September 25, 2007

Trying to avoid the appearance of evil

I have no idea why but when I was asked to be one of the speakers at my high school graduation ceremony in 1948 I chose to talk about the plight of American Indians living on reservations. To my knowledge, I had never actually seen an Indian in my whole life. After some perfunctory library research, I focused my talk on the spread of tuberculosis on reservations in the West and finally pulled off the speech somehow. I had no idea back then that one day I'd be living in a state that has more reservations than anywhere else in the US.

Fast forward to 1996. During my last year living in Washington DC, I got a call from a lawyer for the Washington Redskins football team. The team was being sued because of its name and wanted me to try to spin something in their favor. The way the request was couched may have been enough for me to say that I wasn't interested. I declined it, but for another reason. I knew that I was about to move to Montana, where I thought it would be difficult, or at least embarrassing, to admit that I had helped defend a team name that apparently was hated by Native Americans. As it turned out, another linguist agreed to work with the team and he had the unfortunate experience of discovering that one of our own Language Loggers, Geoff Nunberg, was his linguistic counterpart as expert on behalf of the plaintiffs. Language Log has been on top of this subject since then, see (here) and (here) for example.

Fast forward to the present. I grew up near Cleveland and have been a fan of the Cleveland Indians major league baseball team from the first time I saw them play when I was 8 years old. For years I wore a baseball cap with the cartoon Chief Wahoo Indians logo on it. But one of the first things I did when I moved to Montana was to get rid of that cap. I figured it would be insulting to local minorities here. Wrong. Much to my surprise, I've seen Native Americans out here wearing that same cap. Based on my experience, they seem to prefer to be called Indians, not Native Americans. Or at least they don't seem to care which word is used. But I still feel that the Chief Wahoo logo is inappropriate. I've replaced my cap with one that has a "C" on it and I feel much better as I try to follow St. Paul's advice to the Thessalonians: "avoid the very appearance of evil."

This offensive name thing causes me to marvel at some of the identity designation issues we all live with. For example, back in the sixties I was doing research on what we then called "Negro dialect." After only a few months, I was corrected and told to call it "Black English." Even later I was corrected and told to say "African American English." No matter which term I used, I kept getting in trouble for falling behind some invisible curve that outlined the dimensions of current preference. I didn't seem to follow St. Paul's advice very well. Matters were further confused by Washington DC, blacks, especially the older ones, who kept telling me that they preferred to be called "negroes." They explained that "black" had been a derogatory term for them ever since they heard the Stephen Foster songs and read the Little Black Sambo children's story. It was really hard to figure out how to avoid the very appearance of evil in this.

So what to do? I've learned that it's difficult for non-minority researchers who study minorities to keep from being wrong, offensive, insulting, or racist-sounding. I've also learned that even though I'm a Washington Redskins football fan, to me "Redskins" sounds like an offensive and pejorative name, whether or not it was once used by Indians themselves (as one of the above links shows).  I'm also a Cleveland Indians baseball fan, but I'm a bit less bothered by this name mostly, I suppose, because the Indians out here don't seem to be concerned about its use. On the  other hand, if that team had been called the Cleveland Redskins or the Cleveland Red Savages or the Cleveland Scalpers, I'd be as bothered as the Native Americans might be.

Clear heads and good intentions should always prepare us to avoid the appearance of evil. Recently people in the nearby town of Ronan, Montana, smack in the middle of the Salish Kootenai reservation, have been arguing over the names of their high school boys sports teams, the "Chiefs," and their girls sports teams, the "Maidens." I'm not sure what to think about these names but the wise thing to do would be to defer to the local tribes. "Chief" hardly seems offensive, since in signifies a CEO, head honcho, or boss. But "Maidens"? Hmm. At least it's better than "Squaws," a name that clearly wouldn't come close to avoiding the appearance of evil these days.

Posted by Roger Shuy at September 25, 2007 05:32 PM