Whether or not you agree with what Ray Halbritter of the Oneida Indian Nation believes about the word ‘Redskins,’ one thing is for sure; the word’s popularity can be partially attributed to a couple of Upstate New Yorkers.

by Bill Keeler

The Origin

First, the word’s origin has been debated over the years. Some say early European settlers would scalp Native Americans as a form of torture and their scalp would be referred to as Redskin.  Others say the word derived from the Beothuk Tribe in an area that is now known as Newfoundland, Canada.  Members of the tribe would paint their skin red which led white settlers to refer to them as “Red men.”

The History

According to an NPR story by Lakshmi Gandhi, historian Ives Goddard of the Smithsonian traced the word back to the 1700’s as a self-described term used by Native Americans as they negotiated with the French and British, and then later with the Americans.  It wasn’t until 1823, however, that the word gained real popularity and that’s where the story becomes local.
It was a book called Pioneers written by James Fenimore Cooper of nearby Cooperstown that placed the word into the spotlight.
“There will soon be no red-skin in the country,” said a dying Indian character in Cooper’s novel.  The book was sympathetic to the plight of the American Indian during the 1800’s.  It wasn’t until decades later that the word took on a more sinister connotation and once again it would be a local author placing the word into the limelight.
A check presented to the Cooperstown School District after they eliminated "Redskins" as their mascot and nickname. Photo Courtesy: Oneida Indian Nation

Nearby Chittenango author L. Frank Baum, best known for his classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, wrote for a newspaper in South Dakota, the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer,  before reaching ‘novelist notoriety.’  It was in the 1890’s during the Indian Wars when he wrote a pair of editorials about the killing of Sitting Bull and the Massacre at Wounded Knee.  Baum wrote some of the more controversial words of his career when he boldly called for the “annihilation of the few remaining Indians.”

It’s true.  The guy who wrote fantasy novels, short stories and poems was seemingly racist (or a product of the time) and may very well be indirectly responsible for the name taken by Washington of the NFL, as well as nearby high schools, Cooperstown and Oriskany.  (Note: Cooperstown worked with the Oneida Nation earlier this year to change their name from Redskins.  Read story: Board Votes to Drop Redskins Name)

Here’s what Baum wrote about the killing of Sitting Bull on December 20, 1890:

Sitting Bull, most renowned Sioux of modern history, is dead.
He was not a Chief, but without Kingly lineage he arose from a lowly position to the greatest Medicine Man of his time, by virtue of his shrewdness and daring.
He was an Indian with a white man's spirit of hatred and revenge for those who had wronged him and his. In his day he saw his son and his tribe gradually driven from their possessions: forced to give up their old hunting grounds and espouse the hard working and uncongenial avocations of the whites. And these, his conquerors, were marked in their dealings with his people by selfishness, falsehood and treachery. What wonder that his wild nature, untamed by years of subjection, should still revolt? What wonder that a fiery rage still burned within his breast and that he should seek every opportunity of obtaining vengeance upon his natural enemies.
The proud spirit of the original owners of these vast prairies inherited through centuries of fierce and bloody wars for their possession, lingered last in the bosom of Sitting Bull. With his fall the nobility of the Redskin is extinguished, and what few are left are a pack of whining curs who lick the hand that smites them. The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are. History would forget these latter despicable beings, and speak, in latter ages of the glory of these grand Kings of forest and plain that Cooper loved to heroize.
We cannot honestly regret their extermination, but we at least do justice to the manly characteristics possessed, according to their lights and education, by the early Redskins of America.

Redskins in the 20th Century

It was writings like Baum’s that inspired the ‘savage Indian’ theme that carried into the 1900’s in books, plays and later in film, setting the stage for the word Redskins to take on a new life.
The 1929 film Redskins was sympathetic to the plight of Native Americans; but three years later, a Tom and Jerry cartoon “Redskin Blues”  became incredibly popular and featured the duo being rescued from savage Indians by the U.S. Army.  The very next year, the owner of the Boston Braves football franchise changed their nickname to the Redskins and the rest is history.  History that the current owner of the Washington Redskins, Daniel Snyder, seems unwilling to give up.
All thanks to two historic writers from Upstate New York.  It makes it almost appropriate that the guy trying to wipe the word off the face of earth is a Native American, also from right here in Central New York.
Read about other writings with racial overtones by L. Frank Baum