There are a few things I’m passionate about in life, and one is to share the true history of how our people have overcome the trauma of 150 years of attempts to erase the Blackfeet people. My great, great grandfather, Chief Heavy Runner, and 173 of his band were slaughtered in Montana in what was called the Baker Massacre in 1870. We Blackfeet call it the Bear River Massacre because we give no honor at all to Col. Eugene Baker — they were all women and children, my relatives.
My great grandmother survived the massacre that bitter cold day on January 23, 1870. Her name was Lone Charge and she was oldest child of Chief Heavy Runner’s children. Ben Bennett’s book Death, Too, For the Heavy Runner tells how the people were down with smallpox, sick and starving. Chief Heavy Runner had sent all the able-bodied men out to hunt for food. The soldiers attacked the wrong camp. But when it was pointed out to him that these were friendly Indians, and when the people pleaded for mercy for the children, Col. Baker said “nits breed lice.” He likely called them “dirty redskins.” That is how we perceive the use of the word “redskins.”
The story has been omitted from the Montana history books, so I’ve made it a point to tell the correct story to honor our people massacred that day. As the owner of three supper clubs in Montana, I decided to use placemats and art to tell the Blackfeet story to our visitors. The dining room in our Supper Club in Shelby, Mont, now closed, right near the massacre site, was called the “Heavy Runner Room” to honor those lost relatives. We had another supper club in Whitefish, now closed, where we also illustrated Blackfeet history for our international visitors.
Our original supper club — the Babb Bar Cattle Baron Supper Club — located at the Babb entryway to Glacier National Park, remains open and just finished its 17th season. To educate the public and our young people, I had a 200-foot-long mural painted around the building. The story shows that as a people, the Blackfeet have survived near extinction, but are still intact with a strong sense of identity.
The mural shows the Blackfeet speaking, people taking their place in this age of technology, and contributing what wisdom was given to our people to keep. The pictographs show the tribal colleges starting with their mission to teach our own history as part of the curriculum. It shows the language returning again through the immersion school, language programs, and sacred Bundles returning home from museums after the passage of the Graves Protection Act of 1990. I’ve spent a lifetime humbly working to learn, to preserve, to teach and to help us to remember who we are as a distinct people.
So you can imagine my dismay when I saw my name and words used to defend the racist Washington Redskins name. My son-in-law, ESPN’s Rick Reilly, completely misunderstood the conversation we had, quoting me as saying “the whole issue is so silly. The name just doesn’t bother me much. It’s an issue that shouldn’t be an issue, not with all the problems we’ve got in this country.”
But that’s not what I said.
What I actually said is that “it’s silly in this day and age that this should even be a battle — if the name offends someone, change it.” He failed to include my comments that the term “redskins” demeans Indians, and historically is insulting and offensive, and that I firmly believe the Washington Redskins should change their name.
When Rick’s article came out, it upset me to be portrayed as an “Uncle Tom” in support of this racial slur. I asked him to correct the record. He has not, so I must do it myself.
I grew up seeing store signs in the nearby town of Cutbank that read “No dogs or Indians allowed.” Our Indian families who live on reservations continue to feel the sting of racism. I could never support the term “redskins” because we know first-hand what racism and ignorance has done to the Blackfeet people. Our people grew up hearing terms like nits, dirty redskins, prairie nigger, savages, heathens, lazy Indians and drunks — all derogatory terms used to label us. It is better today, but the underlying mentality is still there or obviously people would change the name.
“Redskins” is part of that mentality from colonial times when our people were hunted by soldiers and mercenaries who were paid for the scalps of our men, women and children. How can anyone claim this is a proud tradition to come from? The labels, racism and hatred that Indian people continue to experience are directly tied to those racial slurs.
Let me be clear: The racial slur “redskins” is not okay with me. It’s never going to be okay with me. It’s inappropriate, damaging and racist.
In the memory of our Blackfeet relatives, it’s time to change the name. That would honor us. — Bob Burns