Legends of the Reservation
Part 1: The origins of the word redskin
Like most German kids, I was an avid reader of Karl May. I devoured all of his books about the Wild West, featuring Winnetou, the noble Indian warrior, and Old Shatterhand, his faithful, strong-armed German friend.
May posing as Shatterhand [©Karl May Verlag]
Karl May's novels are black-and-white morality tales. The Indians — or Rothäute as he called them — played the part of a savage but noble people that was destined to loose their lands in an epic struggle against the European settler. The more than 100 million Karl May books sold worldwide and the 600.000 plus visitors each year attending Karl May festivals in Bad Segeberg and elsewhere in Germany are testament to the everlasting popularity of his work.
Curiously, Karl May had no first-hand knowledge of the American Indian. He visited the United States only once, in 1908, shortly before his death and well after he had penned all of his Western novels. His view of the American Indian was based on newspaper clippings of German travelers' accounts and popular Indian novels of the time, such as James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans.
Thus, I was totally shocked to hear from NPR's sports commentator Frank Deford last week that the hero of my childhood years had been using a pejorative, slanderous name for the American Indian, the forbidden R-word, dare I say it: the R_skin!
And slanderous it is, at least according to recent editions of American English dictionaries. The fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, for example, lists "redskin" as Offensive slang, used as a disparaging term for a Native American. Of course, May didn't have an American dictionary to guide him; he simply followed the word usage of the mid-18th century as he knew it from Cooper's novels. Even today, German dictionaries list the word "Rothaut" as a colloquial term, or nickname, for the American Indian.
The Power of Red
Alluding to recent discussions within the NCAA to ban the use of Indian nicknames for collegiate teams, Deford explains why the word Redskin is such an offensive term:
In an otherwise word-for-word identical piece for Sport Illustrated, Deford writes that the scalp was taken by "Native Americans" rather than Americans. At first glance, the omission of the word "Native" in the NPR version seems rather innocuous — but maybe not. Some American Indian radicals promote the harebrained idea that scalping was an European tradition, not an Indian.
The re-defining of the word Redskin from a colloquial term for American Indians to a derogatory term, denoting the bloody scalps of dead Indians, is by far the most significant achievement of the Red Power movement of the Sixties.
The Red Power movement and, at its center, the American Indian Movement (AIM) are racialist Marxist organizations that see themselves as the vanguard of the second American revolution. AIM's international arm, the International Indian Treaty Council, soon became the darling of Indian rights advocates all over the world. Torn between its Red and Marxist roots, AIM made the mistake of aligning itself with the Nicaraguan government during the Sandinista-Indian war, which caused it to loose the support of other indigenous movements.
At home, the armed struggle against the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) also came to a disastrous end. Only AIM's crusade to purge the language from everything Indian turned out to be a fabulous success. Hundreds of school boards, parents and teachers associations, and city councils passed resolutions in which they apologized for ever using Indian names, such as Warriors, Braves, or Reds, for their sports teams. Colleges and universities quickly followed suit. The campaign only hit a snag when professional sports teams refused to change their traditional and commercially valuable names.
I know several American Indians and none of them is red — in fact, some are a shade paler than I am. Nor is anyone of my black friends really black, or the skin of my Chinese neighbors yellow, and I have yet to meet an European who is truly white.
Clearly, the racial coloring scheme is bunk.
Yet, when the first Europeans encountered the first Native Americans, their complexion may have been darker than it is today. After all, most North American tribes were hunters and gatherers, used to a life under the sun. But, then, also most of the settlers spent their time outdoors, working in the fields, hunting and trapping.
Nevertheless, there must have been a conspicuous difference in color, a fact that Benjamin Franklin alluded to when he condemned the massacre of the Conestogoe Indians:
There are other explanations as well. Early visitors of the New World noted that the natives, on occasion, painted their faces with earthen or plant-based colors. In an 1634 travel log, father Andrew White wrote about his first impressions of Maryland's natives:
There is no way to tell with certainty where and when the word redskin was used for the first time. Obviously, there was no historian present to record this seminal event or, if one was present, he probably would have missed the significance of the moment. It is clear, however, that the name was already firmly established when Cooper wrote the first of his Leatherstocking novels in 1823. Actually, he used the hyphenated spelling of the word, as in red-skin.