DURING THE PAST FEW YEARS, the National Football League’s Washington Redskins have been in the news as much for their name as for their on-field play. Critics say the team’s name is offensive to American Indians and should be replaced.
The team’s management counters that many in the American Indian community support the name and that two reservations have schools whose teams are called the Redskins. Tribes, civil rights groups and even the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office have weighed in on both sides of the controversy, the latest in a half-century-long battle over the use of American Indian names and imagery by athletic teams.
In an increasingly pluralistic society, the question of who decides what is offensive goes beyond team names. Here’s a story that can help your Boy Scouts or Venturers wrestle with this important question within the context of Scouting.
Few troops can claim to be a century old, but Troop 2 can. Founded in 1913 as the second troop in its community, Troop 2 boasts a rich heritage of service and achievement. Somewhere along the way, it acquired a nickname — the Savages — and a logo that depicts a cartoonish American Indian in a breechcloth brandishing a tomahawk. Both the name and the logo adorn the troop’s T-shirts and trailer, though the troop long ago gave up its bloodcurdling war cry.
Trouble crops up when a Webelos den visits a troop meeting one fall. The den leader calls the Scoutmaster afterward and says her den will be joining a different troop in the spring. “As someone who’s part Navajo, I could never steer my boys to a troop with such offensive traditions,” she says.
To keep the discussion orderly, focus on three separate topics: the source of the complaint, the validity of the complaint and steps the troop could take.
THE SOURCE OF THE COMPLAINT
- Does it matter that the person lodging the complaint is not part of the troop family?
- Would her complaint carry less weight if she weren’t a Scouter?
- Does her complaint carry more weight because she is part Navajo?
- Does it matter that this is the first complaint the troop has received in recent memory?
THE VALIDITY OF THE COMPLAINT
- How valid do you think her complaint is? Explain your response.
- Does it matter that the name is not specific to one tribe? Does it matter that the logo is obviously an exaggerated caricature?
- In this case, who speaks for the potentially offended group (as opposed to a situation in which a specific tribe’s name is being used)?
- Assuming you could poll all American Indians, what percentage would have to say they are offended before you would agree to change the troop’s identity? Explain your response.
STEPS THE TROOP COULD TAKE
Assume for the sake of discussion that the troop decides it should make a change to its identity or (as some sports teams have done) get permission from a recognized tribe to use its name. Brainstorm a list of actions the troop could take. These could include retiring the logo, changing “Savages” to “Warriors,” or completely dropping references to American Indians. For each action, discuss these questions:
- How would this action address the concerns that have been raised?
- How would this action preserve the troop’s traditions?
- How should the decision to make a change be made?
- Who should make the final decision (troop committee, patrol leaders’ council or some other body)?
FIND MORE ETHICS DISCUSSIONS AT SCOUTINGMAGAZINE.ORG/ETHICS.
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