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The “Redskins” and the twisted history of depicting Native Americans

The controversy over the Washington Redskins’ name and logo is flaring up again after recent high-profile criticism from sportscaster Bob Costas, Keith Olbermann, and even President Obama. And protestors are seizing the moment: they’ll be at the Metrodome on Thursday when that certain Washington football team plays the Vikings. But a look through the MIA collection reveals just how complicated the history of depicting Native Americans really is.

The history of the term “redskin” is more obscure than you’d think, but one thing is for sure: it was used during the darkest days of Native American genocide as pejoratively as the “n-word” was, and still is of course, used against African Americans. Just look at this 19th-century news story about Minnesota paying bounties for the scalps of “redskins” in 1863.

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Frederic Remington’s 1891 “A Brush with the Redskins,” for which prints are widely available on the Internet.

Among the foremost shapers of our visual history of Native Americans is Frederic Remington, who didn’t mind using the term for his painting “A Brush with the Redskins.” Remington’s works, particularly his sculptures, are wonderfully alive and evocative: the MIA has one of his sculptures (“Bronco Buster”) on view right now, the bucking horse interpreted as a metaphor for the conflicting values of Manifest Destiny and a disappearing Wild West of untamed prairies, cowboys, and, well, Indians—if only as admirably savage foils of the sort embodied in sports names. Remington was a racist, an awful one: the Metropolitan Museum of Art pulled no punches in its catalog for a 1989 exhibition, citing among other things this letter he wrote to a friend: “I’ve got some Winchesters, and when the massacring begins which you speak of, I can get my share of ’em and what’s more I will. Jews—injuns—Chinamen—Italians—Huns, the rubbish of the earth I hate.”

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Edward Curtis’s “Bow River–Blackfoot” from 1926, on view in Gallery G277.

At the other end of the spectrum is Edward Curtis, whose monumental efforts to capture traditional Native American life as it was disappearing at the turn of the 19th century led to some of the most gorgeous, memorable images ever made (like this iconic picture on view at the MIA)—and charges of romanticism. To capture the way things already weren’t, and perhaps had never been, he sometimes asked natives to recreate a life they’d been forced to abandon in traditional clothing they no longer wore (sometimes provided by Curtis himself). He may well have fetishized native people, well before Gwen Stefani and Johnny Depp.

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Wendy Red Star’s “Spring,” from “The Four Seasons” series create in 2012, on view in gallery G261.

But native artists have challenged these depictions. The striking work from the MIA collection that appears above this post is Francis J. Yellow’s “Anthropology: We’re Not Your Indians Anymore,” from 1995. In this audio clip, he describes how he painted over a list of tribal names, many of them inappropriate, used by the Peabody Museum at Harvard University. In historical pictographic style, he shows native horsemen running down academics, who shout the inappropriate terms while a glyph identifies each rider’s preferred name.

And then there’s Wendy Red Star, whose glossy, staged photographs (on view at the MIA) reveal  romantic notions about Native Americans as superficial and unreal—a fantasy. Against impossibly brilliant painted backdrops of mountains and woods, as in a diorama, she sets a lovely, traditionally attired Indian maiden—herself, actually—amid inflatable deer and wolves, artificial flowers, a buffalo skull, and other accoutrement of fantasies about Native American life. Which brings us back to the Redskins, and perhaps the best argument one could make for abandoning the name: you can’t defend it without telling those who find it offensive how they should feel. And as the Ordway Center recently discovered after staging Miss Saigon over the protests of Asian-Americans, that’s not going to fly.