Commentary: It’s time to stop using the ‘R word’

By Bob Brookfield

I read an interesting article in a recent issue of a Washington, D.C., paper. It was on the Opinion page and was by a former player for the Washington NFL team. And he just happens to be a member of the Coquille Tribe of southwest Oregon. He made a point that the emblem on his helmet was not him. He was a defensive end for Washington in 1970. As he said, he is not an Indian, he is a Coquille. And that leads me to what follows.

In 1492 an Italian sailor sailing under the flag of Spain landed on an island in what is now known as the Caribbean Sea. Not having any idea where he was he called the indigenous people he met “Indians.” He had been looking for a new route to India. I do not believe he had ever been to the country on the Asian sub-continent known as India. Had he ever been there he would have known the people he met were not Indians.

In the Western Hemisphere there are no Indians, except for those people and their descendants who came from the country of India. I repeat, there were no Indians in the Western Hemisphere. The people here were and still are Pequot, Iroquois (Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga, Mohawk, Cayuga), Lakota, Crow, Apache, Comanche, Navajo, Hopi, and many others. And that is what they still are today. So it is wrong to call or refer to these people as “Indians.” There were no “Indians” in the Western Hemisphere in 1492.

It is due to the error of Columbus that Europeans arriving on these shores called all native peoples “Indians” rather than by the names of their particular tribes or nations. And they also decided to refer to all native peoples in both the northern and southern hemispheres as “Indians.” And, sadly, they began to think of all the native peoples as being the same. That was as stupid as thinking that the French are the same as the Germans, the Poles, the Italians, etc. Native languages and customs were — and are — as different as those of any Europeans.

In the native world there have been for the past 150 years two forms of government. There is the traditional system whereby leaders are determined by how they protect and defend their people. Some nations may have had hereditary leaders, but the vast majority did not. Among the nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, the chiefs number for each nation is prescribed in The Great Law handed down by The Peacemaker hundreds of years ago. These chiefs are appointed by the clan mothers of each nation and serve for life. Of course, if said chief fails to perform his duties as prescribed, the clan mothers can then depose him and appoint a new chief. At the same time as the various reserves have their traditional leaders, there may also be and “elective system.” These “elective systems” came about through the interference and desire of the U.S. government. These are the only people they will deal with. That fact was an underlying reason for the Trail Of Broken Treaties march on Washington in 1972 and for the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973. It was a crooked, murderous “elected” regime on the Oglala Sioux reservation at Wounded Knee that resulted in the conflict there. The U.S. government backed that regime to the detriment of the people living on that reserve.

So what about the use of the “R word?” The aforementioned division on the reservations comes into play here. Many people, both traditional and elective, believe the use of that word to be harmful. Some have heard it used for so many years they have become ambivalent about its use. It has to end soon. If someone on TV, radio, or in print uses the “N word” they can soon find themselves in trouble or unemployed.

I would like to see all newspapers and other media simply refer to “the Washington NFL franchise (or team)” than use the R word at all.

To use a phrase I heard in a presidential election many years ago, “It’s time for a change.”

As an afterthought, I can remember when I first arrived at Fort Myer, Virginia, in 1961. Newspapers back then identified arrested individuals by race. Thankfully that has gone away. Time for the R word to also disappear from the media.

Bob Brookfield is a resident of Wardensville, West Virginia.