publications steeped in the pioneer lifestyle of homesteaders, and then later, “cowboys and Indians”. Most times, the stories involved heroic feats which were performed by white farmers, ranchers and soldiers against an “invasion” by hostile Indians, but the concept of a “noble savage” was also introduced; that stoic, red man whose land has been stolen and his way of life taken away. In real life, the First Nations of the Americas, their numbers drastically reduced because of new diseases they had no immunity to, were shunted away on reserves and reservations and had truly become the “forgotten American”.

The image of Native Americans remained alive but it was completely cast in the past, as if time had stood still for them. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show crisscrossed the country and Europe, featuring Indians in buckskins, beads and head dresses, mounted on horseback and charging against settlers and their cavalry. The image remained the same in so-called Hollywood “B” movies, where Indians on horseback circled the wagon trains while sharpshooting white grandmas picked them off with a rifle.

Native actors were rarely used to play the Indian roles. Instead, olive-skinned Italian actors such as Sal Mineo were employed and this gave rise to the “Wopoho” tribe. The most well-known, true Indian actor was Jay Silverheels, who played sidekick servant Tonto to the Lone Ranger. Tonto was a good guy with positive attributes but his dialogue was pidgin English (“me walk-um, mail-um letter” as every verb ended in “um”). The name Tonto roughly translates to “stupid” or “dolt” while Tonto called the masked man “Kemo Sabe”, which means “one who looks out from behind cover”.

Away from the stage, Jay Silverheels and the Indians who performed in the Wild West Show combined modern and traditional lifestyles. Pictures of them reveal that they wore suits and ties when they went out amongst the general public, and their casual wear included jeans and cowboy hats, boots and moccasins. But that is not the image that was carried in mass media from movies to television to newspapers and magazines.

Along the way, native culture was infantilized in games and dolls and other toys. Play sets would include miniature teepees and braves with bows and arrows; sort of an ‘instant culture’. Always simple. Always primitive.

Misleading stereotypes of Indians began to be used in advertising and brand names. Red Man tobacco and Pontiac cars often featured the noble savage complete with headdress. There was little real experience with First Nations people to compare with. And little or no consultation with First Nations leaders about whether or not it is culturally appropriate to use sacred spiritual and political symbols in this way.

The most controversial use of Indian images has been as mascots by sports teams. There has been much written about that elsewhere so I just thought you might like to know some of the background that goes along with calling a football team “redskins”. And how some Washington fans end up putting on a cardboard head dress adorned with chicken feathers and yelling “kiyiyi” while getting drunk and whacking themselves in the mouth.

Troy Media’s Eye on Manitoba columnist Don Marks is a Winnipeg-based writer.

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