Playing Flag Football, Playing Indian

My 12 year old son is an avid sports fan and hard-core athlete. This past Spring he was on two basketball teams (one in Brooklyn and one in the Bronx) as well as a nationally-ranked track team. But his great love is football. He’s in two fantasy football leagues and has played flag football for the past two years. And this is where my story begins.

Last Sunday we got an email from his flag football league, St. Francis Xavier (SFX). The league is sponsored by the NFL, so all the teams are named after NFL teams (although there aren’t enough kids to field an entire “league,” so not all the professional teams are represented). Last year and the year before, he was in the Broncos in the 10-12’s age group. Now he’s in the 12-14’s his name went back into the hopper to be assigned to a new team. The email was to let us know that he had been assigned to the Redskins.

As you might know, there’s been an ongoing campaign to have the Washington, DC franchise change their name. The National Congress of American Indians put together this ad to be aired during the 2014 Superbowl, explaining why the believe the team should change its name from what is indisputably a racial slur. Washington owner Dan Snyder has argued that the name  “represents honor, represents respect, represents pride,” and is part of a long tradition of respect for indigenous people.  Indeed, when my partner wrote to the coach of our son’s team to protest the use of the franchise’s name, he echoed these sentiments, maintaining that “the team name has great positive connotations for many. They’re a venerable beloved franchise with an extraordinary history. We hope to teach the values of determination, courage, and honor associated with them.”

The term “tradition” comes up a lot in regard to this issue. And to a certain extent, Snyder and the flag football coach aren’t wrong. The use of images and names indigenous Americans has a long tradition in US history. As Philip J. Deloria shows in his 1999 book Playing Indian, ever since the Boston Tea Party, white Americans have been appropriating indigeneity to define their own Americanness. By taking on Indian names and ersatz rituals, as various fraternal orders modeled on indigenous peoples did (most famously the Tammany Society, but also less well-known fraternities like the Order of Red Men as well as, much later on, the Boy Scouts), white American men could align themselves with the American landscape even as they attempted to eradicate indigenous people from it. Enacting Indianness, in Deloria’s words, “legitimated [white Americans] as aboriginal, and carved out a distinctive masculine identity for them that transferred the right of residence to them.”

Team names are only a part of this phenomenon. In fact, my kids already got a taste of playing Indian at their sleepaway camp this year. The bunks are named after Indian nations (Wichita, Pawnee, Chicopee, etc), and their colour war competition is known as “tribals.” They don’t dress up in fake Indian clothes or enact “war dances” as campers in the 1950s and ’60s did, but the appropriation of indigenous names — almost wholly divorced from geographic specificity — is part and parcel of the camp experience.

The issue of the name of the Washington, DC team (and its flag football avatar) seems to me both qualitatively and quantitatively worse, though. After all, I can’t imagine that many people would find the use of the term “redskin” unproblematic in any context except football. We’re still figuring out how to respond to the coach’s specious response. Our son, by the way, is furious not just that he’s been assigned to this team, but that SFX would choose to include it in their roster, and he’s willing to protest against it. We’re thinking about our next move…

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