February 17, 2015

What’s In A Name? A War of the Words


(Photo: Native American Headdress by Flickr user ChrisParfitt, via Attribution 2.0 license)

What’s in a name? For Native Americans, the Washington Redskins franchise is using what some see as a racial slur to create a brand within the National Football League. Many Native American groups have taken a stand against Dan Snyder (owner of the Washington Redskins) and these other teams, calling the use of the racial slur repugnant, and asking the franchise to make a change. According to a Washington Post article from John Woodrow Cox, the opening of a new casino in Chittenango, New York (seemingly unrelated to the Washington Redskins) might end up undermining the position advocates have taken for the football franchise’s name to be changed.

The Oneida Indian Nation is the main group pressing the NFL and the general public to persuade Dan Snyder and his Washington Redskins to change the team’s name. At the same time, the group also plans to open a $20 million casino in Chittenango, New York that pays homage L. Frank Baum, author of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” and native of Chittenango. Ironically, Baum’s opinions of Native Americans (expressed in several editorials in the 1890s) are the reason why I think naming a casino “Yellow Brick Road Casino” is certainly inconsistent with the Oneida tribe’s quest to quash the “Redskins.”

In 1890, Baum wrote for the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, a paper in South Dakota. Baum used the paper to voice his opinion of Native Americans, saying, among other (even worse) things, “Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; it’s better that they should die than live the miserable wretches that they are.” And yet, the Oneida Indian is naming it’s casino after a man who fully supported their extinction. Why would they choose this name?

“I think that’s a wonderful message — that we’re able to overcome by repentance and by forgiveness,” Oneida leader Ray Halbritter said. “It’s looking forward rather than backward.” Many Native Americans do not agree, and the message here is a convoluted one. “How can they be so ignorant of history and traitors to their own race?” said Ernestine Chasing Hawk, a descendant of a survivor of Wounded Knee. “Would the Jews build a casino to honor [Adolf] Hitler?”

Native Americans give their children names that hold meaning, such as calling a daughter “Nizhoni,” which means “beautiful” in Navajo. What you choose to communicate through that given name tells a lot, whether it is an NFL franchise or a casino, and this is part of why brands take naming products so seriously. The right name can communicate to consumers a lot of things, whether it is trustworthiness, comfort, or security with that company or brand. Dan Snyder argued that the Redskins should be able to keep their name because Redskins is less of a slur and more of a brand. “A Redskin is a football player,” Snyder said. “A Redskin is our fans, the Washington Redskin fan base. It represents honor, represents respect, represents pride, [and] hopefully winning.” So what’s in a name? A whole story, a complete history, and a brand’s entire image.