The debate over the use of Native American imagery by sports teams is ramping up again. Earlier this month, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian hosted a symposium for scholars, sportswriters and Native Americans titled, “Racist Stereotypes and Cultural Appropriation in American Sports.”
“The museum plans to explore the roots of Indian imagery in sports and elsewhere in American life,” The Washington Post reported. The museum’s executive director, Kevin Gover, is a member of the Pawnee Nation and an Oklahoma native. He told the Post that he began thinking about the macot debate when he was 15, “attending junior high school in Norman, Okla., when the University of Oklahoma had a mascot called ‘Little Red’ who would dance after the Sooners scored a touchdown.”
“The university was among the first to abandon that mascot,” the paper reported. Other universities, like Stanford and Dartmouth, followed suit.
Gover told the Post that he believes the use of Native American imagery by schools and sports teams stems from a long history of “playing Indian” in America. From the Post:
In the nation’s early years, fraternal organizations were formed around made-up Indian rituals and ceremonies in many Eastern cities, he said. In the 20th century, he said, the focus shifted to the theory that the Indians were on their way to extinction and “we’re going to assert the right to represent who they were.”
Professional sports teams using Native American names and imagery emerged around that time. The Washington Redskins were originally the Boston Braves, but owner George Preston Marshall changed the name in 1933 to avoid confusion with a local baseball team. The team moved to Washington four years later.
The NFL Washington Redskins are at the center of the mascot debate because of the team’s high visibility and steadfast refusal to change its name. Gover said “redskins” is the most offensive name a sports team could adopt. “It is the equivalent of the n-word,” he told the Post. “That’s how it was used when I was a child. That’s the name people chose to call me if they wanted to hurt my feelings, and I think that’s still the case in many circumstances.”
The team’s owner, Daniel Snyder, “has been adamant about keeping the name,” according to the Post. “Last week before the Super Bowl, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell defended the Redskins.
“ ‘I think Dan Snyder and the organization have made it very clear that they’re proud of that heritage and that name, and I believe fans are, too,’ ” Goodell said.”
ESPN covered the symposium, offering insight from Native American speakers, especially as they responded to teams’ assertions that they’re “honoring” Native Americans with their mascots.
From Robert Holden, deputy director of the National Congress of American Indians: “I’m a sports junkie, but I don’t think the [team] owners understand that they’re not honoring us. Honors like that we don’t need. Please, take it back.”
N. Bruce Duthu, chair of the Native American Studies program at Dartmouth College and a member of the United Houma Nation of Louisiana, explained that limiting American Indian depictions to warlike caricatures has had ramifications that go beyond cultural stereotypes. “Indian savagery has long been used as an excuse to take away Indian property,” he said. “Actual court cases have stated that Indians couldn’t retain certain lands because they were too uncivilized, too savage, to be entrusted with those lands.” In other words, the whole “battlefield warrior” caricature does more harm than good.
In a recent editorial for the Post, Columnist Robert McCartney quoted Native Americans in Oklahoma who straddle both sides of the debate.
“It doesn’t bother me one bit. There are other issues that we should be concerned about,” said George Blanchard, governor of the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, which counts about 3,000 members.
Some members of Blanchard’s tribe send their children to McLoud High School, whose team is also called the Redskins. The Washington team has pointed to the McLoud nickname as evidence that the word was acceptable to Native Americans.
However, other chiefs and national Indian leaders said the number of Native Americans who share Blanchard’s view has declined with time. Most Indians would prefer to see the Redskins name discarded, they said.
“If it went through a vote [of Indians], I think it would be overwhelming to drop it. I’ve always thought the word [Redskins] was very offensive,” said George Tiger, chief of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, which is also based in Oklahoma and has 75,000 members.
The Washington Redskins posted a similar comment by Blanchard on its website in defending the name: “We have a large Native American population at our school. I’m not sure if they know the whole history behind the nickname ‘Redskins,’ but our athletes are no different from any other schools. We are known as the McLoud Redskins, and that’s what we proudly display on our jerseys and cheers. No one has ever been dishonored at our school with that Redskins nickname.”
SB Nation criticized the Redskins’ defense of the name, pointing to its “long and distinguished history of racism” and writing: “So make no mistake: The team name started in the most demeaning way possible, and for a franchise with a history of staggering racism, the Redskins name is its own little nod to that laughably racist past. That’s why it’ll change soon.”
In his column, McCartney pointed out that, in 1970, 500 team names were in the “red slur category”; that number is now down to 100. Opponents to the name change say it’s reflective of political correctness run amok, but McCartney and many Native Americans say the fact that so many teams have changed their names proves its not political correctness; rather just “correct.”