Hail To the Redskins: NFL Must Save Name, Image, Legacy
By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts Native Historian (@footballfacts)
What do the Boston Tea Party, Valley Forge, the Declaration of Independence, Fenway Park and New York City's famed Tammany Hall have to do with the percolating controversy over the Washington Redskins?
Quite a lot, actually.
They're all reasons the NFL, and any American who values multicultural diversity, must rally to save the name of the Washington Redskins, along with the team's history, legacy and feather-headed Indian logo.
As you know there is a movement afoot to erase the name Redskins from the NFL. This would be a tragic mistake, a disservice to our national heritage.
NBC sports commentator Bob Costas lashed out at the name Redskins Sunday night, calling it an “insult” and a “slur.” Columnist William Rhoden of the New York Times wrote a story expressing similar sentiments the other day.
Prominent sports writers like Peter King and Bill Simmons pledged this season not to use the name Redskins on their websites. Other publications are doing the same.
We assume the sincerity of these folks, that they have legitimate concerns about the name of the team. King in particular has always been kind to the Cold, Hard Football Facts, and we’ve had a long affiliation with SI.com, even covering three Super Bowls for it.
Our understanding is that King said only that the finds the name “uncomfortable.”
So the goal here is not to question anyone’s motives. The goal instead is to set the record straight on the facts of history.
The reality is that the Redskins legacy is much more profound than opponents of the name realize. It is in fact a celebration of the unique confluence of historic, cultural and racial circumstances that made the creation of the United States not only possible, but a dramatic development in the evolution of mankind.
It’s a story that should be told. That must be told. And that will be told right here.
Once those facts are known we can return to celebrating the great legacy of the Washington Redskins.
Meet Tammany: “the Patron Saint of America”
Tamanend, also known as Tammany, was a 17th-century Lenni Lenape (Delaware Indian) sachem and confidante of William Penn, the namesake of the great state of Pennsylvania and founder of Philadelphia.
Tammany was later revered as a patriotic figure in colonial America and in the early days of the new nation.
Tamanend is also the reason the Redskins are called the Redskins, and why they wear helmets adorned with the distinctive feathered Indian head logo today – that logo once a symbol of multicultural American pride.
That’s a portrayal of Tamanend that appeared in the 1938 book “The Tammany Legend” by Joseph White Norwood.
It looks a hell of a lot like the face on the side of the Redskins helmet, from the shape of the nose to the pair of feathers to the long, swept-back black hair.
So you’ve seen Tammany's likeness, even if you didn’t know it. But you probably never heard of Tammany. And you’re not alone.
Tamanend’s influence on the colonies and the young American nation was so profound that he was dubbed the Patron Saint of America and holidays were celebrated in his honor each year, usually on May 1.
(“Saint” Tammany was not canonized. But it’s possible he converted to Christianity during his friendship with the devout Quaker Penn.)
Future president John Adams wrote about “King Tammany Day” in Philadelphia in a letter to his wife Abigail back in Boston in 1777, while serving as a delegate to the Continental Congress. George Washington referenced Tammany Day, too, while camped out at Valley Forge in 1778, at the hopeless depths of the American Revolution.
“Prior to the American Revolution, militia companies or semi-military groups based their social organizations on Indian pattern and often with Indian ceremonies,” wrote Norwood in "The Tammany Legend."
This native influence in colonial American culture is why rebellious colonists dressed as Indians before famously ransacking British ships during the Boston Tea Party in 1773, one of the pivotal events leading up to the American Revolution. (That’s a Currier lithograph portraying the event, with the tea-tossing rebels in Native dress.)
There were similar but less heralded tea revolts in other parts of the country, in each case with colonists dressed as American Indians.
The key here is American, not Indian.
Colonists identified with natives as a way to announce to the British Crown that they were free Americans first, not European subjects. In the realm of geopolitics, it was like wearing a team jersey to the big game – you want to make sure everyone knows which side you support.
The association with Tammany went deeper than just a few heated tea disputes.
“Many (colonists) regarded the story of Tamanend a fitting symbol for their ideals of freedom,” wrote Norwood (page 143). "This Tamanend was an original American holy man worthy of being sainted – so he was promptly given the name of Saint Tammany, patron of America.”
Tammany Societies sprouted first in Philadelphia in 1772 and then other cities around the land. The Tammany movement was later propelled forward by veterans of the War for Independence. His image soon adorned coins, documents and even the halls of political institutions.
You probably heard of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall during civics class. That was the Democratic Party machine (a famously corrupt one) that dominated New York City politics in the 19th century.
Yup. Famed Tammany Hall was one of those societies dedicated to the same Delaware Indian. His face – the face of the Washington Redskins – was the symbol of this famed Democratic Party institution. And Tammany Hall, as you’ll see below, has a direct connection to the Redskins today.
This is a picture of Tammany Hall in New York City, with a statue of the feather-headed Tammany in the arch over the top of the building.
It’s no coincidence that American devotion to “Saint” Tammany in the 18th century coincided with rising nationalist fervor, with a growing desire to be seen as an enlightened New World culture of free men distinct from a decrepit Old World defined by ethnicity, peerage and birthright.
It was this blend of old and new cultures that made the creation of the United States possible.
The Founding Fathers are often seen as the supreme manifestation of the European Enlightenment. But their intellectual foundation was far more complex, possible thanks only to the blend of cultures and races unique to the New World.
Norwood argued (as have others) in the “The Tammany Legend” that American democracy was not just a product of the European Enlightenment, but also of “aboriginal American ideals.”
“The American ideals of human right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ spring chiefly from original American sources and were developed on American soil for untold centuries before Europeans arrived on this continent … these ideals are therefore so distinctively native to the soil that they should be known as the first Americans knew them, by a name that completely symbolizes them. This name is Tamanend.”
In other words, Tammany embodied the physical and intellectual forces that set in motion the creation of the new nation – an act which has had profound benefit for the advancement of mankind, however awkwardly that advancement has moved forward.
So THIS is the man whose red-skinned image proudly adorns the helmet of the football team that now plays, appropriately enough, in the American capitol.
This native, a unique symbol of New World freedom and ideals at the nation’s founding, is the image critics want to wipe from the history books, like a piece of annoying cultural dust.
Evolution of the Redskins: Tammany Hall, Fenway Park, D.C.
So how did Tammany’s face and skin color come to represent the Washington Redskins? Well, the name and the image of the NFL team that plays in Washington has a long and colorful history.
That color is red.
The NFL team we now know as the Washington Redskins debuted in 1932, as the Boston Braves. The Boston Football Braves that season played their home games at Braves Field along the Charles River, the home of the well-established Boston Braves of Major League Baseball’s National League.
The Boston Baseball Braves began life as the Boston Red Stockings in 1871 and they were a charter member of baseball’s National Association, now the National League.
The Red Stockings changed names a number of times, an issue complicated by the fact that Boston’s American League baseball team, founded in 1901, usurped the name and began calling itself the Red Sox in 1908.
The National League team finally settled on the name Boston Braves in 1912, when the franchise was purchased by James Gaffney. He’s the one who gave the team its familiar feathered Indian head logo – similar to the one you still see today on Washington Redskins helmets.
Gaffney, you see, was a political operative and influential member of New York’s Tammany Hall. Yup, the same Tammany Hall of Boss Tweed fame, one of those societies named for Tamanend, the Delaware chief beloved in colonial and early-nation America.
Gaffney found the alliterative name Boston Braves a way to bring the image of Tammany Hall, the image of this great American Indian, to the fields of America’s Pastime.
He had Tammany’s likeness, similar the one that stood over Tammany Hall, added to the Braves uniforms.
Babe Ruth played for the Braves in 1935: you can see the Indian head image on his jersey.
You might say that Saint Tamanend had crossed over from politics to pop culture, 136 years after the Declaration of Independence that he helped inspire.
The new Boston Braves retained red in their color scheme: a team tradition dating back to the franchise’s days as the Red Stockings. The Braves now play in Atlanta, of course, and red is still a part of their color scheme.
Tammany’s likeness stuck with the baseball Braves as the franchise moved to Milwaukee and then to Atlanta. His image still adorned Braves uniforms at least until 1966 (see this link here), the team's first year in Atlanta.
It has since, sadly, been removed from Braves uniforms – the great Indian’s story and image already a victim of political correctness.
Fast forward 20 years: from the founding of the Boston Baseball Braves in 1912 to the creation of the Boston Football Braves in 1932.
It was common at the time for teams in the upstart NFL to adopt the names of the more established local baseball teams, especially since the baseball clubs often hosted the NFL teams’ home games.
- Chicago was home to baseball’s Cubs. So combative George Halas one-upped them and renamed his young team the Bears in 1922.
- New York City in the 1920s was home to three baseball teams, including the National League Giants. The Mara family adopted the name Giants when they founded their NFL franchise in 1925. Both teams played in the same famed Polo Grounds.
- The NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers began life as the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1933.
The new NFL team in Boston in 1932 followed that tradition when it adopted the same name, same red color scheme and same feathered Indian head logo of Saint Tammany, while playing in the same Braves Field.
The Boston Football Braves lasted only one year. They moved to Fenway Park, the home of the American League’s Red Sox, the following season.
The young NFL franchise suddenly faced a branding conundrum, an indentity crisis.
They could no longer keep the name Braves. Yet they wanted to continue the tradition of red in the Boston uniform, now dating across two sports, three sports leagues and more than five decades. They wanted to keep alive the franchise’s Native American heritage and image. And they wanted to pay tribute to their new home-field hosts, the Red Sox.
The name Redskins was a perfect fit on every front: tradition, history, patriotism, home-team tribute and even color scheme. It also afforded the franchise an opportunity keep alive the distinctive Tammany Hall Indian head logo. (You can see the evolution of Redskins logos here at Chris Creamer's SportsLogos.net.)
Hell, the name Redskins was not just perfect. It was brilliant. The name was seen at the time (and is still seen by the American public in general and the Native American community in particular) as all sports names are seen: as a tribute, not an insult.
Critics of the Redskins name routinely point out that team owner George Preston Marshall was a racist. Evidence seems to indicate he was. And they use this fact as the foundation of their belief that the name Redskins must also be racist. But as a friend posted on Facebook: "Someone please tell me a SINGLE good reason a team would select a derogatory name to call themselves. There isn't, they didn't, get over it."
Boston didn’t quite work out for the team, of course. Marshall moved the franchise to Washington D.C. before the 1937 season. They drafted an amazing ballplayer out of TCU that year named Sammy Baugh, the Pigskin Messiah.
The Redskins won the NFL championship that very same 1937 season and began a long, storied history in the nation’s capital – a history under assault right now.
The Redskins are the only team in the nation's most popular sport that pays tribute to the original Americans and to the history and spirit of a forgotten figure in our national history. It's a tribute everytime the Redskins take the field to a “sainted” Native American holy man beloved by the young nation in our struggling early days.
It’s only fitting that the Redskins play today it in the nation’s capital, in the city named for the Father of His Country: the words Washington Redskins joined side by side, much the way Americans saw themselves at the nation’s founding, a unique blend of transplanted European and native American forging a new culture and a new kind of nation on the world stage.
It's important that Americans rally to support the Redskins, to keep this legacy alive.
Hell, if we change the name of the Redskins, we might as well change the name of Washington D.C.
A Personal Postscript on the Redskins
My mother’s mother died four years before I was born. She burned to death in the kitchen of the home in which I later grew up.
The grandmother I never knew was Native American. How much? What kind? I don’t know in either case. Family stories differ: Some say she was Nipmuc. Others Micmac. My grandmother was only in her 40s at the time; my mom just 16. Nobody thought to get the whole story. I might have learned more had she lived to be an old woman.
Regardless, she certainly looked like a Native American, and I carry several physical traits typical of American Indians, too.
Though the family history was scant, I grew up proud of the fact that my ancestry in this land preceded the arrival of the Europeans, that my late grandmother and I descenced from the original North Americans.
That pride is the reason why I went to kindergarten in Boston toting a tin Washington Redskins lunchbox. I, too, was a Redskin! It’s the reason I adopted the Redskins as my favorite team as a child.
It’s the reason why, as a 13-year-old boy, I was moved to near tears at my uncle’s house when the Raiders crushed my beloved Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII. I was proud of the Redskins, associated with the Redskins, because I grew up thinking that I had had red skin in me.
Hell, I’m also Irish-American and this personal ancestry is also the reason I adopted the Notre Dame Fighting Irish as my favorite college football team.
Is the name Redskins offensive? The reality is that not many folks think so. One survey showed that 90 percent of Native Americans said they did not find the name offensive (an AP headline said there was "no consensus" on the issue. Hello AP: 90 percent IS consensus).
Consider that the Red Mesa High School Redskins proudly play football on a Navajo reservation in Arizona.
And the Times-Dispatch of Richmond, Va., recently interviewed the leaders of local Indian tribes for their feedback:
“I don’t think there’s any intention for (the nickname) to be derogatory. The majority of the people in my tribe don’t have a problem with it," said Kevin Brown, chief of the Pamunkey Tribe of Virginia.
“It doesn’t bother me,” said Robert Green, chief of the Patawomeck Tribe. “About 98 percent of my tribe is Redskins fans, and it doesn’t offend them, either.”
“I don’t have an issue with it,” said G. Anne Richardsoon, chief of the Rapphannock Tribe. “There are so many more issues that are important for the tribe than to waste time on what a team is called. We’re worried about real things, and I don’t consider that a real thing."
There is no indication, in other words, that the Native American community alleged to be offended cares much about the issue.
I always took pride in the name and adopted the team because they were called the Redskins. If they were called, say, the Washington Senators (talk about offensive) I'd have had no reason to support the team.
In fact, I will be offended if the NFL caves to misinformed public pressure and takes the Redskins away from me.
Meanwhile, the notion that somebody would name a franchise as a way to “insult” or “slur” a certain ethnicity simply does not pass the logic test. Team names like Redskins and Fighting Irish are in fact tributes, not insults. I rooted for both teams because both were tributes to my personal ancestry.
There’s a bigger issue here, too: There’s been a movement afoot in recent decades to rewrite and simplify American history, to paint our national origins as a source of shame instead of a source of pride that unites us as Americans first.
It’s anti-intellectual, blunt-head trauma Howard Zinn-style pop history. The way colonial American history is portrayed and taught these days is largely as a combative situation of white Europeans slaughtering the red-skinned natives.
The natives sure as hell got the short end of the stick. But the truth, as the example of Tammany shows, is far more complex than the pop version modern history.
The truth is that the unknown and unintended impact of disease largely wiped out native populations during the days of European exploration and that European settlers arrived to find weakened even broken societies, putting the prehistoric natives (a people with no writing) at yet another disadvantage.
The truth is that red-skinned Americans lived in near perpetual states of intertribal and even civil warfare, much like white Europeans did back in the Old World.
The truth is that both races had enemies even among their "own kind" and used each other to gain advantage over them.
The Wampanoags, to cite one example of thousands, encouraged Pilgrim Myles Standish to engage in a joint attack on Wessagusett, a short distance from my home, where they slaughtered an encampment of Massachusetts Indians.
The Massachusetts were seated an even shorter distance from my home, at a spot called Moswetuset Hummock, from which the state gets its name.
Geographic place names are testament to the fact that the interaction was more complex than the one-sided pop-history version.
The truth is that the story was not always one of white VERSE red. The relations were often far friendlier, like that of Penn and Tammany. European Americans and Native Americans often lived side by side, befriended each other, fought together, loved each other, intermarried and, of course, reproduced. Millions of Americans today boast mixed-race ancestry.
We should celebrate those legacies that unite our culture and make it in unique. We should celebrate the history and legacy of the Washington Redskins.
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