- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
It's been a season of discontent for the Washington Redskins. The health and deactivation of quarterback Robert Griffin III has been the subject of much scrutiny. So has the future of the team's head coach Mike Shanahan as he leads the team into its season finale Sunday against the New York Giants.
Underpinning it all this year has been the question of the team's nickname itself. Is the word Redskins racist?
A Hogette speaks
“Hail to the Redskins. Hail victory,” are the opening words of the NFL team's fight song. The marching tune made its debut in August 1938 and is sung at FedEx Field after every Washington score and victory.
David “Spiggy” Spigler, a 68-year-old Lusby resident, has been singing the song all his life as a Wahsington fan. For 22 years, he sung it as a member of the renowned Hogettes.
The Hogettes were a group of 12 men, which started with four members and totaled 20 throughout 30-plus years, who became famous for wearing grandma dresses and sporting pig snouts at home games from 1983 until the recent retirement of the group in January.
Born in Washington, D.C., Spigler became a Redskins fan as a kid while watching his uncles attend games. The first time he sung the fight song in person was at a game in December 1963 against the Cleveland Browns — a 27-20 Redskins loss — at D.C. Stadium, now known as RFK Stadium.
“I was sitting way up in the nosebleeds, but it was a thrill to actually see what I could only see on a little old black-and-white TV,” Spigler said. “To see a game in living color ... it was amazing to me.”
But amid the joy in singing the song, one of the words in the opening line, the term Redskins, has not always been sung free of controversy.
Originally named the Boston Braves in 1932, the team became the Boston Redskins in July 1933 and moved to Washington in 1937.
Spigler, along with team owner Daniel Snyder, both have heard the team nickname come under scrutiny and have seen it be challenged in court by various American Indian tribes on the basis that the term “redskin” is a racial slur.
District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ruled in 2003 that American Indians seeking a name change and challenging the Redskins trademarks had not produced substantial evidence that the name was insulting, and too much time had passed to file the case. Thus, she overturned a 1999 decision by the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board that had canceled the Washington Redskins trademarks. Her decision was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 2009.
“It has nothing to do with their natural skin color,” Spigler said of the name, “and it never has. It's hard to convince someone that's not in the argument or in the discussion of that. A lot of people think we're making fun of their color, and I never looked it at being that type of thing. We, the Redskins nation, have always promoted the proud brave.
“If it can be proven that it is racist, if it can be shown that it's derogatory, I would probably change my thoughts, as well,” he said. “It's been run up the pole nine times now, only to be sent down the pole with not enough evidence to convince the courts that it's a racist or derogatory term.”
The issue has had new, brighter lights shined on it in 2013, however, due in large part to a push by the Oneida Indian Nation, headquartered and originated in New York, to change the name. That initiative culminated in an October meeting with NFL executives.
The crescendo continued to rise when NBC commentator Bob Costas said during a nationally televised game that the name should be changed. The issue reached its highest pitch when President Barack Obama said in an interview with the Associated Press earlier this year that he would think about changing the name if he were Snyder.
That type of national reaction, Spigler said, is what frustrates him most. He said the public hears more about the opposition of the nickname rather than why it is important to keep it. He said he's been disgusted by the political nature of the debate.
“I do believe that for the Native Americans and Mr. Snyder, it's their baby to work it out,” Spigler said. “I don't feel that the mayor of D.C., the council lady from D.C. and Congress need to be interjecting themselves into the middle of this.”
'A whisper in a crowded room'
When the daughter of seven-year Waldorf resident Dennis Zotigh came home crying one day, he wondered why. He learned that a bully had called his daughter “an ugly redskin.”
“This term was meant to hurt my daughter, and it succeeded,” Zotigh said.
Zotigh is a full-blooded American Indian, part of the Kiowa-Santee Dakota and Pueblo tribes from Oklahoma, the Dakotas and New Mexico.
Zotigh said he first came across the term “redskin” when he was 10 or 11 while reading comic books and came to know it as “an antiquated image of American Indians.”
While there is debate on where the term originated, what it represents and how it was used, Zotigh referred to a time where the word “redskin” described what was specifically sought after as monetary payments and rewards for the killing of Indians.
“The history [of the term] was actually about the bounty of the red part of the skin that was shown on a scalp when it was turned in for an Indian life,” Zotigh said. “So, it's not a term that honors us.”
Rico Newman, spokesman for the Piscataway Choptico band based in Waldorf, is working with Maryland delegates to get a law off the state books that still reads, according to Newman, that there is a bounty for scalps of enemy Indians, which he also believes was the foundation of the term.
“A lot of people assume that when you say 'redskin,' that you're talking about complexion,” Newman said, “but when you look in the historical records, there is no reference to it having anything to do with complexion. It has everything to do with the fact that ... you would bring that scalp back with some red skin attached.”
When the Oneida Indian Nation met with NFL officials in October, the league ultimately endorsed the continued use of the name, citing tradition and history.
In an open letter to fans dated Oct. 9, Snyder promised he would not change the name. In the same letter, Snyder also wrote that 90 percent of 1,000 self-identified American Indians polled by the Annenberg Public Policy Center said they did not find the team name to be offensive.
“It's the same thing as black people saying, 'Well, hey, I don't see anything wrong with saying n------,'” Zotigh said. “It's the exact same thing.”
Newman said he finds it perplexing that certain terms for other groups are unacceptable, but American Indians still are slurred.
“I get it, and I am willing to change and accept that,” Newman said. “It doesn't bother me, but if it bothers you, I won't say it. And I am trying to figure out why, when this gets down to natives, it's fair game and anything goes.”
Zotigh said he has enjoyed the rise in attention to the matter after calling the collective voices of American Indians “a whisper in a crowded room. As people are starting to hear our side of the story, it's beginning to make sense,” he said. “With other people collectively joining into our voice, it's becoming louder and louder. People are taking notice, and the American public is a public that likes to be informed so that they can make their own decisions. Up until now, they were not informed.”
Football heritage, football tradition
A Redskins fan all of his life, 44-year old Mark Flaherty, a Leonardtown resident and owner of Mark's Telethon Electronics in California, has been conducting Redskins autograph sessions in his store since the 1990s. It started as a simple promotion for the business but has now graduated to an annual event.
He has welcomed former stars Pat Fischer, Gary Clark, Ken Harvey, Tre Johnson, Dexter Manley, Chris Hanburger, Fred Smoot, Mike Sellers, Ricky Sanders and Tony McGee, among many others. He remains on the side of keeping the name.
“I think it goes back with the heritage and people, like myself, that are old enough to remember the great players and all of the Super Bowls and world titles that they won. It's such a heritage,” Flaherty said of the name.
“It wasn't nearly the issue that it is today,” he said. “I think when the president got involved, it kind of exploded. I think that was probably part of it, just him making a statement, and it naturally went out into the media, and everyone started talking about it.”
Flaherty fully supported Snyder's letter mentioning that a name change was not on the horizon.
“I think it's the right thing to do to come out and say that,” Flaherty said. “I don't think anything is really going to ever push him to change that name unless there are so many diehard fans offended by it, and then he stops seeing people come to the games — aside from how the team is playing. That, and if merchandise sales were to drop, that type of thing to really hit him in his pocket, would be the only way he would consider doing it.”
The Chopticon Braves is the only high school in the Southern Maryland area whose nickname is a reference to American Indians. Chopticon features an American Indian figure on its school website.
The Chopticon football team wears helmets with the letter “C” inside an Indian spearhead — another reference to American Indian culture — but nine-year Chopticon head football coach Tony Lisanti, who has been at the school for 25 years, said he has never heard any backlash.
“I will say that more than a dozen years ago, there were talks about changing the name, but that all came to naught,” Lisanti said. “I remember that there was someone in the state talking generally about all Native American names. But, it was nothing about us specifically.”
Working at Chopticon was a perfect fit for Lisanti, who said one of his heroes growing up was Crazy Horse. A member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, Crazy Horse was a chief and war leader who offered resistance to attempted relocation efforts and fought against the U.S. Army. Crazy Horse was memorialized with a mountain sculpture in South Dakota, which, though incomplete, currently is under plans for completion.
Lisanti is a Pittsburgh Steelers fan but has had Redskins fans on his staffs through his years on the sidelines.
“I understand their affinity to that name goes more toward tradition,” Lisanti said. “But from my perspective, it's a little different than a name like 'Braves.' I do a lot of reading on Native Americans, and I know that there was a 19th-century saying that, 'Any good redskin is a dead redskin,' and you never heard that about any good brave. It was a little more derogatory.
“I've never met a Redskins fan that wanted to change the name,” Lisanti said. “I think a lot of it has to do with tradition. I can imagine if someone wanted the Steelers name changed, there is a bond there.”
But when asked if he would change the name if he had the power to, he offered, “Yeah, I think it's probably about time,” he said. “I hate to say that because I am a person who is bound by tradition. ... In today's day and age, however, it probably should be” changed.
'I bleed burgundy and gold'
Spigler remains a season-ticket holder and only has missed two home games in 22 years, between D.C. Stadium/RFK Stadium and FedEx Field. He still attends games and sings the team fight song after Washington scores and wins.
“To change the name is really going to change everything,” Spigler said. “I think that it would be very detrimental. 'Hail to the Redskins' is the right hail, not the wrong hail. It's a form of respect, and that's what, I think, is hardest for most Redskins fans to understand. We, the Redskins nation, have always promoted the proud brave.”
And Snyder's stance on the issue made the old Hogette happy.
“Honestly, it put a smile on my face,” Spigler said. “I have a full basement of burgundy and gold. Being a Redskins fans and loving them, my house is even called 'Hog Heaven' here ... I did have a smile on my face when he said that because I'm old. Having followed a team 60 years, it's in my blood. I bleed burgundy and gold, and I'm not ready for the change.”
The name Washington Bravehearts has been trademarked by a friend of Snyder, according to Spigler, in the event that a name change is forced, rather than voluntarily changed.
If a name change were to happen, Flaherty said he would remain a fan of the franchise. “I would be, yeah, and I'm sure most diehards would, too,” he said.
Zotigh said he wants to be a fan of the Washington team, the professional football franchise nearest to his home. He said a name change would get him into the stands at FedEx Field.
“I would really like to attend a game at some point if they ever changed the name,” Zotigh said. “But at this point, it's like calling them the Washington N-----s. It's the same thing. It's a racial slur. How can this be blatantly written on people's chests and put on bumper stickers on their car knowing it's a racial slur? It's the exact same thing, only in the ballpark of native people who are a minority.”
Zotigh said if he could meet with Snyder, he would just have one message for him.
“I would tell him how it hurt my daughter,” Zotigh said, “how this word brought tears to her eyes and brought tears to my eyes as a result of calling her that name. If they changed the name ... it would be a small victory.”
In the Dec. 27 story “The R word,” Dave “Spiggy” Spigler was misquoted in a statement that should have read, “We, the Redskins nation, have always promoted the proud brave.”