November 14, 2012

The origin of "red"

After my recent posting on "redskins," we should note the differences between "red," "red-skinned," and "redskin." None of them are accurate, since most Indians have brown skin, but only the last term has become an ethnic slur.

Redskin--Historic useAccording to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the term "redskin" came from the reddish skin color of some Native Americans, as in the terms red Indian and red man. The OED cites instances of its usage in English dating back to the 17th century and cites a use of red in reference to skin color from 1587. Multiple theories fight for prominence as to the true historical origin of the word. One theory, mentioned above, is that the term was meant as merely a physical indicator, similar to the words "white" and "black" for Caucasians and Africans, respectively. Another theory holds that it was first used by Native Americans during the 1800s as a way of distinguishing themselves from the ever-growing white population. Another theory is that the term "Red Indian" originated to describe the Beothuk people of Newfoundland who painted their bodies with red ochre, and was then generalized to North American indigenous people in general.

A fourth, unproven claim is that the term originates from the bloody scalps (red-skins) of Native people taken for bounty prizes after battle, and their skins bought and sold in local towns. There is no historical documentation or evidence to support this theory, which is generally taken as an urban legend.
Los Indios, Indians, Savage, Noble Savage, Native AmericanMr. Berkhofter does include an early description contained in Amerigo Vespucci's "Mundus Novus," published around 1504-1505: "They have indeed large square-built bodies, well formed and proportioned, and in color verging on reddish. This I think has come to them, because, going around naked, they are colored by the sun."

From "The Idea of the Indian: Invention and Perpetuation," from "The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present" by Robert F. Berkhofer Jr. (First Vintage Books Edition, 1979; originally published by Alfred A. Knoft Inc., 1978).

REDSKIN--"redskin, 1699; red man, 1725; red devil, 1834." From "I Hear America Talking" by Stuart Berg Flexner (Von Nostrand Reinhold Co., New York, 1976).
Comment:  According to the information in The Origin of "Redskin," the 1699 reference was a hoax.

For more on Redskins as a sports team name, see Campaign Against Nepean Redskins and Kansas City Star Won't Use Redskins.


Anonymous said...

Ok Here we go ... Okla Humma ... Red People ... proposed by the Native peoples to the U.S. gov as the name of the Native populace in general and for what was beleived to become THE Native populated State that was at that time territory alocated to the Native Americans an called "Indian Territory"

Rob said...

Okay, but that was almost 300 years after white men on the Atlantic Coast started calling Indians "red." The Choctaw didn't invent the concept of "red people." They adapted it from elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

and why do we call them white? Aren't they Beige?