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Are Scandinavians offended by NFL logo?

Published 9:19am Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Column: Pothole Prairie, by Tim Engstrom

I am part Swedish, and my last name is Swedish in origin. I likely had ancestors who were Vikings or at least lived in Sweden during the Vikings era.

The Minnesota Vikings portray these people wearing long braids and wearing helmets with horns affixed to the top. Neither of these is true.

I doubt any of the Vikings wore horned helmets. That notion became widespread thanks the world of opera in the 1870s, not history. Depictions of Viking invaders show them with no headgear or simple helmets made of leather or iron. The only authentic Viking helmet surviving into modern existence does not have horns.

So where did the opera costume designers get their inspiration? It didn’t help that Swedish artist Gustave Malmström drew Vikings with horned helmets in the 1820s.

And there may have been people from northern Europe who wore helmets festooned with antlers and horns, but this fashion predates the Vikings by at least a century. In the 1800s, there were discoveries of horned helmets belonging to the northern Europeans — people of modern-day Germany and France — and Roman and Greek chronicles match these findings. If anything, ancient German priests should be portrayed as wearing horned helmets, not Viking warriors.

Besides, wouldn’t horns give an opponent an advantage in battle, something to grab when slitting a throat?

Vikings had all kinds of strange hairstyles but not braids. Norman men, for example, shaved the back of their head — anything behind the ears — then let the rest grow long. Bald in the back. Blind in the front. The long hair depiction generally is correct, though. Long hair symbolized strength, while slaves had shaved heads.

My ancestors are natives of their countries, just like the Native Americans of our country. And my ancestors get portrayed in cartoons, sports mascots and in the general public as way off base and sometimes in a belittling way. For instance, the Vikings may have gotten dirty at times, but reliable historians describe them as being clean and possessing regular grooming traits.

There are many myths about the Vikings because history was written by the other side — the Christian armies. Of course they would portray Viking enemies as cruel, dirty, stinky, bloodthirsty and less than human.

Wouldn’t it be easy for me to conclude at this point that the Native American tribes ought to be less sensitive about the football team Washington Redskins? Why is it OK to portray Vikings incorrectly as a sports mascot but not Indians?

The fact is, it is unfair for me or anyone to declare who ought to be offended unless you are the one being portrayed.

People with Scandinavian roots, on the whole, are not offended by the inaccurate depictions of Vikings. It was 1,000 years ago, and today we revel in the goofiness of the portrayal in sports. It’s fun to wear plastic horned helmets, long braids of yarn and brandish inaccurate plastic weaponry while rooting for Adrian Peterson to run. Heck, most people with Scandinavian heritages believe Vikings wore horned helmets when they invaded other countries and took their land and belongings.

The Native American tribes were removed from their lands and treated horribly beyond imagination by the white culture that ran the federal and state governments of the United States. And this was a few generations ago. As much as sports teams may believe they are honoring the people with American Indian heritage, many natives have spoken up to say they see the term “redskin” as an insult and a slur. And many dictionaries already list the term as “offensive.”

It’s easy to conclude. Redskin is a much more overt about skin color than say, Chiefs, Warriors, Braves or even Indians.

I hope there is a way the Washington franchise can find a happy resolution. Florida State provides a good example. The Seminole tribe favored the university using its name as its mascot, so the team was able to keep the name. Perhaps the Washington Redskins could reach out to a tribe that would favor the use of a name. Perhaps the Mohawk tribe could grant its name, and they could be the Washington Mohawks.

More likely, they will take a page from the Miami (of Ohio) Redskins, which became the Red Hawks. But so many of the NFL teams are named for animals: Bears, Lions, Panthers, Jaguars, Dolphins, Seahawks, Broncos, Cardinals, Rams, Colts, Falcons, Bengals, Ravens, Eagles, and, sort of, the Buffalo Bills. It would be nice if the Washington team was able to be named for anything but an animal.

And I hope the team keeps its colors. Too many teams use shades of blue or silver. No team looks like the gold, white and burgundy of the Washington franchise.

 

Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.