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As Confederate flags fall, ‘Redskins’ defenders buck tide of progress

The Confederate flag came down from the statehouse grounds last week in South Carolina. In Lancaster, the pro-“Redskins” fight goes on.

You’ll notice I didn’t say “the good fight” goes on. There is nothing admirable about efforts of some residents to revive an offensive school nickname. The pushback included a pro-“Redskins” float and booth at, ironically, the town’s Independence Day parade. I’m not sure what they were celebrating, beyond the freedom to be obnoxious.

Is this a great country, or what?

The point is, whether in South Carolina or here, symbols have the power to inflame and insult. That’s true whether the image is a Confederate battle flag, or the representation of a racially offensive nickname,

I was coincidentally in Charleston last month on a family vacation, days after the church slaughter of nine black parishioners by a white supremacist. The tragedy re-ignited the debate across the South over official sanction of the flag – and what it truly stands for.

To be clear, I am in no way equating “Redskins” defenders with an accused mass murderer. The similarity is in the common defense of the respective symbols. During my post-tragedy week in Charleston, I heard many of the same notes being hit by flag defenders as what came out of the mouths of “Redskins” boosters – that the symbol is really about pride, tradition, honor and identity. And that, ultimately, it was “unfairly” removed by elected officials, not through a referendum.

The protests collapse against the tsunami of history.

True, ancestors of current Southerners fought and died for a cause. But pull back the layers, and the crusade wasn’t about states’ rights. It was a defense of an economic model based on the subjugation of a race. Excuse the pun, but there’s no whitewashing it.

Similarly, the School Board in Lancaster recently jettisoned a slur of a nickname that was unthinkingly – and, in fairness, without offensive intent – appropriated in a less-enlightened era. In its worst usage, “redskins” is slang for the scalps of Native Americans taken for bounty. It’s tough to put a sunny spin on it.

Granted, we can’t erase history, or forget it. But we can officially relegate the flag that stood for a dehumanizing cause to museum basements, not the statehouse grounds. And we can change a nickname that – at its core – recalls the genocide of a people who were here long before the Mayflower landed.

There have been howls of protest since the School Board’s March vote to jettison the nickname. Defenders complain that the board unilaterally erased generations of tradition, pride and – oddly – identity, in a town with hardly any Native Americans.

The nickname undoubtedly represented strength and pride to generations of Lancaster students. Unfortunately, few pondered the term’s deeper meaning. Or placed it in the context of the grim history of Native American annihilation – or, later, the “assimilation” on reservations and in white-run boarding schools, where native culture, language, customs and pride were forcibly extracted from a people.

“You’re appropriating an image or a nickname from someone else’s culture for your own use, without understanding what it truly means,” said John Kane, a local Native American activist and radio talk show host. “While it may represent pride to those people, to us it conveys dominance over a race, a superiority. It’s not a happy connotation.”

It took a tragedy to open eyes in South Carolina to the dehumanizing cause at the flag’s core. Happily, it took just a few educational seminars and opposing-team boycotts to move the Lancaster board to act.

Just as the civil rights movement sparked a renewed racial pride, many Native Americans over the past generation re-connected with their ancestry and identity. The cultural self-respect doesn’t include big-toothed Chief Wahoo caricatures, the legion of war-whooping “savages” felled in movies and TV Westerns, or reducing a race of people to mascots or sidekicks.

The stereotypes once may have been preferable to many Native Americans to being marginalized by mainstream society. These days, not so much.

“By the 1950s, many Native Americans had been ‘assimilated’ to the point where they didn’t know or appreciate their own culture,” said Kane, 55, a big-shouldered-guy who sounds like a professor. “Over the last generation, we’re empowering ourselves with a greater sense of identity.”

Which is why nicknames like “Redskins” are being tossed in the cultural dumpster with Amos ’n Andy and the Frito Bandito. Persistent attempts to revive a term widely condemned by Native Americans tracks somewhere between arrogant and clueless. The bigger picture goes beyond sentimental attachment to a word that references a different culture in an insulting way. It runs deeper than school colors or a team logo.

“Redskins” defenders are bucking a tide of enlightenment. A federal judge last week upheld, on grounds of offensiveness, last year’s trademark cancellation of the NFL’s Washington “Redskins.” Native American mascots will soon be banned in Oregon’s public schools. Newstead will this October celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day, a response to Columbus’ enslavement of native people. Buffalo last week name-changed Squaw Island to Unity Island, at the urging of local Senecas. Meanwhile, the Confederate flag was removed from South Carolina’s statehouse grounds.

It’s not political correctness. It’s society pulling off its racial/ethnic blinders. Into this headwind of cultural common sense, the pro-“Redskins” crowd marches on.

Whether it’s the nickname, or the “Stars and Bars” flag, there’s a deeper truth that can’t be ignored. Trying to turn back the clock merely leaves you stuck in the past.