Redskin (1699) is a “dated or offensive” term for Native Americans. It seems to be more common in the US than in Britain: British dictionaries and usage guides do not always list it.
The idea that Natives had “red” skin goes back to the 1580s in English. But the word “redskin” did not appear till 1699.
There are different accounts of where the word came from:
- C. A. Weslager, a White American historian of the Delaware Indians, says it comes from Natives painting their skin red.
- Geoffrey Nunberg, a White American linguist, says it came into English 200 years ago (early 1800s) from a Native term.
- Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, a Native American historian, says it comes from what a scalped body looks like: covered in blood. According to Webster-Merriam dictionary, the word goes back to 1699, which was just when scalping of Natives by White Americans was becoming common.
In Google Books, the word first appears in 1784 and did not become a trending term till the late 1800s, from 1857 to 1896. That was when Whites were wiping out Natives in what is now the western US.
However innocently the word may have started, all the White stereotypes about Natives as savages, whether brutal or noble, were poured into the word. When the word was brought up, the stereotypes were there too, whether in book or film.
Despite all that, Whites regarded the term as “purely descriptive”. They used to think the same about the N-word.
In 1961, “Webster’s Third International” dictionary warned its readers not to use “nigger”, “kike” and “chink”, but not “white trash”, “gook”, “wetback”, “fag” – or “redskin”.
In 1967, in the wake of the civil rights movement, White dictionaries began to mark it as offensive, beginning with Random House.
By the 1990s, it was regarded as offensive by Webster-Merriam, American Heritage and Oxford/Fowler’s.
Even so, it is still used by some 300 high school sports teams in the US. And, most infamously, by the Washington Redskins, the American football team of Washington, DC. They have had the name since 1933.
Bruce Allen (White American), the team’s president, says the name:
“has always been respectful of and shown reverence toward the proud legacy and traditions of Native Americans.”
Professor Devon Mihesuah (Choctaw) sees it differently:
“Sports teams fans of the Cleveland Indians and the Washington Redskins insult Indians with their drunkenness, dyed turkey feathers and sloppy face paint, screeching war hoops and spasmodic dance steps that belong to no tribe.”
Protests against the team’s name began in 1968.
In 1995, the team was taken to court: under the Lanham Act, the government does not protect trademarked names that disparage a group. In 2014, the courts ruled against the team, but the team appealed the decision, so it is not yet settled.
Dan Snyder, the team’s owner, instead of changing the name, said he would start the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation – repeating the mistake! Stephen Colbert made fun of that – at the expense of Asian Americans!!!
– Abagond, 2015.
Sources: Etymology Online (2015); Google Ngram Viewer (2015); Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States” (2014); The Atlantic (2014); Devon A. Mihesuah, “American Indians: Stereotypes & Realities” (1996); C.A. Weslager, “The Delaware Indians: A History” (1972).