Saturday, May 24, 2014

Hail to the Beothuks

What's in a name?

Shakespeare asked that question in "Romeo and Juliet" more than 400 years ago. His answer ("That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet") may have mollified folks in his own time, but it isn't adequate for most modern discussions on the subject.

(I have long believed that George Carlin made an excellent point about a company's name needing to be appropriate for the product it makes. "If Janitor in a Drum made a douche," he pointed out, "no one would buy it" — and, I might add, with good reason.)

Case in point would be the current debate over whether the Washington Redskins should change their team nickname. (I italicize the word current because this really isn't a new debate. I've heard it all before.)

Incredibly, in an election year in which polls clearly indicate that Americans are focused on the economy and jobs, 50 senators signed a letter to team owner Daniel Snyder urging him to change the nickname.

Really? Don't they have more important things to do — like passing legislation that encourages job creation and doesn't restrict it? Or maybe figuring out a way to make the health care policies they are forcing all Americans to buy truly affordable — and making sure Americans don't die while waiting for the care they need, like the veterans in Phoenix? Or coming up with plans that really do make America less dependent on foreign oil?

And that just scratches the surface.

If I were a politician running against one of the senators who signed the letter, I would be sure to point out that, with all the problems facing this country, my opponent had been obsessing about a football team nickname — and, unless he/she represented Washington, D.C., in the Senate (which is impossible because D.C. has no senators), the nickname has no bearing on his/her constituents (unless, of course, they happen to be Redskins fans).

This obsession is a knee–jerk reaction because, unlike the word nigger or similar words that are known to offend most members of a demographic group, there exists considerable doubt about whether redskin really does offend native Americans.

The knee–jerk reaction is that Redskins is a racial term and/or a reference to the blood that was spilled. The latter is a little closer to the truth, but it isn't precise. In fact, it was a reference to the red paint that the warriors from a particular tribe put on themselves prior to battle.

Not really different from the colonists' use of the term redcoats to describe British soldiers — which is much less offensive, in my opinion, than some of the terms that were used by soldiers in 20th–century wars to describe their foes.

Why not tell the Kansas City Chiefs to change their nickname?

That one is a little tricky. While their onfield mascot is an Indian, and they play their games in Arrowhead Stadium, the fact is that the Chiefs got their name because the Kansas City mayor, Harold Roe Bartle, was instrumental in getting the team moved there from Dallas. The mayor's nickname was Chief (a name he acquired, apparently, from his habit of responding to all two–alarm fires wearing firefighter's garb — hat, coat and boots — when he was mayor).

Can you handle a little more history? I'm talking about the real stuff here, not the stuff that folks have manufactured to support their political biases, and I know that most people have an aversion to history (i.e., facts) so, if you need to take a breather, feel free to do so. Get yourself a cup of coffee. Take a deep breath. Then come back. I'll still be here.

Ready? Good. Let's proceed.

It is ironic to me that the term redskin is believed to be offensive to native Americans — because it doesn't refer to a tribe that lived on American soil. It referred to a tribe called the Beothuks, who lived in Canada on the island of Newfoundland.

Their story really is a sad one. When the Beothuks came in contact with European settlers in the 15th and 16th centuries, they relocated to other coastal areas on the island to avoid contact with the Europeans, who set up their fishing camps in ever–increasing numbers.

Eventually, the Beothuks moved to inland Newfoundland, which created new problems. The biggest one was that their main sources for food were fish, seals and caribou. Moving inland robbed them of two, and the caribou population declined due to overhunting. That, in turn, led to a severe food shortage.

Eventually, many of the Beothuks starved to death, but many also fell victim to diseases they acquired through exposure to the Europeans, and others were killed in violent conflicts with the Europeans — conflicts in which, no doubt, many of the Beothuks painted themselves with red war paint.

I've heard some people argue that Redskins is an offensive word. Such an argument needs proof to support it. America, after all, is a land of laws, one of which is that proof is necessary to support an allegation. While it doesn't qualify as the kind of proof that could be offered in a courtroom, the only proof of whether the term offends native Americans seems to be available through surveys.

Surveys aren't 100% reliable, I know, but, nevertheless, last year CBS conducted a survey of native Americans asking them if they were offended by Redskins; nine out of 10 were not.

In the current debate, I suppose it would be a good idea to find out how the Beothuks feel about the Redskins nickname, but that isn't possible. The last known living member of the tribe died of tuberculosis almost 185 years ago.

What I and anyone else may think — or even what those 50 senators may think — has no real bearing on it. As far as I know, none is descended, even partially, from native Americans (Elizabeth Warren's claim notwithstanding).

Team nicknames are typically things that evoke pride in fans. Sometimes it is a name that has historic or regional significance — nicknames like Seminoles, Utes, Warriors, etc., fall in this category.

Granted, sometimes nicknames are absurd; sometimes they make no sense (unless you know the whole story behind them).

But, unless the name is truly offensive, this is carrying political correctness to an extreme.

Save your outrage for teams called the Terrorists or the Klansmen.

No comments: