Below are our posts discussing the implications of sports team mascots that are based on cultural stereotypes, particularly those related to Native Americans.
Earlier this week, ten members of Congress sent a letter to the front office of the Washington Redskins, pushing them to select a new mascot:
In this day and age, it is imperative that you uphold your moral responsibility to disavow the usage of racial slurs. The usage of the “R-word” is especially harmful to Native American youth, tending to lower their sense of dignity and self-esteem. It also diminishes feelings of community worth among the Native American tribes and dampens the aspirations of their people. We look forward to working with you to find a solution to this important matter.
Their idea of a solution is a bill that would amend the 1946 Trademark Act to cancel any trademark that uses the term “redskin”. Pat Garofalo figures such federal intervention may be the only way the change will happen:
For precedent, it’s worth revisiting what led Washington’s football franchise to integrate. Then-owner George Preston Marshall was perfectly content to play up the team’s racist history, leaving it the last segregated squad in the league. He finally relented in 1962, not because of any change of heart, but after the John F. Kennedy administration threatened to refuse the team access to what is now called RFK Stadium, which was on federal land, unless it integrated.
Doug Mataconis disagrees with the liberal lawmakers’ strategy:
I have to wonder why this is something that Members of Congress need to be getting involved in, or why legislation is necessary to address something that is, in the end, a private business matter.
The people who don’t like the name are free to protest it. Dan Snyder and the rest of Redskins ownership are free to reject their pleas. If there ever comes a time when the public sympathizes with the protesters, then perhaps the team will feel the kind of economic pressure most likely to cause them to change positions, then we’ll likely see a name change of some kind.
Personally, I think the odds of that happening are pretty remote. The Redskins name has been in existence now since 1933 when the football version of the Boston Braves changed its name to Boston Redskins before moving to Washington, D.C. several years later. We’re not that far away from the 100th anniversary of that name. It’s going to be around for a long time to come, and I’m just fine with that.
(Photo: Fans of the Washington Redskins cheer against the Dallas Cowboys at FedExField on December 30, 2012 in Landover, Maryland. The Redskins defeated the Cowboys 28-18. By Larry French/Getty Images)
A reader writes:
I have to agree with Doug Mataconis; why does Congress need to be involved here? Moreover, how many people upon hearing the word “Redskin” conjure up negative stereotypical images of Native Americans? I’d have to think maybe 1 out of 10 thinks of Native Americans instead of football players.
But where would this political correctness end? Are the Atlanta Braves next? What about the Florida State Seminoles? Does it matter that the Seminole Tribe of Florida wants the college to keep the mascot? Or how about this one: I went to the College of the Holy Cross and we are called “The Crusaders?” Any members of Congress calling for us to change our name given what went on during the Crusades?
Words have meaning, and over time those meanings change. Why can’t the stigma be removed from a word as society matures and learns to use words for purposes other than demeaning others?
Another has a very different perspective:
Being a Comanche and Caddo Indian from Oklahoma, I have much gratitude for the actions of Tom Cole and the other members of Congress. They are doing one of the most important duties our elected representatives have: being a voice for their constituents, even those who don’t wield much political or economic power.
Unfortunately, Doug Mataconis is right. The Washington NFL team will never get rid of their mascot unless there is a monetary detriment to not doing so. Making money on the backs of a voiceless minority is prevalent and acceptable in American society. However, this IS something that Congress has the right and even moral imperative to pursue. The government has always placed monetary incentives and detriments to businesses so that they might more align with the pervading government philosophy. It may not have an effect in the short run, but it begins the “bending of the arc of history” that eventually can lead to real change. Mataconis’ allusion to this being a “private business matter” is the same argument private businesses used to not serve any black patrons. It’s a wrong-headed and antiquated, if not racist, school of thought.
Only an ultra-elite athlete taking a stand to not play for a team with a disparaging mascot would make any waves with these owners. I fantasized that Sam Bradford (1/16th Cherokee), who was the #1 pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, would publicly take a stand and speak out against the Washington Redskins and the Kansas City Chiefs. Both those teams would mostly likely have chosen Bradford had they had the chance (they chose fourth and fifth in that draft, respectively). Until something like that happens, it’s up to our government to do the right thing.
Readers continue the debate:
Congress wants to be involved because the topic seems national, seems important (aggrieved minorities), seems controversial (big biz vs tribes), and gives the politician a platform on which to look important (spouting). The whole farce is just a simulacrum of doing the real work of legislating (which is slow, quiet, and requires hard work), and further proves that Congressional DC is becoming a theatre of the absurd, only play-acting in their mission to serve the people.
I wanted to write in as an alum of the Central Michigan University Chippewas. Your reader who worried about an overreach of political correctness – “Are the Atlanta Braves next? What about the Florida State Seminoles?” – might want to reconsider a few points:
(1) Your reader suggests that stigmas can be removed as a society matures. Would anyone find it appropriate to walk onto a Native American reservation and call the inhabitants “Redskins?” Would anyone even think to use the term “Braves?” A word that can’t be said to the face of those it represents still carries a stigma. These are words that still hurt.
(2) The Atlanta Braves should absolutely be in this discussion. Another simple test: is it a net good when a 14-year-old Native American can turn on TBS and watch a stadium of predominantly white Southerners perform the “tomahawk chop?” Appropriating exaggerated stereotypes of a marginalized society is a harmful thing, even if the actions aren’t ill-intentioned.
(3) Finally, to answer your reader: it matters a great deal when tribes approve their names to be associated with a school. If the Seminole Tribe finds it positive to have a relationship with Florida State University, that’s their business. The same can be said of my school: having a Native American tribe tied into my identity at Central Michigan was extremely positive. Our student body was able to learn about a culture they otherwise might not have been exposed to and develop a greater appreciation of our neighbors.
Another sends the above image:
More images in the same vein on a website that examines racism in sports here. Bill Moyers speaks to Sherman Alexie about racist sports mascots and lack of power in the Indian communities here. Changing bullshit racism in sports matters, just as changing bullshit homophobia in sports matters. It contributes to what society does and does not think is okay.
(Image: “Mascots” from the National Congress Of American Indians‘ racial equality ad campaign)
A reader writes:
As a long-suffering Cleveland Indians fan, I thought I would weigh in on this issue. I absolutely loath the “grinning Indian” that has been the team’s mascot for decades. In the club’s defense, it seems that they have been trying to limit its use despite what appears to be support for the image by fans. Today, the team uses either a script “I” or an uppercase “C” on its uniforms and caps. Eradicating the emblem altogether would be the right thing to do.
But what is not commonly known is that the team name actually came from a fan contest in the early 20th century to rename the Cleveland club. The name honors Louis Sockalexis, one of the first and only Native Americans to play major league ball. Is the term Indians anachronistic? Yes. But the name was not selected to disparage. I think that makes a difference.
As a Cleveland transplant who also happened to go to Florida State, I can’t stand the Indians logo (or name for that matter) and see it as something that holds back the city on par with Cuyahoga River burning. Not sure what a suitable replacement would be, but dropping Chief Wahoo (yeah, seriously) would be a big start. Maybe the team could just be “Cleveland” and continue to be referred to as “The Tribe” informally.
Here is a hint: when your physical mascot at the field has to look like [the photo seen above] because your real mascot is too offensive, you might want to change your mascot. Another example is the Fighting Illini of the University of Illinois. They retired their Chief Illiniwek mascot in 2007 after the NCAA deemed it a “hostile or abusive” symbol. Originally, the entire name “Fighting Illini” was going to have to go, but it turned out that it predated Chief Illiniwek and referenced soldiers from Illinois that fought in WWI.
Should Congress be involved? I honestly don’t know, but it did start a discussion here on your blog, so some good has already come of it. The best pressure the government can do is to place the copyrights for the logos for the Chiefs, Indians, Braves, Redskins in the public domain. Once any guy with a screenprinting setup can use the logo to put on merchandise their would be some clear-cut economic incentives to finally change mascots.
I have been a Redskins fan all my life and when I first hear the word “Redskins” I immediately think about the NFL team. It was until my teenage years that some people use “Redskins” as a racial slur. For a long time, I was back-and-forth on this. But then I saw this Washington Post article about the origin of the term “Redskins.” It was created by … Native Americans. They used the term as pride and endearment. Whites used the term for endearment as well. Then in the mid 1800s, authors and writers started using “Redskins” to degrade the Native Americans.
For me, the question of whether “Redskins” is racist or not is tied to the person behind the team. George Preston Marshall, the original owner of the Redskins, moved the team from Boston to Washington to attract the Southern crowd. In the late ’50s, he changed one of the lines of “Hail to the Redskins” from “Fight for old D.C.” to “Fight for Old Dixie.” A year later, it went back to the original lyrics. Also at that time, the NFL pressured Marshall to get a player in color and the Redskins were the last team to integrate.
If I were living 50 years ago, I would of demand changing the nickname because of Marshall’s actions. Now, I think the Redskins reflect its true origin: pride, endearment and character from their football team. It started with the elder, late George Allen. Then the Redskins were really “The Redskins” when Joe Gibbs came in coach the team to three Super Bowl titles. Now with the ascension of Robert Griffin III, the Redskins are back to relevance in the NFL. It’s funny that when the Redskins are good, the critics propped up about the name and when they suck, they stay quiet and laugh at their futility.
Update from a reader:
Your reader repeats a commonly believed, but false legend. The Cleveland Indians were not, in fact, named in honor of Chief Sockalexis, or any actual Native American person. Rather, after the 1914 season, Cleveland’s American League team faced the prospect of playing without their star player, Nap Lajoie, for whom the press and public commonly called the team the Naps. The selection of the name Indians in 1915 was not the result of a “fan contest,” and it had nothing to do with Chief Sockalexis. Rather, it was pure corporate marketing, an attempt to steal some glory from the then-dominant Boston Braves of the National League. The Braves now play in Atlanta, after a stint in Milwaukee. And the Braves also gave their name to Boston’s football Braves, who adopted the nickname Redskins and moved to Washington in the 1930s.
As for the Braves? The team has long maintained, with some credibility, that the name originally referred to the patriot tax protesters of the Boston Tea Party, some of whom dressed as Indians for the event. Here’s the best linkable scholarly study of the Indians naming history.
(Photo: Cleveland Indians mascot Slider entertains the crowd during the game against the Seattle Mariners at Progressive Field on August 23, 2011 in Cleveland, Ohio. By Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Readers keep the popular thread going:
I, too, find several currently-used mascots to be unnecessary and out-of-touch, and I would not presume to suggest that offense taken at certain mascots should be minimized, but on balance, surely intent and context do matter. They are, after all, sports mascots; they are supposed to be cartoonish caricatures of the characters/groups they represent. That doesn’t necessarily render them or the selection of the related team names offensive enough to send to the trash bin.
For example, the mascot at my high school was a Viking – a cartoonish figure with a giant horned helmet wielding a cartoonish sword and a giant, cartoonish smile. Surely the fact that this mascot and related logo were intended solely as cheerleader-type figures, while the name itself was chosen to symbolize those things one would presumably admire about our visions of the Vikings – strength, bravery, and exploration – weighs in their favor despite not being an accurate visual representation of actual Northern Europeans.
At Notre Dame, my alma mater, the mascot is a fighting leprechaun, for Christ’s sake – surely about as much of a stereotype of a drunken Irishman as one could imagine – yet it is a beloved image of the university’s teams. Why? Because context and intent matter. It’s a sports mascot, not designed to mock those of Irish heritage but to serve as a reminder, even in cartoonish form, of their fighting spirit.
There are plenty of examples of ethnicities in team names throughout history. The Negro League had teams like the Birmingham Black Barons, the New York Cubans and the Chicago Brown Bombers. These weren’t chosen to insult their fans but to honor them. I would dare say that if you were to visit a local softball or soccer league, self-chosen team names there would represent the same ethnic, professional, or even sexual orientation of the players. A team name is a mark of pride, not a walking insult. That’s why we don’t see people of Irish descent picketing Boston Celtics games or Northeasterners who don’t pronounce r’s at the end of sentences protesting the Yankees. The best historic nicknames reflected the ethnic, their working-class (Packers, Steelers, Brewers, Aggies, Cornhuskers) or economic class (Brooklyn Bums/Dodgers).
This slippery slope is two-sided. If Braves and Indians offend, what about nicknames that refer to European attempts to subjugate native tribes, such as Rangers, Padres, Pioneers or Oklahoma’s “Sooners” and “89ers” which refer to that state’s huge land grab?
(Photo: The Notre Dame Fighting mascot looks on during the Big East Quarterfinal College Basketball Championship game against the Pittsburgh Panthers on March 11, 2010 at Madison Square Garden. By Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
Many more opinions from the in-tray:
I appreciate your Cleveland readers’ comments (I’m an Ms girl myself but I like Cleveland!). Sadly, the attached image was supposed to be the Indians’ commemorative cap for the 4th of July (oh the irony there). It has reportedly been pulled. The Atlanta Braves were going to ressurect another horrendous image onto its hats, but then denied that was the case.
I also appreciate this whole thread. I have family who are Native and part Native (Blackfeet), so it’s personal to me. I recommend The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. It’s written for young adults and is a very engaging, easy read and gives a funny, heartbreaking and real look at life on the rez.
Another takes issue with the reader who invoked the Fighting Irish mascot:
Notre Dame itself is not just a Catholic institution, but very much an Irish Catholic institution. As such, its mascot is an expression of Irish identity by Irish Americans. The Washington Redskins is an institution originated, owned and operated by white dudes in a city where a long series of genocidal policies against Native Americans were planned and directed. So the situations are not analogous in any respect: not in the terms, not in the people, and not in the institutions.
Another pushes back on the second reader here:
To somehow equate the Cleveland Indians name to those of Negro league teams is to be grossly oblivious to the nature of those leagues. The Negro Leagues were segregated teams. The BlackBarons were called “Black” because they were black. By definition, they had to be, because black players were not allowed on white teams.
So this is entirely a different situation. The fact that there was this kind of color line is a shameful part of baseball history. But Negro League teams should be remembered and celebrated because of the great players who were excellent athletes that played hard. They were not ashamed of being black and wanted to show the world that black people could play ball just as well as whites. In this respect, your reader is correct about those names being marks of pride for the players.
This is not the same situation as the Redskins and Indians. The Cleveland Indians are not a team full of Indian players (The Sockalexis myth notwithstanding). When they took the name in 1915, they were a team of white players, in a white league. They are named for a group of people who literally did not have rights at the time. This is an important distinction. Taking a team name that reflects pride in your group is vastly different than taking a name that caricaturizes a group with less power. To think that the name was not conceived from racism is to be ignorant of the world of 1915.
Before Atlanta hosted the Braves, for decades it was home to a white minor league team called the Crackers, and a Negro League team called the Black Crackers – seriously.
Another lightens the mood:
I always thought Penn’s Fighting Quakers were funny, in a stupid kind of way. Go Pacifists! Subdue them with Inner Light!
Sorry, I just had to respond to this reader’s comments you posted:
If I were living 50 years ago, I would of demand changing the nickname because of [racist Redskins owner George Preston] Marshall’s actions. Now, I think the Redskins reflect its true origin: pride, endearment and character from their football team.
This is just a bunch of happy horseshit. In what way, precisely, do the Washington Redskins organization do anything to promote pride, endearment, and character among any Native American communities in the greater D.C. area, or nationally? I’m sure that the Redskins players and organization do a lot of charitable activities – all professional sports teams do as a way to engender good feelings among fans and because the players and management recognize how truly fortunate they are and want to give back to their communities. But do the Redskins do anything that is specifically targeted at Native American communities? Are they promoting education about Native American culture and history, working to preserve recordings of Native American languages as the last speakers of these languages grow old and die?
If they do, they’re remarkable for the lack of publicity such actions generate, because as far as I can tell there isn’t any.
Just wanted to add one more angle to the thread, which started in part with a quote from Doug Mataconis, who asked, “I have to wonder why this is something that Members of Congress need to be getting involved in, or why legislation is necessary to address something that is, in the end, a private business matter.”
Trademark is absolutely not a private business matter. Trademark is a system in which the government grants to people and business a set of rights in the usage of images and names. The underlying policy is both to protect consumers and to prevent unfair competition. Unlike say a contract agreed to by two parties, there is no private business conduct in trademark, the trademark holder gets rights that are granted by current legislation and the trademark office.
It seems the point of the proposed legislation is simply to deny the Redskins use the full force of the US Government to enforce its trademark. Currently, the Redskins can go to court, and in essence conscript the federal government into forcing people not to use their name or image, or pay them penalties for having done so. All the legislation would do is to say the government is not going to help them do that anymore. I understand that there may be reasons why the government shouldn’t pick and choose what symbols get Trademark protection, but that is a different argument than the standard “keep liberal government out of private business” trope that Mataconis puts forth.
More readers join the conversation on our Facebook page.
Readers keep the thread alive:
You want to talk about offensive mascots? My high school (Patrick Henry High School in Glade Spring, VA) has the Confederate soldier, i.e., The Rebels, as a mascot. The Confederate flag is painted on the football stadium, and the marching band – of which I was a member – plays Dixie when the team scores.
Another sends the newspaper clippings seen above:
In 1980 Pekin (IL) High School changed its sports team mascot from “the Chinks” to “the Dragons.” Angry students protested, carrying signs that said “Chinks 4-ever” and the like. I especially like this quote: “My dad was a Chink and he doesn’t want it changed, either.”
Another shares a more amicable controversy at the local level:
My daughters attended, and I taught at, Arapahoe High School in Centennial Colorado – one of the first high schools in the nation to officially modify its mascot, with the assistance of the Arapaho tribe. The mascot was and still is the Warrior, fitting since the high school sits on ground once occupied by the Arapahos; their reservation is now in Wind River, WY. Ron Booth, principal at the time and part Indian, reached out to the Arapahos during mascot controversies in the Early 1990s. The result was a redesign of our mascot by an Arapaho artist to depict the warrior accurately; many educational and ceremonial visits by tribal members each spring to answer questions and relate tribal stories and lore; visits by AHS groups to the Wind River reservation and Denver Indian Center to donate goods, food, and share camaraderie, and the attendance at Arapahoe graduations by tribal leaders to deliver words of congratulation.
Our school is richer from the connections with the Arapahos, and I feel the tribe has gotten more respect and pride in return.
More discussion on our Facebook page.
You hire Luntz not to merely poll, but to figure out how best to sell people on something. It seems reasonable to assume that team owner Daniel Snyder, who has vowed to never change the name, is working now on how best to convince people that his team’s name is not a repellent racial epithet. Luntz’s specialty is renaming things to sound more appealing, but in this case he’ll be crafting the best possible language to use when explaining why something shouldn’t be renamed. …
That Snyder is hiring Frank Luntz suggests a certain amount of concern that nationwide blasé acceptance of his team’s name may be coming to an end. He certainly didn’t seem to take criticisms particularly seriously before — his team’s P.R. desk has usually just pointed to a couple of polls and dismissed critics as unimportant — but now he is writing letters to Congress and working out a P.R. strategy. That’s good. It means he’s losing. But it doesn’t mean he’ll lose. The team has successfully fought public pressure for decades, and the NFL has other high-priority P.R. nightmares distracting it from taking the controversy seriously. And soon we’ll begin hearing some much more convincing arguments in favor of the name, courtesy of Luntz and whatever other high-priced professional spinners Snyder hires.
Jonathan Mahler predicts the result:
We can expect his research to reveal that most Americans don’t think the name “Redskins” is especially offensive. (A recent ESPN poll has already concluded as much.) Then Luntz can write a strategy memo advising Snyder on the most effective way to deflect the controversy. Among other things, Snyder will surely want to avoid reminding the public of the history of the term “Redskins.” Football fans love tradition. But it’s hard to root for a team named after the bloody scalps of American Indians butchered by bounty hunters.
The popular mascot thread is still kicking:
I grew up in North Dakota, where there is a long history of sports teams with controversial sports mascots. Up until the 1970s, the mascot for Dickinson State University was the Savages (the school is 60 miles from an Indian reservation) and every year a white female student and a white male student would be elected homecoming chief and princess and don costumes to dress the part. The current mascot for the school’s men’s teams is Blue Hawks and the women’s teams are called the Blue Chicks. Today there is a small amount of controversy about the nickname of the public high school in Dickinson as the mascot for Dickinson High School is the Midgets.
For many years the mascot of Wahpeton High School was the Wops. That nickname got changed to the Huskies. I think it lasted as long as it did simply because there are so few people of Italian extraction in the state.
The mascot controversy at the University of North Dakota got a lot of national press. The Fighting Sioux nickname has been officially retired and the school has no mascot at this time until tempers cool and a new one can be introduced (I think the Fighting Frackers would be a good option). Things got really ugly in the state and the legislature got involved and it even ended up on a statewide ballot. Some people felt so strongly about the Fighting Sioux mascot that they wanted to keep it even if it meant the school could not compete in NCAA tournaments. It also did not help that one of the two Sioux tribes in the state voted to support/approve the use of the Sioux nickname … while the tribal council of the other Sioux tribe never permitted the members to vote.
Unfortunately for UND, the controversy overshadowed and diminished the really good work and huge investment the school has made in Native American higher education.
All this mascot talk got me thinking again about a very tearful, bitter school board meeting I attended with hundreds of my fellow students in 1986 in an effort to keep our principal and a group of evangelical Christian parents from changing our school mascot from The Diablos to The Bulldogs. When Mission Viejo High School in southern California was founded in 1966, it’s mascot was The Diablo, aka “Pablo the Diablo.” I don’t really remember anyone ever referring to our mascot by its appended Spanish first name, especially since the color guard mascot at the time was always a girl dressed in a devil’s outfit . I definitely don’t remember anyone being offended by the ethnic/cultural association of naming the school’s mascot devil Pablo. But as evangelical Christians began to assert themselves in the local political and educational institutions of Mission Viejo at the time, the Diablo mascot became a primary target of their ire.
The student body was divided as parents and kids took sides in what became a city-wide controversy. I was on the pro-Diablo side, and for me personally it became friend against friend after my best friend started dating a born-again girl and he “converted” to maintain the relationship (she also convinced him to get a perm, but that’s another story). I remember the pro-Diablo student leaders speaking passionately about tradition and history at the school board meeting, but our side was ultimately outvoted. The pro-Diablo forces lost and the school’s mascot was changed to the Bulldogs.
I graduated in 1987 and never looked back and had assumed that the mascot remained the Bulldog ever since. The thread on mascots prompted me to do a little research and I discovered that the battle raged on and still continues today. The student body fought back in 1993 and after a campus-wide vote rechristened the school’s mascot as the Diablo (though the current cartoonish incarnation is a lot different than the illustrations I remember of our Diablo, who sported a Van Dyke and his eyes had a certain sinister gleam). Interestingly enough, the anti-Diablo forces in 1993 cited the separation of church and state as an argument against the mascot:
Bev Stephenson, a former school employee whose daughter graduated from Mission Viejo High last year, opposes the devil logo and fears an uproar from the local Christian community if a devil mascot wins–even a cute, smiling one. “We’re talking about the separation of church and state,” Stephenson said Tuesday. “We don’t put the Ayatollah Khomeini out there. We don’t put Jesus on the flag. We don’t use the devil either. There are many other positive depictions we can use.”
The mascot remains The Diablo at present although this rather lonely blog post suggests there are still those hoping to change it back:
Many parents and students have voiced concern over the mascot as the Diablos; saying that it is the one thing that bothers them about this High School. Today’s society is full of dark and evil messages that bring our children down. Let’s build our kids up and empower them with a Unified Mascot Change.
Almost defiantly, it seems to me now, the school website offers a “A Tour the Campus with Pablo the Diablo” page. I’m glad that subsequent students were able to get the mascot changed back after my classes failure to keep it. For me, the experience marked the first time I had ever encountered the political will of the evangelical Christian community and as I reflect on it now, the battle over the Diablo, as localized as it was, seems a harbinger of the cultural war that’s been waging ever since on a national level. I wonder how many of the Christian fans who oppose changing the mascot of the Cleveland Indians or the Washington Redskins would be in favor of changing either mascot to the Cleveland Satans or the Washington Devils?
A reader writes:
I find the whole controversy about mascots and team names to be a little ridiculous. While I can understand the hurt feelings, as a white guy, I am probably the last person who should tell other people how to feel. But what gives power to these issues are Native Americans reaction to them. An intramural team in Northern Colorado picked an intentionally insulting name to prove a point (the Fighting Whites) and it backfired. I personally thought it was hilarious, and was going to order one of the shirts, but they were sold out! I never did follow up, but apparently they are still for sale. The best thing they could do is probably ignore the whole issue.
Another has a very different perspective:
Thank you for bringing attention to the mascot issue – it’s wonderful to hear opinions aired on both sides that are measured and reasonable, as opposed to the comments one encounters in the various articles in the Washington Post and other places that have covered this controversy.
First, a bit of a reveal. I’m actually one of the plaintiffs in the Blackhorse v. Pro Football Inc. case that was recently heard in the from the Trademark Trial and Appeals Board, so I’ve staked out my position on this issue. I wanted to touch on an aspect of the debate that hasn’t quite been aired out yet, and that’s more of a personal reflection. I spent much of my childhood growing up on an Indian reservation and am a member of a federally recognized tribe and have family in two other tribes through my father. I was raised by both parents to be proud of my background, and I participate in a wide variety of cultural and religious activities. Spending much of my time on the reservation or places where Native people are more common than most places (the Mountain West and Oklahoma), I was in a bubble. I was certainly exposed to attitudes and stereotypes about Indians growing up, but these attitudes were easily dismissed because the people who held them were clearly bigots. When I left the reservation for school, however, I was exposed to a much more insidious perception. Most people haven’t met a Native person, and even those who have tend to have little idea that the person they’re interacting with is Native. Most people’s ideas of what Native people represent are shaped by popular culture. And much of what is spewed out by popular culture is wrong, disrespectful and sometimes plainly racist.
In school I was often asked about where my feathers were, where I kept my “Indian costume,” why my hair wasn’t long, and if I lived in a tipi. I was asked to “talk Indian”, and when I competed in sports people would call out to me on the field with “Indian” whoops taken from the chants of the Redskins and bad Spaghetti Westerns.
At first, this didn’t bother me much, as my identity of who I was and where I came from is pretty strong. Clearly it bothers me a lot more now that I’m older as it has become clear that these questions come from Indians’ lack of control with regard to their own image and identity. And pop culture shapes Native youths’ perceptions of themselves and where they come from. I can’t think of any other culture that the American majority culture gets to explicitly exploit and slap on the side of a product to sell something more than Native people. The Land O’ Lakes lady, the logo on the side of the Redskins’ helmets, and pretty soon Johnny Depp with a dead bird on his head are what many people are going to think of when they think “Indian.”
Nothing illustrated this to me more than my own son who just finished the 1st grade in a place dominated mostly by Redskins fans. My son is a kid of the world – his roots come from my family’s three different tribes, my grandmother’s Okie-Irish heritage, and his mom’s mix of Korean, African American and Wampanoag. If you asked him “what he was” he would probably tell you a bit about all sides of his family and self-identify as Native as we’ve raised him as best we could far from the reservation in our family traditions and cultural heritage. When his friends ask him why he doesn’t look like the Redskin logo, he struggled to answer. He then started wondering why momma didn’t look like the lady on the side of the butter container. He’s bothered that when his hair grows long it isn’t straight like daddy’s, but is curly like his mom’s. The effects of mainstream culture that thinks it has a good idea of what an Indian looks like and does have already started to plant seeds of doubt as to his own authenticity, and this is something he’ll struggle with much of his life until he comes to terms with his identity.
These are major issues, but as a parent I’m glad I get to set him and his friends straight and equip him with the tools to live a world that materializes and misappropriates almost everything about our culture. But why do we tolerate this materialization and misappropriation of Native culture to the extent that we do? There a lot of good reasons to fight alongside Amanda Blackhorse in the Blackhorse v. Pro Football Inc. case, and your readers have aired out a lot of them. But for me the fight is personal, represented by own experience and perhaps most importantly by the experience my son and his children will have.
Thanks for the chance to air this out. I’m a long-time reader who rarely gets to air anything out with any kind of authority. Also – good job on putting more “read more” stories out there – my frustration at being unable to follow the mascot thread inspired me to sign up for my monthly subscription, and given how much I read the Dish, I would have given more but I am a poor graduate student at the moment so my $1.99 a month will have to suffice until this degree pays off.
The popular thread continues:
In a different twist to potentially offensive school mascots, consider the Richland High School Bombers, which have an atomic mushroom cloud as their mascot. The school is near Hanford, Washington, where the “Fat Man” atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki was manufactured. There has been substantial controversy over the mascot for some time now (e.g. here and here).
I know what the Hanford nuclear reservation means to that community and how proud they are what they did for the war effort, but … come on. Being proud of it is one thing, but celebrating and reveling in it is another.
Another adds to this tangent:
North Dakota does indeed have a long and storied history of dealing with colorful team names and mascots. My favorite has to be the controversy surrounding the Devils Lake Satans. Yes, you read that right: The high school teams were known as the Satans, complete with a red imp mascot.
After a great hue and cry by evangelical Christians throughout the ’90s, the school board finally voted to retire the nickname and mascot in 2002 and directed the school to come up with something new. The overwhelming choice of the students was to change to The Blaze, but that got shot down when someone on the school board realized that “Blaze” was slang for smoking marijuana. The eventual compromise? The Firebirds.P.S. The best high school sports match-up in North Dakota history: 1981 semifinal basketball game between the Devils Lake Satans and the St. Mary’s Saints. Oh, you can just imagine the cheers coming from both sets of fans …
Last but certainly not least:
Maybe a little off topic: the mascot for the Arkansas School for the Deaf is the leopard, or, as they put it on their webpage, “Welcome to the Arkansas School for the Deaf Leopards.”
Slate announced yesterday that it will start referring to the Washington Redskins as “Washington’s NFL team.” David Plotz explains his magazine’s rationale:
Americans think differently about race and the language of race than we did 80 years ago. We now live in a world, for instance, in which it’s absolutely unacceptable for an NFL player to utter a racial slur. Changing the way we talk is not political correctness run amok. It reflects an admirable willingness to acknowledge others who once were barely visible to the dominant culture, and to recognize that something that may seem innocent to you may be painful to others. In public discourse, we no longer talk about groups based on their physical traits: No one would ever refer to Asians as yellow-skinned. This is why the majority of teams with Indian nicknames have dropped them over the past 40 years.
He says the term’s “relatively innocent history” doesn’t excuse its current usage:
As Smithsonian linguist Ives Goddard has shown, European settlers in the 18th century seem to have adopted the term from Native Americans, who used “red skin” to describe themselves, and it was generally a descriptor, not an insult. Over time, it became a more ambiguous, and less benign term, sometimes used as a slur. When Washington owner George Preston Marshall – who was admittedly a racist, refusing to integrate his team until 1962 – chose the name in the 1930s, he was almost certainly trying to invoke Indian bravery and toughness, not to impugn Indians.
But time passes, the world changes, and all of a sudden a well-intentioned symbol is an embarrassment.