The Redskins: A Yankee Doodle Moment
Once again, the controversy over the symbol and name of the Washington Redskins is in the news. Some Native-Americans are saying that it is "disrespectful", "insulting", and "offensive". In fact, the name and symbol of the football team is so offensive that it has grabbed the attention of the President of the United States; quite amazing considering that a major European country just had the largest terrorist attack in its history.
Yet, whenever these battles over symbols and names arise, I am reminded of the saying "you cannot control what happens to you, but you can control how you react." I am reminded because how people react to situations says a lot about them.
The song "Yankee Doodle" is a very good example. Most Americans wrongly assume that it was a song written by a Patriot as a symbol of colonial defiance of British authority. The illustration of the wounded fife and drum players performing the tune at the end of the Battle of Lexington is an iconic symbol of the courage, conviction, and resolve of the American spirit.
Therefore, it would surprise many to learn that the song was actually intended as an insult. Originally a drinking song, British soldiers altered it in an attempt to mock and ridicule the colonials, especially the citizen soldiers who made up the bulk of the colonial forces. It derided their poverty, their lack of professionalism, and overall provincialism. The title alone made it grossly more odious than many of the terms that people today find offensive. 'Yankee' was a disparaging British term used to describe those born in America and, while 'Doodle' formally meant a fool, at the time it was also British slang for the male sex organ.
Yet, rather than reacting negatively over this insult, the patriots made it their own and, after one hard-fought battle, the British played it in tribute to their colonial adversaries. It would become the unofficial anthem of the colonists' struggle for independence and, for over two centuries, be the song that introduced children to American patriotism. A version of it, written by George Cohan and sung by James Cagney, inspired Americans during the dark days following the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor. In films, such as The Great Escape, it is used to illustrate the indomitable nature of the American spirit.
A more current example involves the debate over symbols of the old Confederacy. While some want to remove these 'offensive' icons from the public square, the Sons of the Confederacy and other organizations are fighting back against what they see as an erasing of their history.
In the 90s, this dispute came to Savanna High School in Anaheim, California. The school was known as the "Home of the Rebels" and for decades had the aggressive gun-slinging, hair-trigger tempered Yosemite Sam-like cartoon character dressed in Confederate gray as its mascot. Such an unflattering image could be perceived as being just as offensive to Southerners as the Redskins' logo is to Native Americans. Yet, it was people like those who are demanding the removal of the Redskins' logo -- and not Southerners -- that insisted that the 'offensive' mascot be replaced and the Confederate flag removed from the floor of the gym.
Southerners living in the area rallied to the mascot's aid and put forth an effort to try to blunt what they saw as an attempt to erase their history and heritage. But their numbers were too small and their cause too unpopular to effect the outcome.
Both of these example -- one grand and historical, the other more current but less significant -- represent something unique in the American character; the refusal to see themselves as victims. By choosing to react this way, Americans have developed the uncommon ability to shake off attempts to render them powerless. On the contrary, it empowered them and gave them the strength, self-respect, and sense of pride that no modern-day self-esteem program can ever provide.
This is because real respect can only be earned and not demanded. Those who seek external validation of their self-worth and value do not have it for themselves. This is why no amount of victories in the war over symbols and names, even as big as one over an NFL team, will earn these people the respect and pride that they so desperately desire. Their claims of victimhood and desire for external validity clearly illustrates this. For this reason, any superficial sense of respect that they derive from such victories will be fleeting.
What makes this all so unfortunate is it that the Native-American people have already earned the respect they desire. Their story and their culture is woven into the fabric of America. The bravery of their warriors is renown around the world. Their ability to endure, persevere, and overcome the most extreme adversity -- often inflected on them by their fellow Americans -- is admired by all. That is the whole reason the team was named the Redskins. It was a tribute to these incredible people and the part they played in the history of America.
This is why Native-Americans should embrace the logo and the name. Turn it into their own 'Yankee Doodle' and Yosemite Sam moment. By doing so, they will demonstrate to all that the respect and pride they have for themselves is unconquerable. This will disarm those who would use such terms and symbols to malign them and, in doing so, they will empower themselves. More importantly, they will set an example that says "We will not be victimized by allowing others to determine our self-worth" for generations to come.