Term Did Not Begin as Insult, Smithsonian Scholar Says; Activist Not So Sure
By Guy Gugliotta
Smithsonian Institution senior linguist Ives Goddard spent seven months researching its history and concluded that "redskin" was first used by Native Americans in the 18th century to distinguish themselves from the white "other" encroaching on their lands and culture.
When it first appeared as an English expression in the early 1800s, "it came in the most respectful context and at the highest level," Goddard said in an interview. "These are white people and Indians talking together, with the white people trying to ingratiate themselves."
It was not until July 22, 1815, that "red skin" first appeared in print, he found -- in a news story in the Missouri Gazette on talks between Midwestern Indian tribes and envoys sent by President James Madison to negotiate treaties after the War of 1812.
The envoys had rebuked the tribes for their reluctance to yield territory claimed by the United States, but the Gazette report suggested that Meskwaki chief Black Thunder was unimpressed: "Restrain your feelings and hear calmly what I say," he told the envoys. "I have never injured you, and innocence can feel no fear. I turn to all red skins and white skins, and challenge an accusation against me."
"I shall be pleased to have you come to speak to me yourself," said one statement attributed to a chief named Mosquito. "And if any redskins do you harm, I shall be able to look out for you even at the peril of my life." The French used the phrase "peaux Rouges"--literally "red skins"--to translate the chief's words.
By this time the original colonial designations of "Christian" and "Indian" were giving way to "white," "red" and, with the increase in slave traffic, "black": "Color didn't originate with Indian-white relations but with slavery," said University of Connecticut historian Nancy Shoemaker. "It is slavery that makes color seem to be a way to organize people."
"My father ever declardt there would not be so much to feare iff ye Red Skins was treated with suche mixture of Justice & Authority as they cld understand," the purported letter said. Another part of the letter is quoted in the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary as the etymological origin of "redskin."
When Goddard studied the letter, however, he concluded it was a fake: "The language was Hollywood. . . . It didn't look like the way people really wrote."
And it wasn't.
I'm glad the author mentioned the transition from terms like Christian and Indian to color-based terms. I'm sure a lot of that had to do with the escalation of slavery and the Indian wars, which happened in the early 1800s. To deal with the potential troublemakers, I suspect Americans denigrated and demonized people with color labels. White was obviously the color of truth, justice, and the American way, while other colors were tainted. (Black = evil, red = blood, brown = mud, yellow = sickness.)
As the Indians resisted American encroachment more violently--how dare they!--people's feelings toward them changed. Before Indians had been symbols of liberty: the Boston Tea Party, the Order of the Red Men, Indians representing America on currency. Now they became savage criminals and killers.
The word "redskin" probably was ideally suited to become a slur. The "noble red man" easily converted into a "red-skinned devil" or a "dirty redskin." The article gives a few of the many examples:
For more on the subject, see Confusing "Red" and "Redskin" and "Redskin" Predates Columbus?.