Braves, Indians, Seminoles and Redskins. When you read these words do you understand the history behind each name? Or do you associate it with your favorite sports team’s mascot?
Some of these terms represent a piece of indigenous people’s history, others are slang adopted at a time when the indigenous people of America had no voice in our society. Either way, the use of any of these words as a team name belittles and caricatures the experiences of indigenous people. Indigenous people are not animals or inanimate objects, but in the sports world they are type-casted into these stereotypes. At all levels of competitive sport, racially insensitive mascots have become customary to such a point people are numb to the actual meanings they hold. As a result of this normalization, American sports culture ridicules an entire heritage rather than respect it.
Sterling HolyWhiteMountain, a fiction writer and native of the Blackfeet Reservation in Northwest Montana, eloquently described his experience growing up and following sports. He, just as many children, grew up idolizing athletes and the teams they played for. This created a “two-fold” relationship in which he praised his heritage as a Native American while acknowledging the irony of professional sports mascots he once worshipped. His issue is clear: America glamorizes figures and symbols of indigenous people’s history and makes people believe the use of them as a mascot is a way of honoring them when in reality it’s mocking it.
Nationwide team rebranding won’t be easy, but it’s necessary and possible. One of the first changes at the collegiate level came at Stanford University in 1972. The prestigious school shifted gears, changing its name from the “Indians” to its current deep-red “Cardinal” color. Stanford chose to avoid issue, using color as a representation for its school, rather than a derogatory symbol toward a type of people. Over time, other schools followed suit.
“We are also reminded of how far we have to go as much of popular American media ignores the struggles of these people.”
In 1974, Dartmouth University left the Indians name behind for “Big Green,” Seattle University left the Chieftains for the Redhawks in 2000 and Arkansas State University finally changed from the Indians to the Red Wolves in 2008.
An organization called “Change the Mascot” is a national campaign launched by the Oneida Indian Nation to end the use of the term “Redskin” in professional football. The campaign made some headway in the summer of 2015 when the Washington Redskins lost its case defending ownership of trademarking rights. Through the ruling of a federal judge, the professional football team was forced to cancel any copyright ownership of its brand. This means the organization is no longer entitled to its logo, though not disqualified from using it on helmets, jerseys and other team gear. For indigenous people, it’s a small victory.
In early October, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Washington’s appeal, according to CNN. Still, the team has yet to give up and is currently pursuing action to uphold its team name and mascot logo rights.
The Cleveland Indians of the MLB represent a glaring example of what not to do. For decades, Cleveland has been the home of the “Chief Wahoo” logo, the grinning, red-faced portrayal of exaggerated and offensive stereotypes. In a situation where Cleveland has been given an option to either remove its racially offensive logo or do nothing, the team decided to keep it, showing they believe their financial interests supersede those of indigenous people.
The team is likely afraid of backlash from a fan base that has emotional ties to the decades-old logo. But how close are these ties? The franchise has not won a World Series since 1948 and blew a three-games-to-one lead to the Chicago Cubs in the 2016 World Series. It seems like the perfect time for the organization to rebrand without provoking too much negative feedback from its fan base. If not now, when?
Rejecting the voices of a people with full knowledge of the damage being done is saddening. Cleveland, and many other organizations, has chosen to believe the history of its sports team outweighs an entire culture.
The indigenous experience is rife with struggle and oppression. Though mascots and logos may not seem like a big deal, they serve to dehumanize a group of people. This dehumanization process makes systematic oppression substantially easier. As people from across the country band together in North Dakota to protect tribal water rights against the construction of an oil pipeline, we are reminded of the importance of recognizing each other’s humanity. We are also reminded of how far we have to go as much of popular American media ignores the struggles of these people.
What sports organizations fail to see is opportunity in this delicate situation. The city has the chance to set forth a standard for proper conduct, prove its real value and set an example for teams at all levels of sport. Now is the time for these organizations to forge a new path and be the change professional sports desperately needs.