Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Redskins and War Paint

Red Was the Color of War

The image is of William "Lone Star" Dietz, whose mother was a full blooded Sioux Indian. Dietz was the first coach of the Redskins football team, and it was in his honor that the team was named "Redskins". He brought a number of Indian players with him to the team and they wore war paint and Indian bonnets at games. There seems to be no etymological evidence that the word "redskin" originally meant anything other than "an aborigine with red skin". According to Take Our Word For It, the earliest recorded use of the word was found in a quotation from 1699: "Ye firste Meetinge House was solid mayde to withstande ye wicked onsaults of ye Red Skins."

Most people assume that the word described the natural skin color of the North American Indians. However, there exists documentation that the name "redskin" was conferred upon the native inhabitants by the English Colonists because of the red body paint they wore in battle. Because the 1699 quotation would certainly be referring to Indian warriors, this seems to be the most likely explanation of the origin of "redskin"..

Some say the term is disparaging. The "Webster's Third New International Dictionary", Unabridged, 1976, gives "a North American Indian" and nothing more. The Oxford English says "redskin" is "generally benign". If the origin of the word had to do with painted warriors in battle, I find it suspect that it would have become an insult. Yet, beginning about 1967, dictionaries began to describe it as "usually offensive".

There are other early instances in history when the native Americans were described as "Red Indians" by the British. This too seems quite innocent, as it was necessary to differentiate them from the East Indians. In "The History of Our Country" by Edward S. Ellis, copyright 1918, volume 1, page 12, the author writes in awe of the American Indians of the Colonial period.
"General Cook has seen Apache scouts trot fifteen hundred feet up the side of a mountain, without showing any increase of respiration or sign of fatigue. The Indians trained their bodies from infancy to repress all expression of pain, even when suffering the tortures of death. They underwent hunger, thirst and fatigue without a murmur. ... they were merciless in war, and inflicted frightful cruelties upon their prisoners."
The author continues speaking of the admirable traits of the native people, "The exploits of some of the red men in this respect seem incredible."

How did it come to be that the football team in Washington D.C. is named "The Redskins"? Marc Fisher, Metro Columnist for the Washington Post, 2002, explains saying that the official story is that when the Boston Braves football team left Braves Field to play at Fenway Park in 1933, the owner needed to find a new name for his squad. He chose Redskins in honor of Lone Star Dietz, the team's coach and an Indian who often wore an eagle feather headdress, beaded deerskin jacket and buckskin moccasins. Dietz brought four to six -- accounts vary -- Indian players with him to Boston from the Haskell Indian School in Kansas, where he had coached for four years.

Another version has the team being named for the white men who dressed up as Indians to stage the Boston Tea Party at the start of the American Revolution. Yet another genesis story says the name stems from the colored clay that Plains Indians used to paint themselves for tribal ceremonies.

Whichever version is accurate, "the reality is more benign than people on both sides of the fence are attributing to it," says sports historian and museum consultant Frank Ceresi. "The name was meant very, very positively."

The genesis may always remain murky ... . But it is clear that the Boston Redskins, who moved to Washington in 1937, sought to capitalize on their Indian players and coach: The team played wearing red war paint. And Indian players from the time considered the name and trappings an honor.
From Boston Redskins 1932-1936:
"1933: Now led by Lone Star Dietz, a Native American Coach, the team moves to Fenway Park. With the move the team also undergoes a name change becoming the Boston Redskins. The Redskins would alternate wins and losses all season and would finish with a 5-5-2 record."
It is quite unfortunate that so many people have accepted the concocted story that the word "redskin" comes from the white man paying bounties for Indian scalps. Some versions of this hoax are ridiculous, such as one published in The Virginian-Pilot (N.C. school districts rethinking use of Indian mascots, By CATHERINE KOZAK, March 29, 2003), which says
"The word Redskin is considered derogatory. The term comes from centuries ago when a bounty was placed on Indian people. Trappers would bring in Indian scalps along with the skins of animals -- bearskin, deerskin, redskin. For Indians, it is a reminder of their genocide".
It strains credulity that fur traders would be collecting scalps of Indians. Here is another blatantly false version by a Spokane Indian woman, Dr. Charlene Teeters.
"Redskin was the shorthand name for a body part like a scalp or hands, of Native American people who were slaughtered to collect bounty payments. The symbol used to mark the locations where bounty hunters could collect payments was the decapitated head of a Native American, not unlike those symbols often used by sports teams."
The term "redskin" has been in use since at least as early as 1699. The British government did not offer bounties for scalps until more than fifty years later, during the French and Indian War. For our erudition, some soul has created a list of all the known slur words in the English language, so if you want to be safe in your speech and writing, go here. For a more indepth study of William Lone Star Dietz including a collections of photographs of him in Indian dress, go here.

Red Was the Color of War

Face Painting

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This story was revised on 12 August 2021, to correct broken links.


  1. "It strains credulity that fur traders would be collecting scalps of Indians."

    While there is no evidence of traders selling Indian scalps as if they were a commodity, it is true that some colonial and state governments paid scalp bounties, i.e., a cash reward for the scalp of a dead Indian. These were always controversial, but they did exist. You can find more details here (an answer to a question posed on Quora).

    I agree that the word "redskin" did not come from the taking of scalps.

    Your article is very informative. What I take away from it is that "redskin" is a name conferred on Indians by white people, not a name they give themselves. Since the 1960s and the rise of Indian political assertiveness, a growing number of Indians has denounced "redskin" as offensive. That's their prerogative.

    Words change, and sometimes we have to change how we use them. The first British cerebral palsy charity was founded as the Spastics Society, but in time the name had to change. Crayola stopped calling one of its colors "Indian red," even though they insisted the name wasn't meant to describe a skin color. Planter's no longer sells redskin peanuts. However benevolently the name may have been conferred, eventually Washington will have to give up on "Redskins."

  2. Just because the name was given to them by white people does not make it offensive. Quite a few native Americans take pride in the team name. The name "Yankee" is far more offensive than "Redskin" as it was meant as a derogatory name.

  3. Nice Article, However from a Native point of view the word did in fact originate with Native people. The early descriptions of Natives by Europeans described us as Twany or bronze or copper. The Reference to Red is a Native Spiritual Reference. There were some tribes that used Red clay or Red pigmented paint to cover their bodies, but it would bee presumptuous to think that the europeans were calling us Red People Before we did. As I said before Red is a Spiritual Reference and not Physical. We came form Mother Earth, the Red Earth therefore we are Red People.

  4. Great article, and sorely needed.


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