By Rande Davis
Not now, I’m too busy. That was my first thought when the outcry of the team name Redskins came into the headlines again this past week. The world is going crazy at a rate that surpasses the 1960s, and the big news item seems to be the Redskins name.
If our current world circumstances were a Broadway play, I cannot decide which musical better describes our times: Stop the World I Want to Get Off or It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Nevertheless, while the IRS loses two years of emails, the patent office decision on the trademark use of the term Redskins steals the show.
What gives the name Redskins meaning? Words do have meaning, and meaning is defined by the times in which they are used. While the use of the term redskins was used negatively in the past, as it is used by the team today, it is not negative, or at the very least, not intentionally. Someone offered the idea that what they really should do is keep Redskins but drop the name Washington for being too embarrassing. They might have something there.
We in Poolesville certainly know something about offending without intention. After all, we “insensitively” heralded our school sport teams the Indians in the past. We changed to accommodate (after we voted incorrectly to keep the Indians mascot and were forced to change). Of course, we didn’t mean offense but, never mind, apparently some did find it so. Nowadays, when using an adjective, the definition is not based on the user of the word but the recipient. There was a time when, in literature, scholars sought the meaning of the author. Not now. Under the new proposition, scholars need to seek the meaning as defined by the reader or listener and not just the majority of them, but a significant composite of the group of readers/listeners will do.
While we scrapped the use of the term Indian because Native Americans are not from India, we could still name things Seneca all we want. Seneca store, Seneca Creek, Seneca Quarry, Seneca Schoolhouse, even Seneca Valley High School are all safe and respectful, right? Only if you use it based on the meaning today. If you use it as it was used in the past, then you offend. You see, Seneca, as it applied to our area, was an offensive term. Why? Because the Seneca did not ever live here, they are from western New York. While they penetrated Pennsylvania through hunting expeditions and military campaigns, they didn’t make it to Poolesville. We name things Seneca because British troops came to call all Native Americans Seneca just as predecessors came to call them all Indians. The Seneca were allies of the British, so one might argue that calling all indigenous peoples Seneca was not meant to be offensive but neither was calling them all Indians meant to be offensive either. Certainly, the Redskins name as used by the team is not meant to be offensive. Don’t tell me it’s just like the N word. Seventy percent (current polls) of Native Americans are not offended by Washington using the name. The use of the N word would never be accepted by even one percent, never mind seventy percent of African Americans.
You want to know what is really insulting? It’s the complete obliteration of the knowledge of the history of the Indians who lived here. If, instead of ending the use of Indians as the mascot, we devoted a couple days per year to learning about local tribes, we would find some interesting things. We would learn that we could name things after the Tuscarora or Piscataway without offense as both lived here for a time. The Tuscarora were here for a short while as they migrated from New York to North Carolina, then passed through again when they returned to New York. The Piscataways escaped to our area from the Eastern Shore to flee attacks from the Pennsylvania Susquehannocks, a belligerent tribe who got to thinking the crabs and oysters were meant for them.
Let’s face it, the real offense is not in unintentionally naming a sports team after the heroic noble red men through a bygone term that offended; it is how successfully we have removed them from our history as if they were never here. Next time you drive down Fisher Avenue try to envision its earliest use. We name it after the Fisher Farm that was there, but, originally, it was a trail to the river used by Native Americans. I guess you could change its name to be more historically accurate, just don’t call it Great Seneca Highway