Historically, the term “Off with their (his or her) head” had been in use in Europe centuries before it appeared in 1592 in the Shakespearean play “Henry the VI, part III” when Queen Mary stated, “Off with his head and set it on York Gates.”
The term wasn’t popularized in America until Lewis Carroll wrote his time-everlasting story in 1865 in the book “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland." In the story, about the only words coming out of The Queen of Heart’s mouth were, “Off with his head. Off with her head.”
Obviously the term had been in public use long before Americans began the use of the term "redskins" to identify the Native Americans who were inconveniently occupying the land the Europeans claimed for themselves.
As a person who has always taken a deep interest in the origin of words and phrases, the term "redskins" once again entered my world last week. The Washington Redskins NFL football team would be in town to play our beloved Minnesota Vikings. Accompanying this rare appearance by the Redskins would be the attention given to the fact that the team from the capitol city of our great American nation, Washington, D.C., was still using a derogatory racial epithet as its nickname; or from a differing point of view, the team was simply honoring the people we had once so dishonored when we mis-appropriated their land for our use.
So, you may wonder, what does this have to do with the origins of the phrase, “Off with their head”?
The week the Washington Redskins came to town and so graciously offered the Minnesota Vikings their second win of a very disappointing season, I began reading a book by Elizabeth Johanneck called “Hidden History of the Minnesota River Valley.”
In it she makes the point that a generation ago, much of what was taught in our schools was a rather distorted white man’s version of the events surrounding the Minnesota River Valley during the 1860s. Much of it contained outright lies, especially the origin and use of the term "scalping." During a conversation with Hereditary Chief Ernest Wabasha of the Mdewakanton Tribe, author Johannek was advised that scalping was not one of their customs.
“No. It was introduced by the Europeans. We did it in retribution for a death. And not only that, the United States government paid money for the scalp of an Indian,” Chief Wabasha stated.
Our government had been paying bounties for Indians long before the largest public mass execution in our nation’s history — the 1862 hanging of 38 Native Americans near Mankato, Minnesota.
As far back as 1000 A.D., European royalty had been paying bounties for the heads of their enemies. It was the Earl of Essex who was believed to have coined the phrase, “Off with their heads.” This practice led to the term “head count.”
Christopher Columbus brought this barbaric practice to the New World as an incentive to rid the land of the nuisance of the people already living there. Eventually, the colonists complained that the storing of the bounty (human heads) was not only too inconvenient, they also started to smell real bad before they could be turned in for money. The government soon relented and allowed settlers to turn in only the bloody scalps from the heads as proof for reimbursement. It is widely accepted that the term “redskins” was derived from the introduction of bloody scalps to collect a bounty.
Following this trail of origins of words and phrases, I now ask the NFL football team from our nation’s capitol in Washington, D.C., how your use of the term “redskins” honors Native Americans?