November 29, 2009

The origin of "redskin"

A Linguist's Alternative History of 'Redskin'

Term Did Not Begin as Insult, Smithsonian Scholar Says; Activist Not So Sure

By Guy Gugliotta
For many Americans, both Indian and otherwise, the term "redskin" is a grotesque pejorative, a word that for centuries has been used to disparage and humiliate an entire people, but an exhaustive new study released today makes the case that it did not begin as an insult.

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."
The word occurred a few decades earlier in a non-public usage:In fact, the earliest usages of "redskin" that Goddard tracked down were in statements made in 1769 by Illinois tribal chiefs involved in delicate negotiations with the British to switch loyalties away from the French.

"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."
Many dictionaries claim "redskin" originated in 1690-1700, but Goddard says that isn't true:Reporting his findings in the European Review of Native American Studies, Goddard noted that the first appearance of the word was long thought to have occurred in a 1699 letter written by "Samuel Smith," quoted in a 1900 memoir by his descendant, Helen Evertson Smith, titled "Colonial Days & Ways."

"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.
Comment:  As the article notes, the words "red" and "red man" were used much earlier to describe Indians. "Redskin" probably evolved naturally over time, perhaps in French, from "red man" to "red-skinned man" to "red skins" to "redskin."

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:An 1871 novel spoke of "redskinned devils." The Rocky Mountain News in 1890 described a war on the whites by "every greasy redskin." The Denver Daily News the same year reported a rebellion by "the most treacherous red skins."As historian Nancy Shoemaker notes, "redskin's" origin, even if it was positive, has nothing to do with its meaning today. It became derogatory over time and it remains so.

For more on the subject, see Confusing "Red" and "Redskin" and "Redskin" Predates Columbus?.

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