Why Did the Washington Redskins Choose the Name “Redskins” in the First Place, Rather than Some Other Native American Name?

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[This is a continuation of an earlier post, “Why the Redskins are Called the Redskins.”] 

In a recently “discovered” Associated Press story of July 5, 1933, owner George Preston Marshall of the National Football League’s Boston franchise is quoted as saying that he was changing the team’s name from “Braves” to “Redskins” to avoid confusion with Boston’s baseball Braves. This bit of evidence has been proclaimed to disprove the contemporary Washington Redskins’ claim that the name change was to honor the team’s newly appointed Indian coach, William Lone Star Dietz.

However, that is not necessarily the case. All the quote really establishes is that Marshall felt he had to change the team’s name before the 1933 season began; it does not necessarily explain why he chose the name “Redskins” as the replacement name. The name change was apparently necessary because Marshall had entered into an agreement for his team to play in Fenway Park in 1933, rather than in Braves Park, as it had done in 1932.

The story of how the team came to choose the name “Redskins” is a complicated one and for which the evidence is somewhat sketchy.

One thing that is clear is that several months before July 1933, Marshall had decided that he was going to bring “Indian football” back to the National Football League. Indian football was a wide open brand of early twentieth century football, usually played by Native American teams, that featured lots of passing and trick plays. It was most strongly associated with the college teams fielded by the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania between 1893 and 1917, and during the 1920’s with the Haskell Indian Institute teams from Lawrence, Kansas. For two years, 1922 and 1923, the National Football League had also featured the Oorang Indians, an all-Native American team based in Larue, Ohio, that featured player-coach Jim Thorpe.

It is likely that the availability of Coach Deitz, a well-known figure in college football who had been a teammate of Thorpe at the Carlisle Indian School and had taken teams to two Rose Bowl games, figured into this decision. At the time of his hiring by Marshall, Dietz was the coach at the Haskell Indian Institute and was famous for the “trick” plays and unconventional formations deployed by his teams. While it is true that Marshall had long been fascinated by certain aspects of Native American history, it seems likely that the availability of Dietz, combined with the resignation of previous Head Coach Lud Wray, led him to embrace the idea of reviving Indian football when he did.

Although Marshall’s team had begun play in the NFL as the Boston Braves in 1932, little effort was made that first year to exploit the Native American connection. Unlike the Boston Braves baseball team, which was the first American sports team to wear an Indian insignia on its uniforms, the 1932 football Braves deployed no such imagery. In 1933, in contrast, Marshall planned to fully exploit the Native American connection. An Indian head symbol was adopted as the team’s logo and placed on the front of the players’ jerseys, and Marshall encouraged Dietz to recruit some Indian players for the team. (At least six Native Americans, most of whom had played for Dietz at Haskell, had tryouts with the team, and four made the final roster.)

In marketing the team before the 1933 season, Marshall had Dietz and some of the Indian players photographed in full Native American regalia, and during the first home game of the 1933 season the players, Indian and non-Indian alike, were required to wear war paint on their faces. Dietz stalking the sidelines wearing his Sioux headdress was also a regular sight at the team’s games, and the team’s new playbook had a clear Indian football slant. (Whether Dietz’s plays would work in the NFL was a different question.)

The original plan was to play in 1933, as in 1932, under the name Boston Braves, but with a much greater “Indian” emphasis. The decision to relocate to Fenway Park necessitated giving up the name Braves, but Marshall’s commitment to Indian football required that the team’s new name also refer in some way to Native Americans.

But why did Marshall choose “Redskins,” rather than some other name that would reflect the team’s inspiration? Why not “Indians,” or “Warriors,” or “Chiefs”?

In the American sporting landscape of 1933, there were only a handful of examples of Native American names attached to sports teams. For example, during the 1932 and 1933 seasons, there were 14 teams in Major and Minor Baseball that had Native American nicknames. “Indians” was by far the most popular, paired with the city name of teams in Cleveland, Indianapolis, Seattle (also called the Rainiers), Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and Quincy, Illinois, and Keokuk, Iowa.

In addition, three teams used the name “Chiefs” (located in Worcester, Massachusetts, Ft. Wayne, Indiana, and Muskogee, Oklahoma); two used “Braves” (Boston and Pueblo, Colorado); and the Mobile, Alabama team in the short-lived Southeastern League was called the “Red Warriors.” One team, the Memphis “Chickasaws” of the Southern Association, used a tribal name associated with its region. In college football, there were several teams with Native American names, but most, like Stanford, Dartmouth, and William and Mary used “Indians.” On the other hand, there were two schools–the University of Utah and Miami University of Ohio–that used “Redskins” as their nicknames.

Consequently, if he wanted to use a Native American team name that was somewhat familiar, Marshall’s options were limited. “Braves” was out, of course, and there was an unwritten rule in the National Football League in that era that nicknames used by major league baseball teams were reserved for the NFL teams that played in the same city. (“Braves” had been reserved for the Boston team in 1932 under this same principle.) As a result, “Indians” was also not available to Marshall. Teams with the name Cleveland Indians had played in the NFL in 1921, 1923, and 1931, and in 1933, it probably seemed likely that a new Cleveland Indians team would enter the league at some point in the future.

For all practical purposes, the list of familiar Native American team names that was available was limited to “Warriors,” “Chiefs,” and “Redskins,” unless Marshall chose to adopt a tribal name, as the baseball team the Memphis Chickasaws had done. Unfortunately, none of the tribal names associated with Boston or eastern Massachusetts—Wampanoag, Massachusett, Nauset, Nantucket, Pennacook, Pokanoket, or Pocasset—were particularly evocative, or recognizable, or even pronounceable.

The decision to choose “Redskins” may have been based, as I have argued earlier, on the phonic similarities between “Redskins” and “Red Sox,” the other team using Fenway Park in 1933. Moreover, at that time there was a certain novelty to the name “Redskins.” Although their meaning was different, the two names sounded alike, and it would be easy for fans to link the two names together. Moreover, there was an element of novelty to the name. Although the term “Redskins” was familiar to sports fans–sportswriters had regularly used “Redskins” as a synonym for “Indians” or “Braves” for years when writing about the baseball teams in Cleveland and Boston, or the football team in Cleveland–no team in the NFL had ever been officially called the “Redskins.”

Nor had there ever been a Redskins team in Major League Baseball. In fact, only once had a minor league baseball team used the name “Redskins.” That team, based in Muscogee [Muskogee], Oklahoma, played under the name “Redskins” in the Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas League in 1907, the Oklahoma-Kansas League in 1908, and the Western Association in 1911. In an era where team nicknames were quite fluid, the Muscogee team, which existed from 1905 to 1911, also played under the names “Reds” (1905); “Indians” (1906); and “Navigators” (1910-11).

While the name “Redskins” was used by at least two college teams in 1933, neither was a national powerhouse, so when the New England sporting public was presented with the new name in 1933, it probably sounded new and distinctive, but at the same time, not unfamiliar.

In addition, there are two other factors that may have influenced Marshall’s choice of “Redskins.”

One relates to the 1929 movie, Redskin, which, while not particularly well remembered today, contained one of the most sympathetic portrayals of Native Americans in the silent film era and is well-known to film historians. Redskin is the story of a young Navaho male named Wing Foot who unwillingly attends a government-operated Indian boarding school. After a period of adjustment, he does well at the school and later wins a scholarship to a prestigious eastern college where he wins great honor as a student and as an athlete. Nevertheless, his accomplishments are undercut when Wing Foot eventually discovers that he will eventually denied entry into white society because of his race. Moreover, when he returns to the Navajo as an educated man, he is rejected because of his white ways. Wing Foot finds himself trapped between the two cultures, no longer fitting into either one.

The movie was highly praised at the time for its sensitive portrayal of the plight of the Native American, and in 1930, the white actor Richard Dix, who had played Wing Foot in the film, was made an honorary member of the Kaw Indian tribe based on his supposedly realistic portrayal of a Native American in the film. The ruggedly handsome Dix had been a star athlete in his youth and in some accounts had briefly played football at the University of Minnesota. In the 1920’s he seemed to specialize in sports-related movies, portraying football and baseball players, amateur and professional boxers, auto racers, and aviators in a variety of films. Prior to his performance in Redskin, he also had won plaudits for his portrayal of a Native American character in the equally well-regarded 1925 film, The Vanishing American.

While it is hard to know precisely what Marshall thought of the film, he was certainly aware of it, given his personal connections to Dix and to Louise Brooks, who was also involved in the making of the film. Marshall had been an acquaintance of Dix (then known as Ernest “Pete” Brimmer), when the two men were young actors affiliated with the Morosco Theater in New York in the late 1910’s. Although his own career as a an actor ended when he took over the family laundry business following his father’s unexpected death in 1918, he remained fascinated with Broadway and Hollywood, and he regularly socialized with show business people and eventually married silent film star Corrine Griffith. In this context, he seems likely to have followed Dix’s film career, particularly his roles in movies involving sports, which was also a long standing passion of Marshall.

Moreover, actress Louise Brooks, with whom Marshall had a highly publicized love affair in the late 1920’s, was originally cast in Redskin as Corn Flower, Wing Foot’s Pueblo Indian love interest. Since this casting occurred during the Marshall-Brooks relationship, Marshall surely was aware of the movie, even before it went into production. (Brooks was eventually pulled from the cast so that she could star with William Powell and Jean Arthur in her first talking role in The Canary Murder Case, so she does not actually appear in Redskin.)

Given these connections, one possibility is that the name “Redskins” appealed to Marshall because it allowed him to envision a team of Richard Dix-like athletes—even to the point of most of them being white men portraying Native Americans. Another possibility is that Marshall was sensitive enough to see a connection between the character of Wing Foot in Redskin and Coach Dietz and the Indian players to be recruited for the team, all of whom, like Wing Foot, had presumably have been “Americanized” by Indian schools and team sports like football.

It is also possible that the hiring of Lone Star Dietz did affect Marshall’s decision to call the team “Redskins.” It is hard to track linguistic changes with precision, but over the course of the Twentieth Century, the meaning of the term “Redskin” shifted from a generic synonym for “Indian” or “Native American,” to a term that suggested a particular type of Indian—i.e., a war-like Plains Indian from the 1870’s or 1880’s. This, of course, was the time and place in which the vast majority of American western novels and movies of the mid-Twentieth Century were set. The continued usage of the term ”Redskins” in western movies and western fiction, and later in western television shows, combined with the gradual disappearance of the term from general usage, led to a change in meaning of word for many Americans. However, the extent to which this shift in meaning had occurred by 1933, and to what extent it had occurred with George Preston Marshall by that year, is hard to gauge.

However, it may be that the presence of Lone Star Dietz, who claimed to be a member of the Sioux Tribe, did affect Marshall’s thinking. William Dietz was one of the great imposters in American sports history. Although it is possible that his birth mother was Native-American (possibly an Ojibwa), he was raised by two German-American parents in Rice Lake, Wisconsin, and did not begin to present himself to the world as a Native American until he was nearly 20 years old. Often claiming to be a half-breed child of a Sioux woman and a German-American engineer who had grown up on an Indian reservation in South Dakota with the name Lone Star, Dietz was extraordinarily successful in convincing Native Americans that he was one of them.

Also a gifted artist who focused on Native American subjects, Dietz managed to talk his way into the Carlisle Indian School where he was a student and an instructor, as well as a star lineman on the football team. His first wife, Angel Decora, a noted Indian artist, believed he was a Native American, as did all of his Carlisle teammates and the players, Indian and non-Indian, that he coached at Washington State, the Mare Island Marine Base, Purdue, Wyoming, Louisiana Tech, and Haskell. Although the accuracy of his heritage claims was occasionally challenged, Dietz lived his entirely adult life successfully holding himself out to be Native American.

In retrospect, it is easy to disparage both Marshall and Dietz as frauds. Both inhabited personas of their own design. However, at the time of Dietz’s hiring, Marshall clearly believed that his new coach was a Sioux Indian. And, thanks to the legacy of the Dakota War of 1862, Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, no tribe, except possibly the Apaches of the Southwest, better exemplified the warlike Native Americans of western movies who were increasingly associated with the term “Redskins” (and who were often depicted as members of the Sioux Tribe).

It is possible, then, that Marshall chose to rename his team “Redskins” because he thought that the nickname was particularly appropriate for a team coached by an actual Sioux Indian. If that is what happened, then it may be true that the name was actual chosen to “honor” Lone Star Dietz.

We will never know for certain exactly why George Preston Marshall chose the name “Redskins” in the summer of 1933. As a general rule, Marshall was usually closed-mouth about his motivations, and he left little in the way of letters or diaries that might reveal his real thoughts. Most likely his decision to select the “Redskins” name was a result of all of the factors discussed above.

Whatever the explanation for the selection of “Redskins,” the significance of the change has probably been exaggerated, thanks to the shift in meaning that has occurred in regard to the word “Redskins” since 1933, and especially since the 1970’s, during which time the word “Redskin” has become widely perceived to be an ethnic slur, something that was not originally the case.

The Associated Press story regarding the name change mentioned above also ran in the Salt Lake City Tribune on July 6, 1933. That newspaper, which closely covered the University of Utah Redskins during the football season, ran the story under the title, “Boston Pro Grid Team Alters Name.” Not “changes” name, but merely “alters” name. In 1933, at least, the difference between “Braves” and “Redskins” seemed pretty insignificant to most American sports fans.

The legitimacy of non-Native Americans using Native American signifiers as sports team nicknames is an important part of the ongoing discussion concerning the proper use of racially-oriented vocabulary in American culture. Whether the use of Indian nicknames by non-Indian sports teams represents the improper appropriation of someone else’s cultural property, or whether it is a permissible use of materials properly in the public domain, is an important issue about which well-meaning people clearly disagree. However, the continued squabbling over the name “Redskins,” usually with very little attention to the complex history of the name, contributes very little to this important debate.

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3 Responses to “Why Did the Washington Redskins Choose the Name “Redskins” in the First Place, Rather than Some Other Native American Name?”

  1. Craig Kay Says:

    At last a reasonable educated response rather than accusations that couldn’t possibly be true. Thank you for this article.

  2. Jim Fulton Says:

    Standing ovation! Well written and in depth study on the origins of the Washington Redskins. I knew there was more to the story that what we are being told. And someone finally did his homework. The sad news is that even though you put a lot of time and effort into this excellent essay, there will be those that are so wrapped in their little minds, they actually will totally ignore what you said here. Unfortunately, that’s the sad state affairs we live in.

  3. You’ve done a great job with this article and it goes a long way toward clearing up the history of why the team choose the name.

    Unfortunately the “debate” on the name now boils down to one simple thing… that many Native American’s find it offensive.

    I was taught that if something you said was considered offensive by someone else that the polite thing to do was to apologize and not say it again… not to argue with them that they were being silly for being offended.

    There are lots of terms that have evolved over the years… for instance “retarded” was a common term for some people when I was a kid and was not used in a mean-spirited way. However now no one that considers themselves kind, or polite, would use that word to describe another person.

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