Lexicon Valley

The Real History of the Word Redskin. It’s Not What You Think. 

The word “redskin” was coined by Native Americans.

Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

As Washington mopes to the end of a losing NFL season, the controversy over the team’s name appears to have plenty of fight left. To the language hound, however, the most remarkable aspect of this dispute may be its lack of historical context.

This fact, it’s important to emphasize, is entirely separate from whether people today, Native Americans especially, rightly find the term offensive. That’s an assertion that has been tested empirically and debated with some gusto (with comments from President Obama, Bob Costas, Slate editor David Plotz, and numerous other public figures), but does not concern us here.

To be sure, some vague notion of the “history” of the term has been invoked countless times to prove that redskin is currently offensive. On Fox News in October, columnist Kirsten Powers discussed what she believed to be an open disagreement about the etymology of the word and argued (somewhat illogically) that if only people better understood the history they would see why the word is offensive:

There’s a lot of disagreement even over what Redskins mean. Some people say it’s a European term that referred to the fact that Indians there painted their faces red. Other people say, no, it refers to American Indians being scalped, two very different things, I think. But if you look in the dictionary, in pretty much every dictionary it’s referred to as an offensive term. That would give me pause if I ever happened to own a football [team] to have that name. And I think it is offensive. The fact that a lot of people don’t find it offensive probably has to do with the fact that they probably don’t know exactly what it means.

Conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer, too, has weighed in on the connection between redskin’s power to offend and its origins when he compared it to the derogatory verb gyp:

When I was growing up, I thought ‘gyp’ was simply a synonym for ‘cheat,’ and used it accordingly. It was only when I was an adult that I learned that gyp was short for gypsy. At which point, I stopped using it.

So, if only you knew the story behind redskin you would find it offensive, right? Well, not exactly.

In 2005, the Indian language scholar Ives Goddard of the Smithsonian Institution published a remarkable and consequential study of redskin’s early history. His findings shifted the dates for the word’s first appearance in print by more than a century and shed an awkward light on the contemporary debate. Goddard found, in summary, that “the actual origin of the word is entirely benign.”

Redskin, he learned, had not emerged first in English or any European language. The English term, in fact, derived from Native American phrases involving the color red in combination with terms for flesh, skin, and man. These phrases were part of a racial vocabulary that Indians often used to designate themselves in opposition to others whom they (like the Europeans) called black, white, and so on.

But the language into which those terms for Indians were first translated was French. The tribes among whom the proto forms of redskin first appeared lived in the area of the upper Mississippi River called Illinois country. Their extensive contact with French-speaking colonists, before the French pulled out of North America, led to these phrases being translated, in the 1760s, more or less literally as peau-rouge and only then into English as redskin. It bears mentioning that many such translators were mixed-blood Indians.

Half a century later, redskin began circulating. It was used at the White House when President Madison requested that various Indian tribes steer clear of an alliance with Britain. No Ears, a chief of the Little Osages, spoke in reply and one of his statements was translated as, “I know the manners of the whites and the red skins.” Only in 2004, however, when the Papers of James Madison project at the University of Virginia reached the year 1812 did this and another use of redskin from the same meeting come to light.

The word became even more well known when the Meskwaki chief Black Thunder delivered a speech at a treaty conference after the War of 1812. Black Thunder, whose words were translated by an interpreter, said that he would speak calmly and without fear, adding, “I turn to all, red skins and white skins, and challenge an accusation against me.”

In the coming years, redskin became a key element of the English-language rhetoric used by Indians and Americans alike to speak about each other and to each other. Goddard mentions numerous Indian speeches that were translated and printed in English-language newspapers. From such speeches, Goddard observes, James Fenimore Cooper almost certainly learned the word, which he then began using in his novels in the 1820s.

Goddard’s paper methodically describes the term’s early evolution, made possible by an unlikely abundance of documentation. “It is extremely unusual,” he wrote, “to be able to document the emergence of a vernacular expression in such exact and elucidative detail.”

Before all this recent scholarship, though, one could be forgiven for thinking redskin had emerged from hostilities with the white man. For many years the first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary was dated 1699 and purported to come from Samuel Smith. It read, “Ye firste Meetinge House was solid mayde to withstande ye wicked onsaults of ye Red Skins.” It had been quoted from family papers in a book published in 1900 by Helen Evertson Smith.

But Goddard’s research undermined this earliest of citations. First, he explains, Smith’s words were “relentlessly antiqued”—made to appear older than they were. One giveaway was the use of ye, which was anachronistic for 1699. By investigating the underlying documentation Goddard further discovered a probable source for the quotation, bearing a different date and the word Indian, which Helen Evertson Smith had modified to redskin.

After Goddard, who serves as the OED’s main consultant on Indian language and culture, published his paper, the Oxford editors changed the entry. The OED now says the quotation was “subsequently found to be misattributed; the actual text was written in 1900 by an author claiming, for purposes of historical fiction, to be quoting an earlier letter.”

Another major source for confusion has been Suzan Harjo, the Cheyenne-Creek activist who was an early plaintiff in the long-running case against the NFL. She has said on numerous occasions that redskin originated in “the practice of presenting bloody red skins and scalps as proof of Indian kill for bounty payments.”

In 2005, Guy Gugliotta wrote about Goddard’s paper in the Washington Post, calling Goddard’s research “exhaustive.” But the article presented Harjo’s claims alongside Goddard’s, with the headline writer patronizing Goddard’s findings by calling them an “alternative history.”

Four years later, the Post published a column by Eva Rodriguez, trotting out the bloody-scalp origin story. Goddard responded by writing a letter to the editor. First, he stated clearly that only current feelings about the word were relevant to determining whether redskin is offensive today, and then he objected strenuously to Rodriguez’s amateur scholarship:

What is not acceptable is for her to give as the only relevant historical fact the fictional claim that the word originally referred to scalps, for which there is no evidence.

But the Post’s letters editor would not allow Goddard to call the bloody-scalp claim “fictional,” and so deleted the word from his letter.

Nonetheless, it is easy to see from 19th-century newspapers that the term did frequently appear in the context of violence by and against Indians. Stories about life-or-death encounters with hostile tribes can be found by searching redskin in Chronicling America, the National Digital Newspaper Database.

On May 13, 1836, the Vermont Phoenix published “From the Legends of a Log Cabin: The Hunter’s Perils,” in which the narrator is tracking an Indian named Broadfoot, whom he is hoping to, in fact, scalp. The narrator complains to his companion:

Why Balt, I don’t want a squaw’s scalp, nor a papoose’s, if I can get a warrior’s … . Here we have been on a range four days and have not had a shot at a red-skin—man, woman or child.

A short story that ran in the Illinois Free Trader and LaSalle County Commercial Advertiser on June 4, 1841, describes a posse of white men, including a man named Wetzel, poised to fight Indians in order to win back a little white girl named Rose, whom the Indians have kidnapped:

’Old Cross-Fire,’ repeated Wetzel, with rather a sneering emphasis, ‘he’s at the top and bottom of this business; and the very minute he finds himself hunted down by horsemen, he will scalp poor Rose, and then take good care to [get] himself and his cursed red-skin gang [out of] harm’s way.

The same character Wetzel goes on to recall all the times he shot at Indians:

’I’ve laid for days and nights at a stretch, on the pint of that little island yander, watching the movements of the red-skins to get a chance to riddle their hides with my old woman here,’—and the hunter patted the breech of his gun with manifest affection.

Of course, the names of many peoples who have been at war have been used with an intention to demonize or denigrate. That we can find Germans spoken of with malice during World War II, though, does not make German slang or offensive. But the informal usage of redskin seems to have made it especially inviting to the creators of frontier tales.

Such contexts and, more importantly, the violent history of U.S. Indian policy, help explain why the 1898 Webster’s Collegiate dictionary labeled red-skin “often contemptuous,” as Peter Sokolowski of Merriam-Webster has pointed out. But our lexicographical take on the word remained complicated.

Later volumes of Webster’s, in fact, dropped the derogatory label. Webster’s Second Unabridged in 1934 and Webster’s Third Unabridged in 1961 applied no label at all to redskin. Not that either was famous for its sensitivity: Webster’s Second defined Apache as “nomads of warlike disposition and relatively low culture.”