Sports / Racist Team Names

Native Americans are not Mascots

On October 11, several days before Sturgis Brown High School was to play Pine Ridge High School in an annual rivalry football game, pictures posted by Sturgis Brown students were spreading across social media. Originally posted on Snapchat, the pictures showed several teenagers beating an old car with the words “Go back to the rez” crudely spray painted across it. Pine Ridge High School, of course, resides in the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota: the site of the infamous Wounded Knee Massacre and the most impoverished Native reservation in the U.S. In an area marred by a history of racism, the most recent event in Sturgis, South Dakota is sadly another example of what Pine Ridge residents – and other Native Americans for that matter – have to constantly contend with. Sturgis Brown school officials forfeited the football match and cancelled its homecoming in light of the overt racism, and many students have been doing their best to learn from this event, but this show of racism and explicit cultural bias towards Native Americans has nonetheless left many wondering how and why such an event occurred. Unfortunately, such racist acts are not an uncommon occurrence for Pine Ridge residents, so the easy answer would be to say that racist ideologies are carrying over from generation to generation because children are internalizing what they see around them. However, the recent event in Sturgis also calls attention to a broader issue that could be at play: the role that athletics plays in normalizing negative stereotypes about Native Americans.

While it is impossible to determine the origin of the racism demonstrated by the students who smashed the car in Sturgis, that is not the goal here. Rather, it’s time we start thinking more critically about the damage that caricatured Native American mascots can cause. Cultural bias toward Native Americans is normalized through a medium that reaches millions of Americans – national sports teams. The Chiefs, the Braves, the Redskins, the Indians, and the Blackhawks are just a few of the many teams whose names, mascots, and logos appropriate very specific aspects of Native American cultures. There is no explicit link between the overt racism in Sturgis and the racism inherent in the names and mascots of certain national sports teams, but it is important to recognize that these national sports teams often send the message that caricaturing Native Americans is okay.  

Before we begin discussing the various teams that have controversial mascots, it is important to understand the detrimental effects caricatured and stereotyped mascots have on Native American youth. Because Native Americans are underrepresented throughout society, portraying stereotypes and caricatures of them through sports icons (that capture the attention of millions) is especially detrimental and concerning. In a society that doesn’t have many Native leaders in mainstream politics or on the national stage, having the most prevalent representation of Native Americans reside in sports mascots is particularly harmful. In fact, psychological studies have linked exposure to mascots that represent stereotypes to lower self-esteem in Native youth. Moreover, studies have also shown that Native American mascots decrease feelings of community worth in Native youth and lead to lower achievement goals as compared to their non-Native American counterparts. In the early 2000s, the American Psychological Association stated that mascots and names derived from Native American origins “create a hostile learning environment.”

There is a myriad of caricatured mascots present within national sports that send the message that racism is okay, no matter how soft that racism may be. In different ways, national sports teams normalize racial slurs and perpetuate stereotypes of Native Americans. The Cleveland Indians “Wahoo” mascot is perhaps the most controversial mascot in the game (ironically, they play at Progressive Field). The mascot – Chief Wahoo – is an extremely derogatory caricature of an Indian chief. Recently, the team has begun to phase out the logo of Wahoo on their uniforms, but the red face, bulbous nose, triangular eyes, and a feather on his head are still commonly used by fans as the inspiration for face paint and apparel. The mass amount of people in attendance at games are all receiving the message that it is okay to dress up as a caricature in support of your favorite team. While many people don’t intend to act in a racist manner when they don their “Wahoo” gear, the meaning is just that – racist. “Save Our Chief” fans argue against the removal of Wahoo, saying that  “in other times, American culture has belittled non-white races purposefully; most assuredly, racist thoughts are not with today’s Indians fan when wearing a Chief Wahoo cap, shirt, or jacket.” While it is probably valid to assume that the majority of the people that attend Indians games are not explicitly racist toward Native Americans, the principle of the matter is that Wahoo is a caricature that perpetuates harmful stereotypes and homogenizes a complex group of people. Some fans argue that Wahoo is tradition and cannot be tossed aside, despite its racial connotations. Nonetheless, there is a line between racism and tradition, and Wahoo clearly crosses that line. The psychology of diversity tells us that much of what we learn about other cultures and how to interact with them comes from socialization at a young age. Normalizing racism in athletic settings affects how young fans interact with diversity as they grow up. We don’t know whether the students who were involved in the incident in Sturgis were fans of teams such as the Indians or Redskins and, if they are, whether or not that provided the impetus behind their racist actions in Sturgis. We do know, however, that Native American cultures are caricatured and stereotyped in sports to a great extent. This representation of Native Americans pervades society through professional teams, college teams, and even high school teams, all mediums that contribute to the role of athletics in normalizing cultural bias.

The Indians aren’t the only team that is holding on to its mascot despite controversy. The Atlanta Braves are the still the target of protests against Native American stereotyping. While phasing out their caricature mascot in 1986, the characteristic Tomahawk Chop that fans execute in support of a good play is still in use and in 2013 the “screaming Indian” caricature was brought back as a logo. Many fans argue that the name “Braves” presents a positive stereotype and therefore is acceptable. The name, however, still suggests that using stereotypes is okay, despite the fact that they generalize Native American cultures. Most activists, however, don’t have an issue with the names of teams such as the Braves, or even the Indians, it is only when used in conjunction with features of different Native American societies–such as tomahawks, headdresses, and other generalized themes–that these names become problematic. A team whose name does prove to be problematic, however, is the Washington Redskins. The term “Redskin” is defined as a racial slur in the dictionary, yet the name is still emblazoned on football uniforms. The team defends themselves by claiming that the name “honors where we came from, who we are.” Yet, Native American activists are concerned that the continued usage of “Redskins” allows for a demeaning and racist name to be normalized within mainstream society. This controversy highlights the complexity of determining where the line between honoring tradition and showing sensitivity toward and awareness of other cultures should be drawn.

The Chicago Blackhawks add another layer of complexity to this issue. There is less controversy concerning the Blackhawks name than there is with other teams, partly because the name honors a real person. Black Hawk was a leader of the Sauk Indian Tribe and, in the War of 1812, fought with the British against the United States in an effort to protect Sauk territory. He later led a band of Native Americans that fought to protect their territory in what is known as the Black Hawk war. A famous leader in his day, today Black Hawk is idolized as the “noble Indian leader” – a trope that commonly appears in movies. But the courage Native Americans demonstrated when facing white settlers was not just held by Black Hawk and a select group of leaders. In truth, idolizing just a few leaders makes it easier to normalize stereotypes. Others argue, however, that because the team is genuinely engaging with the Native American community, its mascot is okay. Furthermore, if Black Hawk is being idolized and not caricatured could that actually be empowering for Native American youth? In 2010, while the Blackhawks were in the midst of a Stanley Cup run, an event coordinator for the American Indian Center in Chicago wistfully noted “maybe others will see we’re a people, not mascots.” For this individual, and many others, the issue is not the extent to which a mascot demeans Native American cultures, it is the mere act of using a culture to inform a mascot. The team currently has the support of the American Indian Center, but at a town hall meeting several Native Americans in attendance condemned the name. It is also important to note that many other Native American groups and activists have spoken out against using “Blackhawk” as a mascot. Ultimately, if the team truly wishes to distinguish itself from other teams in similar situations, it should consider changing their name altogether – this is the best way to engage with Native American peoples and show respect.

Even though some Native Americans may not have an issue with the names or teams of mascots borrowed from their culture, many do and have been actively protesting. “The invisibility of Native peoples and lack of positive images of Native cultures may not register as a problem for many Americans, but it poses a significant challenge for Native youth who want to maintain a foundation in their culture and language,” Brian Cladoosby, President of the National Congress of American Indians, explains. Several steps have been taken in the right direction. In the latter half of the 20th century, colleges such as Marquette University, the University of Oklahoma, and Syracuse University got rid of their harmful mascots and in 2005 the NCAA implemented a policy that prohibited member institutions from displaying “hostile and abusive racial/ethnic/national origin mascots, nicknames, or imagery at any of its championships.” But the fight is far from over. “No race, creed or religion should endure the ridicule faced by the Native Americans today. Please help us put an end to this mockery and racism” was a slogan featured on a poster at a protest of the use of Native American mascots in 2013. Names such as the Indians, Braves, Redskins, and Blackhawks are still heavily contested by many Native Americans and Native American supporters, with concerns over the impact the normalization of these mascots and terms has on Native American youth. Despite the fact that we know about the damage explicitly racist mascots can cause, they are still in existence today. So why won’t these logos die? National athletics is a multi-billion dollar industry. Straying from tradition by changing team mascots or names would certainly upset many fans and threaten the revenue of the teams. When it comes down to it, national sports are generally economically focused and changing the mascot would not only be potentially detrimental to the fan base, which would lead to a decrease in profits, but the amount of money needed to get new uniforms and rebrand the team would also add up. Changing a mascot not only undermines the history of a team by dissociating it from its original form, but it also comes at a high price. The reluctance to change mascots at this point in time indicates that the costs of the switch are perceived as outweighing the benefits, which include increased well-being of Native American youth.

Painting “Go back to the Rez” on a car and beating it up, then sharing this via social media is not that different from fans dressing up as caricatures of Native Americans and posing in this garb with notable athletes, or from people screaming racial slurs as they support their favorite sports team. The events in Sturgis, however, were censured by people across the country, while supporting a sports team is a widely accepted practice. This highlights the fact that discriminatory practices are judged with a double standard. It is easy for fans of the Redskins or the Blackhawks or the Indians to say that their caricatured costume or derogatory language is “just for sports.” This justification can then easily be used by kids to explain their motives for aggressively sending the message “Go back to the Rez” – it was an athletic context and therefore okay, right? Racism “just in sports” is still racism. People across the country exhibit cognitive dissonance by claiming they aren’t racist, yet supporting sports teams in racist ways. Racism is racism, regardless of the context and regardless of the intention. We are far from living in a post-racial era, so it is time to address this fact and deal with the issues at hand. It is finally time to recognize that Native Americans are not mascots.