Hail to the history of the term Redskins

Daniel Snyder, the owner of Washington D.C.’s NFL franchise , is in the news again. On Monday he released a letter announcing the creation of the Original Americans Foundation which will “provide meaningful and measurable resources that provide genuine opportunities for Tribal communities.”

Why is a White owner of a Mid-Atlantic sports franchise creating a foundation dedicated to supporting Native American tribes? The answer lies in the team’s name: the Redskins. Over the last year, the Redskins, and by extension their owner, have come under scrutiny for running a team whose nickname is a derogatory term in other contexts. Though this controversy is not new, the team’s success and return to national prominence during the 2012 season have led to a huge increase in opposition to the name, going as high as President Obama. In response, Snyder has said multiple times that the name is not changing any time to soon. Predictably this has not exactly engendered much sympathy. So this latest announcement is part of his strategy to deflect some of the criticism.

I’m not going to get into the entire controversy here. But what I’m interested in is the use of the actual word “Redskins” over time. Words evolve, and perhaps it means something different today. Luckily Google Ngram Viewer can help. Google Ngram analyzes how often a word or phrase is used in the corpus of about 5 billion books that have been digitized via Google Books. It then graphs the use of the word in the books as a percent for the given year range. Here’s is the “Redskins” Ngram:

RedskinsFirst a caveat. Again, the chart only shows the use of Redskins in printed books; so we can say it did not appear often in print prior to the Civil War, but can’t asses whether it was still a common part of the oral vernacular then (and in subsequent years when it was more commonly published). After 1860, it peaked significantly in the mid 1870s, and around 1890. Custer’s Last Stand was 1876 and the Wounded Knee Massacre occurred in 1890. So it makes sense that a significant amount of print then would focus on Natives, calling them terms like Redskins.

And what about the football team? The team first used the name “Redskins” in 1933, so that partly explains the increase in the word around then. But most importantly, since 1960 there has been a roughly constant increase in the use of the word “Redskins” (outside of a blip in the late 70s) culminating in its highest levels… in 2000! So just looking at this chart, we might conclude that calling Native Americans Redskins is more common now than at the height of the Indian Wars.

In reality, the term used in 1890 was different than the term being used increasingly from the mid 1970s and today. Ngram also allows you to see what books use the given word. Prior to the football team, Redskins appear in such books as “The Redskins, Or, Indian and Injin” or “Redskin and Cowboy–A Tale of the Western Plains.” However, since 1970, the books are predominantly about the football team. In fact, the rise and fall of the word in the last 40 years correlates to the team’s success. The first major peak in 1974 occurred in the midst of a five-year playoff run including the team’s first Super Bowl appearance. The relative valley in the following years correspond to a playoff absence from 1977-1981. Then from 1980 until 1993 there is a rapid increase–during this time the Redskins won three Super Bowls while appearing in another and became one of the most popular and dominant teams in the NFL.

Of course, we shouldn’t overstate Ngram’s findings. These rise and falls only show correlation with military and sports events, and not causation. And again, the term’s frequency only relates to publications. The NFL is the most covered and followed American sport; it makes sense that one of its high-profile teams would receive significant amounts of coverage in today’s 24-7 sports world. So we shouldn’t overlook the term’s non-literary uses. Still, Dan Snyder would be happy to know that the term today is clearly associated with the team, and not just Native Americans.



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About Zach Klitzman

A History Grad student at American University

4 responses to “Hail to the history of the term Redskins”

  1. drdankerr says :

    Nice use of Ngram — I like how you dug into the sources to get a greater feel for the context of use. With that said, I somewhat disagree with your findings. The chart appears to show the football team as the primary reason Redskin as a word is still used. Which suggests from the anti-Redskin name group, that a name change would have significant impact on the prevalence of the word in popular culture.

  2. adamgang says :

    Great post, Zach. I particularly like how you delve into the evolution of the term, and explain the historical context. I definitely agree with you that the the word “Redskin” is nowhere near as commonly offensive as it probably was 100 years ago. It seems like with his wallet, Snyder is trying to de-emphasize the negative connotations of the word, and bring it more under a cultural umbrella.

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