The Redskins vs. the Forty-niners

The Iconic, Washington, “Ironies” vs. the Numbing, California, “Namings”

Sometimes life gives us funny things we can only shake our heads at. In the real game of the Forty-Niners, a trans-continental transplant California “team,” the “redskins” got slaughtered, and I mean, slaughtered. The pigskin was gold, and it was a mean game, a dirty game, one in which even the players on the same team shot each other while diving through the mud for the “ball,” an imagined get-rich-quick prince’s ball floating around in a miner’s dream-pan mind, goal posts like the masts of tall ships in San Francisco bay.

But who really knows this history, and what do we do with the reality of so many people wanting to be on the winning side, no matter what winning stands for? Like so many things from that time, the “niners” are a celebrated bunch, regardless of the facts of what they did to each other, let alone the facts of what they did to the “redskins,” and perhaps what they in different ways continue to do to all those “skins” trying to be recognized by the very society that did everything it could to destroy them. Today the state says, “If you can prove to me that you kept your culture alive during the hundred plus years we worked on eliminating it, then I’ll recognize your existence.” On top of that, the state defines what culture is/was by virtue of its own anthropologists, academics, and politicians. This is a head-shaker, to say the least. But these team names and these policies are related, joined at the hip and the not-so-hip memories we still live, and that’s the issue.

In a pizza parlor at game time, brown bodies in red “niner” jerseys carrying white names holler at the 23 side-by-side screens, already belonging to the melting pot. The question is, “Who’s stirring the mix?” Let’s see: there was the Hayfork massacre; another massacre over there by Quincy; one over there a year later beneath Shasta; another back there in Clear Lake to finish the job, all well after California was founded. But the men and women in that pizza place do not know this, you see. They know only that the “niners” are the pioneer spirit, clean as a whistle, and that they are not “redskins,” for this is what they’re told, and we all like to believe what we’re told because it seems easier.

Today people are arguing over whether the Washington Redskins is a racist name, which is like arguing over whether a Mustang is a Ford, a Camaro a Chevy. When asked his straight-up opinion, our president politically dances and says, “If I owned the team, I’d consider changing the name,” or something equally luke warm on this hot topical day. Last night “I had a dream” in which the president said only nine words, “This is clearly a legacy of racism in America.” But when I woke, the president was wearing a blue suit and a cap emblazoned with a smiling donkey’s head, eating pizza at the same parlor of ignorance, also caught in the dream of what it’s all supposed to be, rather than what it is, and being president is also being an ad man, today.

But, fortunately for my sanity, the words of a true pioneer, Dick Gregory, sailed out from the past over today’s television news flashes on the issue, “Black Americans should not play on that team, to be in solidarity with their Native brothers,” but he said it even more inflammatorily and clearly, clear like the fire of truth burning through this science fiction movie I’m watching. A Ford is a Ford, all the way across the screen I sit in front of. Yes! I trudge into the kitchen, make a tub of popcorn, sick back down and watch. My wife, sitting behind me, politely asks me to stop shaking my head and laughing, but I can’t. It’s out of my control funny, in a sense of the truly bizarre. The “niners” and the “redskins” seem to both be winning, in the game for the hearts and minds of the people, against all logic and reason and humanity! But I remind myself that the game ain’t over yet, not by a long shot, and that’s a good thing. A very good thing.