I don’t particularly follow sports at all. Well, that’s a lie. I do pay pretty close attention to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, and I follow soccer internationally to some degree. That’s about it, though, and I definitely pay no attention to American football. However, the other day I was around a TV with ESPN’s SportsCenter playing, and I noticed some of the scores from the weekend’s football games. The Minnesota Vikings had beaten the Washington Redskins 17 – 13.
Longtime Redskins Mascot, Chief Zee
“Really?” I thought to myself, “It’s almost 2011, and we still have a professional sports team named after a racial slur?” After all, the term “Redskin” was a largely-derogatory term for Native Americans, used by white people who were disparaging the native peoples of this land. Worse, the team with the racial slur as a name is the NFL team from our nation’s capital? *slaps forehead* What are we thinking? Was it not bad enough that the folks in D.C. broke almost every single federal treaty signed with Native People?
I can already hear the reaction most defenders of this mascot would have: But we’re honoring their brave warrior spirit! They should feel proud that a Native American is the mascot for the Washington Redskins.
As I started thinking further, I realized that we have tons of racist depictions of Native American Indians in our sports teams around the U.S.. Another team in the NFL is the Kansas City Chiefs. In Major League Baseball, you have the Atlanta Braves (who, in a step in the right direction, tactfully changed their mascot from a racist depiction of a native person to a baseball-headed guy):
Perhaps one of the worst offenders, the Cleveland Indians with their overtly-racist mascot:
How, in any way, is this acceptable? Looking at the overtly-racist Indians’ mascot, with its misshapen nose and eagle feather in the back, I can’t help but draw a parallel. What if we had a team called the Charleston Sambos? Worse, to parallel the term used by the Washington Redskins, what if we had a team called the New York Niggers? What if this was their mascot?
Now, this is in no way meant to draw a parallel between the African American experience and the Native American Indian experience in the U.S.. Instead, it is meant to pose the question: If we had overtly racist sports mascots that depicted African Americans or Latinos – say the Houston Wetbacks – in the way that we do Native Americans, would we stand for it?
I am going to guess that the answer is no. Then why on earth is there a double standard? I mean, Wikipedia has a whole list of sports teams with mascots derived from Indigenous Peoples. There are teams in the NHL, NBA, NCAA, and countless high school teams! Notably, there is also a long list of teams that have changed their mascot from a racist and patronizing depiction of Indigenous Peoples to something more respectful, thus proving that it is not that difficult to make the change! Granted, there have been millions of dollars poured into the marketing of major sports franchises like the Washington Redskins (which is likely to be more difficult to convince those in power to change), but if nothing else, we can set the stage at the local level!
For example, Colorado State Senator Suzanne Williams recently introduced (though later withdrew under tremendous pressure) a bill that would have required all public and charter high schools in Colorado seek approval from the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs to make sure that the mascot was accountable and respectful. Local pressure has been applied to school boards and state legislatures all over the country in hopes of encouraging high schools to change Indian mascots to something more respectful. The NCAA even attempted to have all American Indian mascots eliminated from participating schools, but it decided (through political pressure) that it could not force schools to change their mascots and simply ruled that such mascots could not represent teams in the NCAA playoffs.
In reflecting on this topic, I think back to when I tried to broach the subject with a family member about the Mariemont High School Warriors’ mascot in Mariemont, OH. The family member posited, “But Jamie, you teach in a high school where the mascot is also the Warriors, but your mascot is a Trojan warrior. What’s the difference?” This is a common response. The differences abound. I think the most significant difference, though, is that there were not more than 10 million Trojans killed in an incredible genocide that is barely spoken of but somehow “honored” through the racist depictions of the people in sports culture. It is worse that most of the schools that have racist Indian mascots are predominantly white considering that it was at the hands of white Europeans that such a holocaust was wrought.
Basically those of us who are calling for a change in these racist mascots are simply calling for respect! Once again, political correctness is essentially a call for respect. If it is hurtful to the group in question when you use certain terms (like the blatantly racist term Redskin) or when you use certain imagery, don’t do it! It is hurtful! Plain and simple. Indigenous groups all over the United States have made it clear how hurtful it is to continue having team names like the Redskins and mascots like the Cleveland Indians’. It is time we showed Native American Indians the respect that they deserve and mount a sustained effort to pressure the teams in our communities to change these mascots. Perhaps I can start with a letter to Central High School, home of the Warriors, in my home town of Grand Junction, CO. Come on Central High School Hippogryphs!
In my favorite form of resistance to this culture of racist sports imagery, I want to highlight the intramural basketball team from the University of Northern Colorado at Greeley who stirred controversy in 2002 by flipping the paradigm of power, naming their team the “Fightin’ Whities.”
The team, made up of Native American, White, and Latino players, wanted to draw attention to the racist history and tradition of naming teams after stereotypical depictions of Indigenous Peoples. Through t-shirt sales, they were able to raise a substantial amount of money and endow a sizable scholarship for students at UNC, naming it the “Fightin’ Whites Minority Scholarship” for Native American students. Now that’s creative activism!
Peace be the Journey.