The Curse of the Anacostans: The Hidden Cause of the Redskins’ Decline

by Rich Rubenstein on November 9, 2019 · 1 comment

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There was a time when Washington was not considered to be a sports town. This was, of course, before the Nationals’ rise to baseball immortality, the Capitals’ Stanley Cup and Mystics’ WNBA triumphs, and the brave playoff efforts of D.C. United and the Wizards. Only one team, once the city’s pride, has become a source of civic mortification: the Redskins of the NFL.

In the Greater D.C. area, speculation about the causes of the Skins’ decline has become a regional sport. The crowd’s favorite whipping boy is owner Daniel Snyder, although the team’s managers and players all get a share of rotten apples hurled their way. What fans fail to understand, however, is that the source of the Redskins’ collapse does not lie either in the owner’s box, the front office or the locker room. The problem is far graver and more complex than this.

The Redskins, you see, are accursed.

Once upon a time, half a millennium ago, on the place where the current capital city now stands, there resided a lively assortment of Native American nations. On the banks of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers and the Chesapeake Bay, the Chickahominy, Piscataway, Pamunkey, Nanichoke, Mattaponi, Monacan, and Powhatan peoples thrived. Then came the white settlers. As happened almost everywhere, the Natives were at first wooed and accommodated, then bargained and negotiated with, and finally cheated, terrorized, and dispossessed.

One sizeable community of about 300 souls lived just east of the present Capitol in a town called Nacotchtank, which in the Indian language meant “traders town.” The inhabitants, the Anacostans, were well known for their trading skills, even dealing in furs and skins with the Iroquois of New York. They prospered, and in so doing excited the envy and resentment of Virginia’s English settlers, whose dreams of colonial riches had ended in a bitter struggle to survive.

The whites attacked Nacochtank – a bad mistake, since it was well defended. The retreating attackers left many dead comrades behind. A while later, they returned in force, being careful to wait until most of the Anacostan men were out hunting. They burned the town, slaughtered the women and children, and waited to ambush the returning hunters.

While lying in wait, the English commander heard a noise in a nearby wigwam. Upon investigating, he discovered an aged Anacostan, gravely wounded, who was attempting to crawl to freedom out the dwelling’s back exit.

“You filthy redskin!” spat the commander, training his musket on the old man. “You are not going anywhere!”

The ancient Native turned, saw the white man, and with a great effort managed to pull himself to his feet. He raised his arm in an oratorical gesture and spoke solemnly in the Indian language, his voice rising until it could be heard by the Englishmen waiting outside the wigwam. The commander, who did not understand one word of the speech, waited until the old man fell silent. Then he fired, killing him instantly.

The subsequent ambush was a success. With it, the Anacostan people disappeared from history, leaving only the name of the Anacostia River as their memorial. But one of the attackers, an English scout, was fluent in the local language. Later, he recalled the old man’s speech and translated it into English. It went like this:

“You call me redskin – you whose skin is no color at all. But I stand before you with almost naked, with no weapon and without fear, while you point your fire-machine at me and your insides tremble.

“You have murdered our wives and children and old ones, and now you will hide behind bushes and massacre our young men when they return. We are helpless to stop you from doing this, but your own children and grandchildren, and their children and grandchildren, will pay a price for your cruelty and your insults.

“Now and forever, let all who forget our name and our story be accursed.

“Now and forever, let all who do not atone for our murder be accursed.

“Now and forever, let all who call us redskins be accursed.”

This is the true history of the Washington football team’s fall from grace. It is not just that their name insults so many contemporary Natives, but also that it betokens forgetfulness of the original Americans and lack of repentance for their savagely unjust treatment. The Washington Redskins’ owner, who refuses to consider changing the name, and its fans, most of whom use it without intending it as an insult, simply do not understand that history has its own logic. There IS a price to be paid for repressing collective sins of the past and refusing to atone for them in the present.

Maybe losing football games has nothing to do with the Curse of the Anacostans. But why not exorcise that ghost? It’s time for America’s capital city to find a name for its team that does honor to our displaced forerunners rather than repeating an ancient insult.


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Carolyne Ashton November 10, 2019 at 6:38 pm

Thanks, Rich. I keep making this argument with family and friends who simply do not want to get it. They continually associate this argument with some perverse definition they have of “politically correctness”, which is a liberal bugaboo to them. So sad.


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