Native American mascot controversy

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Former Cleveland Indians player Omar Vizquel wearing a baseball cap showing the image of the Cleveland Indians mascot, Chief Wahoo

The propriety of using Native American names and images in sports has been a topic of debate in the United States and Canada since the 1960s. Numerous civil rights, religious, educational, athletic, and academic organizations consider the use of native names or symbols by non-native teams to be a harmful form of ethnic stereotyping which should be eliminated.[1] Surveys of public opinion indicate that the majority of people in the United States support retaining the names and images in current use, while at the same time there has been a steady decline in the number of teams doing so. Many individuals admire the heroism and romanticism evoked by the classic Native American image, but others view the use of mascots as offensive, demeaning, or racist. Further complicating this issue is the varying levels of offensiveness with team names and mascots. For example, while the Washington Redskins use the slang term "redskin" which is currently defined in dictionaries as derogatory,[2] the Florida State Seminoles' use of the Seminole name is officially sanctioned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida.[3] The controversy has resulted in many institutions changing the names and images associated with their sports teams. Native American images and nicknames nevertheless remain fairly common in American sports, and may be seen in use by teams at all levels from elementary school to professional.


Americans have had a history of drawing inspiration from native peoples and "playing Indian" that dates back at least to the 18th century.[4] This practice led directly to the origins of many nicknames and mascots. Like the Boy Scouts (in particular, the Order of the Arrow) and many summer camps, university students in the late 19th and early 20th centuries adopted Indian names and symbols for their group identities, not from authentic sources but rather as Native American life was imagined by Euro-Americans.[5]

Professional team nicknames had similar origins. Founded as the Boston Red Stockings, the team became the Braves for the first time in 1912. Their owner, James Gaffney, was a member of New York City's political machine, Tammany Hall, one of the societies originally formed to honor Tamanend, a chief of the Delaware. The success of the Braves in the 1914 World Series may have been the reason for the Cleveland team, which was looking for a new nickname, to become the Indians in 1915. The story that the team is named to honor Louis Sockalexis, the first Native American to play major league baseball, cannot be verified from historical documents.[6] The Redskins in Washington, DC was originally also the Boston Braves when formed in 1932, since it was the custom at the time to have the same team names when baseball and football shared the same stadium. Moving to the home of the Boston Red Sox, the name was changed to the Boston Redskins in 1933 before moving again to Washington. Thus the use of Native American names and imagery by this team began before the hiring of Lone Star Dietz as coach in 1933.[7]

In the 1940s the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) created a campaign to eliminate negative stereotyping of Native American people in the media. Over time, the campaign began to focus on Indian names and mascots in sports.[8] The NCAI maintains that teams with mascots such as the Braves and the Redskins perpetuate negative stereotypes of Native American people, and demean their native traditions and rituals.[9] Proponents of Native American mascots, however, believe that Native American mascots pay respect to these people and promote a better understanding of their cultures. Despite this issue gaining prominence during the civil rights movement, it still continues today as many teams continue to possess mascots with controversial names and images.

The stereotyping of Native Americans must be understood in the context of history which includes conquest, forced relocation, and organized efforts to eradicate native cultures, such as the boarding schools of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which separated young Native Americans from their families in order to educate them as Euro-Americans.[10] As stated in an editorial by Carter Meland (Anishinaabe heritage) and David E. Wilkins (Lumbee) both professors of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota: "Since the first Europeans made landfall in North America, native peoples have suffered under a weltering array of stereotypes, misconceptions and caricatures. Whether portrayed as noble savages, ignoble savages, teary-eyed environmentalists or, most recently, simply as casino-rich, native peoples find their efforts to be treated with a measure of respect and integrity undermined by images that flatten complex tribal, historical and personal experience into one-dimensional representations that tells us more about the depicters than about the depicted." [11]

Arguments opposing the use of Native American mascots[edit]

Opponents of Native American mascots assert that the mascots breed insensitivity and misunderstanding about native people. Opponents also highlight the seeming double standard for human beings as mascots where there are no mascots based on African Americans, or Asian Americans depicted in sports.[12]

The University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette's "Ragin' Cajuns" are sometimes cited as counterpoints to this argument.[13] These team names are exceptions in that they represent ethnic groups with an active stake in the organization, and the teams employ symbols that Euro-American cultures have historically used to represent themselves. The University of Notre Dame mascot, the UND leprechaun[14] is a mythical being that represents the Irish, which is both an ethnic and a national group.[15][16] The University of Louisiana at Lafayette mascot is an anthropomorphic cayenne pepper, an ingredient frequently found in Cajun cuisine. Opponents also see this argument as a false equivalency because it ignores systemic inequality and serves to discount the Native American voice by saying that if one group isn't hurt by a particular portrayal, then no group has the right to be hurt, regardless of vastly different backgrounds, treatment, and social positions.[17]

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has called for an end to the use of Native American mascots, but only by non-native schools.[18] In cases where universities were founded to educate Native Americans, such mascots may not be examples of cultural appropriation. Examples include the Fighting Indians of the Haskell Indian Nations University and the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, which continues to have a substantial number of native students, and close ties to the Lumbee tribe. Their nickname is the Braves, but the mascot is a red-tailed hawk.[19][20][21]

Civil rights[edit]

The NAACP passed a resolution calling for the end of the use of Native American names, images, and mascots in 1999.[22]

In 2001, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released an advisory opinion calling for an end to the use of Native American images and team names by non-Native schools. The opinion made the following points:

In February 2013 the State of Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) filed a complaint with the US Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR). MDCR's complaint asserts that new research clearly establishes that use of American Indian imagery negatively impacts student learning, creating an unequal learning environment in violation of Article VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.[24] In June 2013 the OCR dismissed the case on the basis that the legal standard required not only harm, but the intent to do harm, which was not established.[25]

In a report issued in 2012, a United Nations expert on Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples cited the continued use of Native American references by sports team as a part of the stereotyping that "obscures understanding of the reality of Native Americans today and instead help to keep alive racially discriminatory attitudes.”[26]

Religious organizations[edit]

In 1992, the Central Conference of American Rabbis issued a resolution calling for the end of sports teams names that promote racism, in particular the Atlanta Braves and the Washington Redskins.[27] In 2004, the United Methodist Church also passed a resolution condemning the use of Native American team names and sports mascots, which was highlighted in a meeting of the Black caucus of that organization in 2007.[28][29]

A child once asked me why Indians were "mean." Where did he get that idea? By schools such as the University of Illinois "honoring" my ancestors? -- Rev. Alvin Deer (Kiowa/Creek), United Methodist Church [30]

A group of sixty-one religious leaders in Washington, D.C. sent a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and team owner Dan Snyder stating their moral obligation to join the Change the Mascot movement due to the offensive and inappropriate nature of the name which causes pain whether or not that is intended.[31][32]

In a meeting March 1, 2014, the Board of Directors of the Central Atlantic Conference of the United Church of Christ unanimously passed a resolution proposing that its members boycott Washington Redskins games and shun products bearing the team’s logo until the team changes its name and mascot. Team spokesman Tony Wyllie offered a response, saying, “We respect those who disagree with our team’s name, but we wish the United Church of Christ would listen to the voice of the overwhelming majority of Americans, including Native Americans, who support our name and understand it honors the heritage and tradition of the Native American community.”[33]

Education and school board action[edit]

In a 2005 report on the status of Native American students, the National Education Association included the elimination of Indian mascots and sports team names as one of its recommendations.[34]

The Seattle school district adopted a policy banning symbols based on racial stereotypes; resulting in a change of the Issaquah High School team from the "Indians" to the "Eagles" in 2003 over the protest of some students.[35]

In 2010 a law was passed in Wisconsin to eliminate race-based nicknames, logos and mascots in schools; but allowing retention if they have the permission of local Native American tribes.[36] In October 2013 a bill passed the Wisconsin assembly that would make it more difficult to remove Indian mascots by requiring the complainant to collect signatures of 10% of the school district's population and prove discrimination. Under the 2010 law only one petitioner is needed, and the burden of proof is on the school to disprove racism.[37] Wisconsin’s Chippewa tribes have urged the Governor to veto the bill,[38] Although initially stating that he had no interest in the issue,[39] Governor Scott Walker signed the bill into law on December 19, 2013; also sending a letter to tribal leaders in the state citing free speech as a justification for allowing use of names and mascots many find offensive.[40] Professors of Law and Journalism contest this interpretation of free speech, since citizens have the right to free speech but not schools which are government entities. The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, which runs state sporting tournaments, already has a policy against spectator behavior or displays that are offensive, including ones based on race and national origin, bans that are similar to but less restrictive than NCAA rules.[41] Although now allowed to do so, some schools that have already made a change have decided not to restore their prior mascots.[42] Addressing the Wisconsin legislature, Laurie Boivin, the Menominee Nation's new chairwoman criticized the new mascot law, saying the changes will damage native children.[43]

On May 17, 2012, the Oregon State Board of Education voted 5-1 to adopt a rule prohibiting Oregon public schools from using Native American names, symbols, or images as school mascots. Schools have until July 1, 2017 to comply. Fifteen schools using the nicknames Indians, Warriors, Braves and Chieftains were affected.[44] However Native American response was not unanimous; out of nine tribes, two voiced opposition to the statewide ban on the basis of tribal sovereignty. Leaders said that there might have been an opportunity for developing an educational program for all students to learn about true native culture.[45] As of March, 2013, the Oregon legislature was considering bills that would modify the Board of Education's decision. One would allow for retention of a mascot or nickname with tribal approval, the other would remove the financial penalty for non-compliance.[46] The bill that was passed was vetoed by Governor John Kitzhaber as being too broad, allowing most schools to retain their names and mascots.[47] In 2014 a revised bill is expected to become law that would allow schools to keep Native American mascots under certain conditions, including the approval of an appropriate tribe and the Board of Education.[48]

On September 26, 2012 the Washington State Board of Education (WSBE) passed a resolution calling for the end of Native American mascots in state schools.[49][50] The Seattle Human Rights Commission passed a resolution supporting the WSBE in November, 2012.[51]

In December, 2013 the Houston Independent School District by unanimous vote passed a preliminary plan to eliminate all ethnically sensitive names and mascots, one of which is the Lamar High School Redskins. The Washington NFL team issued a statement repeating its position that such names are not offensive to many Native Americans, but rather are a source of pride.[52]

There has been backlash, however. In response to the Tennessee Commission of Indian affairs seeking a similar ban though the Tennessee Human Rights Commission, the legislature passed a law allowing only elected officials (themselves) to take any action banning school teams using American Indian names and symbols.[53]

Social sciences[edit]

The harm done by the use of Native American mascots particularly in an academic context was stated by the Society of Indian Psychologists in 1999:

Stereotypical and historically inaccurate images of Indians in general interfere with learning about them by creating, supporting and maintaining oversimplified and inaccurate views of indigenous peoples and their cultures. When stereotypical representations are taken as factual information, they contribute to the development of cultural biases and prejudices, (clearly a contradiction to the educational mission of the University.) In the same vein, we believe that continuation of the use of Indians as symbols and mascots is incongruous with the philosophy espoused by many Americans as promoting inclusivity and diversity.[54]

In 2005, the American Psychological Association issued a resolution "Recommending the Immediate Retirement of American Indian Mascots, Symbols, Images, and Personalities by Schools, Colleges, Universities, Athletic Teams, and Organizations" due to the harm done by creating a hostile environment, the negative impact on the self-esteem of American Indian children, and is discrimination that may violate civil rights. It also impacts non-natives by reinforcing mainstream stereotypes, preventing learning about Native American culture. Stereotyping is disrespectful of the beliefs, traditions and values of Native Americans.[55] Similar resolutions have been adopted by the American Sociological Association [56] and the American Counseling Association.[57]

Social science research gives weight to the perceptions of those directly affected. In particular studies support the view that sports mascots and images are not trivial.[58] Stereotyping directly effects academic performance and self-esteem, which contribute to all of the other issues faced by Native Americans, including suicide, unemployment, and poverty.[59] Euro-Americans exposed to mascots are more likely to believe not only that stereotypes are true, but that Native Americans have no identity beyond these stereotypes.[60]

Research also demonstrates the harm done to society by stereotyping of any kind. Two studies examined the effect of exposure to an American Indian sports mascot on the tendency to endorse stereotypes of a different minority group. A study was first done at the University of Illinois, and then replicated at The College of New Jersey with the same results. Students were given a paragraph to read about Chief Illiniwek adapted from the University of Illinois' official website; while the control group was given a description of an arts center. In both studies the students exposed to the sports mascot were more likely to express stereotypical views of Asian-Americans. Although Chief Illiniwek was described only in terms of positive characteristics (as a respectful symbol, not a mascot), the stereotyping of Asian-Americans included negative characteristics, such as being "socially inept". This was indicative of a spreading effect; exposure to any stereotypes increased the likelihood of stereotypical thinking.[61][62]

Trend toward the elimination of mascots[edit]

Colleges and universities[edit]

1930 Football ticket stub depicting the former Stanford Indian mascot

Some college teams voluntarily changed their names and mascots. Stanford University had "The Stanford Indian" as its mascot from 1930 to 1972. Today "Stanford Cardinal" honors the university athletic team color. The mascot of the Stanford Band is the "Stanford Tree." Another early change was the "Saltine Warrior" that represented Syracuse University from 1931 until 1978. After a brief attempt to use a Roman warrior, the mascot became Otto the Orange for the school color.

Marquette University changed their team name from the Warriors to the Golden Eagles in 1994. The school’s president stated:"We live in a different era than when the Warriors nickname was selected in 1954. The perspective of time has shown us that our actions, intended or not, can offend others. We must not knowingly act in a way that others will believe, based on their experience, to be an attack on their dignity as fellow human beings."[63] Also in 1994, St. John's University (New York) changed the name of its athletic teams from the Redmen to the Red Storm after the university was pressured by American Indian groups who considered Redmen a slur.[64]

Miami University began discussion regarding the propriety of the Redskins name and images in 1972,[65] and changed its team nickname to RedHawks in 1996.[66]

In late 2002, The Strategic Planning Committee of Stonehill College determined that the then-current mascot, the chieftain, was disrespectful to American Indians and decided that it would be changed. After discussion, the mascot was changed to the Skyhawk in 2005.[67] Jim Seavey, associate director of athletics stated: Twelve years ago, the college discarded the logo that depicted the Indian with the headdress and feathers and stuff. We really did not have anything to represent our identity that we were comfortable with. We felt . . . that it wasn't appropriate to have a physical representation of a Native American as our mascot," [68]

Additionally, teams that are not directly affected by this controversy have issued their opinions. The University of Wisconsin–Madison[69] and the University of Iowa have both refused to schedule non-conference games against schools with Native American mascots. The University of Iowa's own nickname, "Hawkeyes", has Native American origins (Iowa is the "Hawkeye State"), although the team uses a hawk as its symbol rather than an Indian. The University of Oregon, following the example set by The Oregonian newspaper, declined to refer to the University of Illinois team as the "Illini" in a basketball game in 2005. The Central Michigan University nickname, the Chippewas, was originally placed on the “hostile or abusive” list but was removed when the Saginaw Chippewa Tribal Nation of Michigan gave its support to the nickname.

Seattle University changed the nickname of their mascot from Chieftains to Redhawks in 2000.

In 2012, the University of California, Berkeley called for the student-run University of California Marching Band to discontinue performances of "California Indian Song" after complaints from alumni. Currently, the Cal Band is attempting to rename the song and rewrite its lyrics.

National Collegiate Athletic Association[edit]

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the ruling authority on college athletics, distributed a “self evaluation” to 31 colleges in 2005, for teams to examine the use of potentially offensive imagery with their mascot choice.[70] Subsequently 19 teams were cited as having potentially "hostile or abusive" names, mascots, or images, that would be banned from displaying them during post-season play, and prohibited from hosting tournaments.[71] Since then, all of the colleges previously using the nickname Indians changed them; Arkansas State University to Red Wolves, Indiana University of Pennsylvania to Crimson Hawks, McMurry University to War Hawks, Midwestern State University to Mustangs, Newberry College to Wolves, University of Louisiana at Monroe to Warhawks, and Catawba College to Catawba Indians with approval of that tribe.[72]

California State University, Stanislaus eliminated Native American references to their Warrior nickname, initially using a Warrior Hawk mascot which never caught on;[73] it has been replaced by a Roman Warrior, Titus.[74] The College of William and Mary (W&M) had previously changed from "Indians" to The Tribe, but was cited due to two feathers in its logo, which were removed. After a brief period of having the frog-like character Colonel Ebirt as its unofficial mascot, W&M selected the Griffin in 2010. Both Alcorn State University[75] and Bradley University kept the nickname Braves but change their mascots, while the Chowan University Braves became the Hawks. The Carthage College Redmen became the Red Men, and the Southeastern Oklahoma State University Savages changed to Savage Storm.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Fighting Illini kept the nickname as referring to the state, not Native Americans, but officially stopped using the Chief Illiniwek image and mascot in 2007, although an attachment remains among many students and alumni;[76][77][78][79] but not all.[80] The "Honor the Chief Society" filed an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2009 to register the Chief Illiniwek symbol, which the university opposed. In October, 2013 an agreement was reached that will allow limited private use of the name as long as accompanied by a disclaimer stating that the university is not involved in such use. A new chief cannot be named, and the university retains control of the name.[81]

The University of North Dakota initially challenged the NCAA policy in court, but settled in 2007 when it was given three years to obtain consent from the Sioux tribes in the state.[82] When one tribe refused permission,[83] the state Board of Higher Education proceeded with plans to eliminate the Fighting Sioux name and logo. In 2011 the State Legislature voted that the university should retain the name but in a 2012 referendum the voters decided to proceed with the change, which has been completed but no alternative nickname or logo has been selected.[84][85] The NCAA has agreed to allow some of the logos to remain in the sports stadiums, while removing the larger and more obvious ones.[86] Additional legal cases have run their course, leaving the Fighting Sioux name and logo officially retired.[87]

Four additional colleges originally on the "hostile and abusive" list: Central Michigan University (Chippewas),[88] Florida State University (Seminoles), Mississippi College (Choctaws)[89] and University of Utah (Utes)[90] were granted waivers to retain their nicknames after gaining support from those respective tribes.

High schools[edit]

High schools in both the US and Canada have had histories similar to colleges, some making voluntary changes while others resisting. Twenty-eight high schools in 18 states have dropped the redskins name during the past 25 years as a result of a combination of state legal action, protests from Native American groups, or voluntarily. However, there remain 62 high schools in the United States that continue to use the redskins name, three of which have a majority of Native American students.[91] Frontier Regional School, in Deerfield, MA removed its Redskin mascot in 2000. The school now goes by the moniker of the Redhawks. Mountain Empire High School in Pine Valley, CA changed their mascot from the Redskins to the Red Hawks in 1998.[92] Turners Falls High School of Turners Falls, MA changed its fight song, known as the tomahawk chop, but did not change its mascot. Blacksburg High School in Blacksburg, VA changed their mascot from the Indians to the Bruins, and the corresponding middle school mascot of the Braves was changed to the Titans. On the other hand, Union High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a high-profile high school athletic program,[93] has consistently opposed protests and proposed legislation intended to change its "Redskins" nickname.[94] Savannah High School (Missouri) has been criticized for their mascot, Savannah Savages.

Controversy over the name and logo of the Bedford Road Collegiate "Redmen" in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan began in the 1990s, with a vote by students in 1996 choosing to keep things as they are. One alumni of the school is using social media to advocate for a change.[95] In 2013, a group of protestors of the name and logo where blocked from entering a high school basketball tournament at Bedford Road, the school and police citing safety concerns.[96] In March 2014, the Saskatoon public school board passed a motion to have the school drop the name "Redmen" and use a new name by the beginning of the new school year in September.[97] In Ontario, there is debate over the Thorold Blackhawks junior hockey team and the Denis Morris Catholic High School "Redmen".[98]

Natick High School in Natick, Massachusetts was also the Redmen. An initial vote by the school committee to change the name was in 2007, prompting the formation of a "Redmen Forever" committee by alumni of the school.[99] In spite of their activity, including a nonbinding town referendum in which 65% of the voters supported asking the school committee to reconsider the change, the name was dropped in 2008.[100] The school team is now the Redhawks,[101] however some continue to favor returning to the previous name.[102] In contrast, the Western Canada High School in Calgary, Canada has decided to change its "Redmen" nickname and logo with strong support from the school's administration, students and parents for the decision.[103][104]

The Department of Educational Foundations at the University of Saskatchewan passed a resolution calling for the retirement of all school mascots and logos that depict First Nations people.[105]

The Cooperstown Central School Board of Education (NY) voted 6-1 on March 6, 2013 to remove the Redskins mascot from its interscholastic athletic, extracurricular and academic programs. The move was prompted by a vote by the student body, asking that the mascot be changed. The Oneida Indian Nation was so moved by the actions of the Cooperstown students, that a letter by Oneida Nation Representative Ray Halbritter was written to the students, commending their decision and offering to make a contribution to help offset the cost of changing mascots.[106]

In June 2013 administrators of a high school in Driggs, Idaho announced that it will drop its longtime "Redskins" nickname, logo and mascot to show respect for Native Americans.[107]

In June 24, 2013 school board members of the Port Townsend High School in Port Townsend, Washington voted to replace its "Redskins" nickname, logo, and mascot (used since 1926) due to its divisive nature.[108] In April 2014 the students selected Red Hawks as their new team name. The next step will be to select new graphics to replace the old.[109]

In December, 2013 the Houston, TX school district approved, in a preliminary vote, a new policy against any ethic mascots which would require a change for several schools.[110][111] In April, 2014 the schools effected by the policy announced new names: the Lamar High School Redskins will become the Texans, both the Hamilton Middle School Indians and Westbury High School Rebels will be the Huskies and the Welch Middle School Warriors will be the Wolf Pack. The initial cost of the change was $50,000 for new fall uniforms, and there will be additional costs such as changing names and logos on facilities.[112] The total cost is estimated to be $250,000.[113] However it was noted that team uniforms are periodically replaced anyway, so the cost is not due only to the name changes.[114]

In January 2014 the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee sent a letter to two northern Idaho school districts with American Indian mascots asking that they be changed. The mascots are the Sacajawea Junior High Braves in Lewiston and the Nezperce High School Indians. The school officials state that they will have meetings and gather public opinions before making a decision.[115]

The students of Belmont High School (New Hampshire) have begun to question the use of Native American imagery in connection to their name, the Red Raiders, saying that while it was never intended to be offensive it is time for a change. At a meeting on the subject there were equal, but respectful comments of both sides.[116]

Professional teams[edit]

The Golden State Warriors retain the name but eliminated Native American imagery in 1971.[117] Since that time, their logos have emphasized the state of California, with their current primary logo depicting the new eastern span of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge. The warrior depicted on secondary logos of the team is a generic, lightning-wielding figure. The Edmonton Eskimos are also exceptional, given that their only stereotypical element appears to be the name of one of their mascots, Nanook, a polar bear. The name Eskimo originated as a word used by the Cree to refer to the Inuit, who are few in the Edmonton area, and are ambivalent or supportive of the team name.[118]

Some teams have made limited changes in recent years. In 1989 the Kansas City Chiefs switched from Warpaint, a Pinto horse ridden by a man in a feathered headdress, to their current mascot K. C. Wolf. In 2009 the horse returned, but ridden by a cheerleader. However when photographs of fans attending games wearing feathers and warpaint, (and doing the tomahawk chop) are published in the Kansas City Star, Native Americans write in to complain that this behavior is a mockery and racist.[119]

The NHL's Chicago Blackhawks use an anthropomorphic hawk as their mascot character although a Native American's profile appears on their jerseys and the team was named in honor of the team's founder's military unit, which was named the "Blackhawk Division" after Black Hawk, a Native American chief.[120]

However the other professional teams continue to use Native American names and mascots as they always have.

The Atlanta Braves remain the home of the tomahawk chop (although it began at FSU).[121] However, the mascot Chief Noc-A-Homa has been replaced.

The Cleveland Indians have replaced Chief Wahoo with a block letter "C" or script "I" in many situations, such as on their caps and batting helmets.[122] Perhaps this is a limited response to protests by Native Americans and others, which have gone on for more than twenty years.[123] At the beginning of 2014 there was a decision to make the block "C" the team's primary logo, although Chief Wahoo will not disappear entirely, some see this as a first step toward inevitable elimination.[124] Cleveland fans have a variety of responses to the issue. One fan attending a game dressed in face paint and feathers in imitation of the logo had an encounter with an anti-mascot demonstrator. It was soon noticed how much the photo of the event resembled the "But I'm honoring you, dude!" cartoon from 2001.[125] However, some fans are quietly removing Chief Wahoo logos from apparel they've bought, which is being called "de-chiefing".[126] One Native American group has asked Nike, Inc. to stop making any items with the Chief Wahoo logo. [127] Nike responded to the protest by issuing a statement that they have a contractual agreement with Major League Baseball (MLB) to manufacture apparel, and each MLB team is responsible for the logos they choose.[128]

Since 1973, an Indians fan, John Adams, has played a bass drum during games, usually doing a Hollywood tom-tom beat.[129]

The appropriateness of the Washington Redskins name and logo, which is a picture of a Native American, has been debated since it was officially registered in 1967. With "redskin" considered by many Native Americans to be a racial slur as offensive to them as "the n-word" is to African Americans, there have been a few instances of the media refusing to use the name in sports reporting. Kansas City Star policy on Washington's NFL team's name as stated by the editor: "I see no compelling reason for any publisher to reprint an egregiously offensive term as a casual matter of course."[130] The Journal Star in Lincoln, Nebraska and the Portland Press Herald in Maine took the same position.[131] The team's unofficial mascot is Zema Williams (Chief Zee), an African-American man who began attending games in 1978 wearing an Indian costume including feathered headdress and rubber tomahawk. Other fans attend in costume, and are also celebrated by the team.[132]

The name debate heated up in 1992, when Washington made it to the Super Bowl against the Buffalo Bills. The game was held in Minnesota, which has the nation’s largest Native American population. Prior to the game, more than 2,000 Native Americans stood outside the stadium and protested with signs that read “we are not mascots” and “promote sports not racism.” The American Indian Movement along with the National Congress of American Indians sponsored the protest. Shortly afterwards, the court case to cancel the trademarks used by the team began. [133] The team continues to receive attention as the more egregious example.[134] A bill was introduced in the US House of Representatives on March 20, 2013 by Eni F.H. Faleomavaega, Delegate from American Samoa, and co-sponsoed by 19 others to amend the Trademark Act of 1946 to void any trademarks that disparage Native American Persons or Peoples, such as redskins. Ten members of congress also sent a letter to the NFL commissioner, all of the team owners including Dan Snyder, and Fred Smith, CEO of FedEx, a primary sponsor of the team; requesting that the name be changed due to the many Native American organizations that oppose the continued use of the name, and in order to fulfill the NFL's own policy regarding diversity.[135] A co-sponsor, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D - DC), stated she supports the local team but not the name.[136] The Council of the District of Columbia passed a resolution November 5, 2013 stating its position that the name should be changed. Since the team plays in Maryland and practices in Virginia, it has no legal force.[137]

Other issues[edit]

Stereotyping by rival fans[edit]

In addition to the behavior of the teams that have Native American names or mascots, their rivals often invoke racist stereotypes. In Alabama, at a game between the Pinson Valley High School "Indians" and McAdory High School, the latter team displayed a banner using a disparaging reference to the Trail of Tears for which the principal of the school apologized to Native Americans, stated that the cheerleader squad responsible would be disciplined, and that all students would be given a lesson on the actual history of the Trail of Tears. Native Americans responded that it was an example of the continuing insensitivity and stereotyping of Indians in America.[138][139] A similar sign was displayed in Tennessee by the Dyersburg Trojans when they played the Jackson Northside Indians.[140] In December 2013 when the Washington NFL team played the Kansas City Chiefs an employee of a Sonic Drive-In in Missouri placed a message outside that used scalping, reservations and whiskey to disparage the "Redskins". It was quickly removed with the owner's apologies.[141]

Varying degrees of offensiveness[edit]

To further complicate this controversy, many feel that there are varying levels of offensiveness with team names and mascots. The nature and degree of stereotyping varies depending upon the name of the team, the logo, the mascot, and the behavior of fans. The greatest offense is taken when the logo and mascot are caricatures viewed as insulting, such as the Cleveland Indians' Chief Wahoo;[142] the name of the team is often regarded as a racial slur, such as redskins; or the behavior of the mascot or fans is based upon popular images of Indians which trivialize authentic native cultures; such as the tomahawk chop.

Argument supporting the use of Native American mascots[edit]

The Washington Redskins logo at FedEx Field, in Maryland

Some individuals who support the use of Native American mascots state that they are meant to be respectful, and to pay homage to Native American people. Many have made the argument that Native American mascots focus on bravery, courage and fighting skills rather than anything derogatory. Karl Swanson, vice-president of the Washington Redskins professional football team, declared in the magazine Sports Illustrated that his team's name "symbolizes courage, dignity, and leadership," and that the "Redskins symbolize the greatness and strength of a grand people."[143]

Anil Adyanthaya, an attorney, wrote on June 5, 2005, "The use of Aztec or Seminole as a nickname by itself would not appear to be racist, as such names refer to a particular civilization rather than an entire race of people. In this way, they are no different from other school nicknames such as Trojans and Spartans (like Aztecs, ancient peoples) or Fighting Irish and Flying Dutchmen (like Seminoles, nationalities). Similarly, Warriors and Braves are no different from the fighting men of other cultures, like Vikings, Minutemen, or Musketeers (all current NCAA mascots, the first of which is also an NFL mascot) so it seems hard to argue that their use is uniquely demeaning in some way."[144] However, it is not the names by themselves that are uniquely insulting to Native Americans. Dr. Richard Lapchick, director emeritus of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society, in an article: "Could you imagine people mocking African Americans in black face at a game? Yet go to a game where there is a team with an Indian name and you will see fans with war paint on their faces. Is this not the equivalent to black face?[145]

Supporters of the use of native imagery reject the term racism because they associate that word with the experience of African-Americans rather than Native Americans; however, racism is a broader term for any discriminatory practice based upon ethnicity. Slavery was a more personal assault and continued after emancipation in the form of discrimination that insured a continued source of cheap labor. What Euro-Americans wanted from Native Americans was not labor but land, and most were willing to have native people themselves assimilate. Continued discrimination came to those who refused to do so, but asserted their separate identity and rights of sovereignty. The appropriation of native cultures is therefore a discriminatory practice that is not understood as such by those that think of assimilation as a positive process.[146]

Others claim Native American mascots help promote the culture to those who might be unaware of its significance. Chief Illiniwek, the former athletic symbol for the University of Illinois, became the subject of protest in 1988.[5] However, in 1990 the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois called the mascot a dignified symbol: "His ceremonial dance is done with grace and beauty. The Chief keeps the memory of the people of a great Native American tribe alive for thousands of Illinoisans who otherwise would know little or nothing of them. However, the tribal costume was not of the Illini confederacy, but that of the Lakota tribe. The Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma is the closest living descendants of the Illiniwek Confederacy; and in 2005, John P. Froman, the new Chief when asked his position by the NCAA, indicated that "Chief (Illiniwek) was not representative of our tribe and culture, mainly because the costume is Sioux."[147] In 2006, in response to a widely published column by journalist George Will in support of the symbol's use, he wrote a letter reiterating the Peoria Tribe's opposition to the symbol and decrying that the "University of Illinois has ignored the tribe’s request for nearly five years."[148] On March 13, 2007, the University of Illinois board of trustees voted to retire Illiniwek's name, image and regalia.[149]

Steven Denson, director of diversity for Southern Methodist University and member of the Chickasaw nation, while not issuing a blanket endorsement, has nevertheless stated that there are acceptable ways to use Native American mascots if it is done in a respectful and tasteful manner. He states: "I believe it is acceptable if used in a way that fosters understanding and increased positive awareness of the Native-American culture. And it must also be done with the support of the Native-American community. There is a way to achieve a partnership that works together to achieve mutually beneficial goals."[150]

Public opinion surveys[edit]

In 2001, Indian Country Today conducted a poll of an undisclosed number of readers reporting that "81 percent of respondents indicated use of American Indian names, symbols and mascots are predominantly offensive and deeply disparaging to Native Americans." [151]

A survey conducted in 2002 by Sports Illustrated (SI) found that 81 percent of Native Americans who live outside traditional Indian reservations and 53 percent of Indians on reservations did not find the images discriminatory. The authors of the article concluded that "Although most Native American activists and tribal leaders consider Indian team names and mascots offensive, neither Native Americans in general nor a cross section of U.S. sports fans agree. According to the article, There is a near total disconnect between Indian activists and the Native American population on this issue." An Indian activist commented on the results saying "that Native Americans' self-esteem has fallen so low that they don't even know when they're being insulted."[152] Soon after the SI article, a group of five researchers published an article in an academic journal, arguing against the validity of this survey and its conclusions. First they state that "The confidence with which the magazine asserts that a 'disconnect' between Native American activists and Native Americans exists on this issue belies the serious errors in logic and accuracy made in the simplistic labeling of Native Americans who oppose mascots as 'activists.'" [153][154]

There are basic issues with the reliability of public opinion polls that overshadow their value in many cases. There has been a decline in the willingness of people to participate, now down to about 10%, so there is no way of knowing whether there is any systematic bias in the results. Survey methods also influence the results, with those done by traditional mail over-sampling the elderly, and those done using land-lines under-sampling the young, who only have cell phones.[155] The flaw in random and anonymous polls of Native American's opinion is that they must rely upon self-identification to select the target group. The problem of individuals claiming to be Native American when they are not is well known in academic research, and is a particular problem when non-natives claim Indian identity specifically to gain authority in the debate over sports mascots.[156]

In 2004, a poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania had a similar result to the Sports Illustrated poll's findings, concluding that 91% of the 768 self-identified American Indians surveyed in the 48 states on the mainland USA found the name "Redskins" acceptable. The survey was done by phone, using land-lines only and did not establish the respondent's status as a member of a tribe or living on a reservation.[157] The Associated Press reported a telephone survey conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications in April, 2013 that 4 out of 5 Americans would keep the Redskins name while only 11% would change it. However, only 2 of the 1,004 persons interviewed identified themselves as Native American.[158]

In July 2013 The Washington Post conducted a phone survey of people living in the DC Metro Area. No questions about ethnicity were asked, only whether they supported the continued use of the Redskins name and if they were sports fans in general and fans of the team in particular. Not surprisingly, fans support the retention of the name, but they also said that if it did change, they would continue to support the team. What was surprising is that a small majority (56%) of those that would keep the name also thought that the word "redskin" was not an appropriate way to describe a Native American Indian.[159]

Financial impact of change[edit]

Many supporters of Native American mascots feel that the financial cost of changing mascots would far outweigh the benefits. Sales of merchandise with team mascots and nicknames ranging from t-shirts to beer cozies generate millions of dollars in sales each year, and teams contend that a change in team mascots would render this merchandise useless.[143] The cost of removing images from uniforms and all other items, which must be paid out of local school funds, is a greater factor for secondary schools.[160]

Opponents, however, are unconcerned with the cost of changing, and view mascots as caricatures of real Indians that do not honor them, but rather trivialize and demean important Indian dances and traditions. Opponents feel that despite the cost of a change in team mascots, it should be done to prevent what they believe is racial stereotyping. Clyde Bellecourt, director of the American Indian Movement stated: "It's the behavior that accompanies all of this that's offensive. The rubber tomahawks, the chicken feather headdresses, people wearing war paint and making these ridiculous war whoops with a tomahawk in one hand and a beer in the other; all of these have significant meaning for us. And the psychological impact it has, especially on our youth, is devastating."[143]

One attempt to affect the use of mascots financially began in 1992 when five Native Americans filed a petition to remove the trademark status of the Washington Redskins team name, which would have allowed sales of branded merchandise without payment of royalties. The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board in 1999 ruled in favor of the petition and cancelled the trademarks. Following appeals, in 2005 the D.C. Court of Appeals in Pro-Football, Inc. v. Harjo reversed the cancellation, ruling that there had been insufficient evidence to support the finding of disparagement and holding that the majority of the petitioners were barred by laches from maintaining the suit.[161] On 16 November 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court, refused to hear an appeal from Harjo;[162] however a second case Blackhorse v. Pro-Football, Inc. with younger plaintiffs whose standing is not hindered by laches is now proceeding.[163]

A study done by the Emory University Goizueta Business School indicates that the growing unpopularity of Native American mascots is financial drain for professional teams, loosing money compared to more popular animal mascots.[164]

Support for certain teams by individual tribes[edit]

The NCAA has granted waivers from their mascot policy to five university teams that have obtained official support from individual tribes for the use of their names and images, which is based upon the principle of Tribal Sovereignty, as stated by the NCAI: "In general, NCAI strongly opposes the use of derogatory Native sports mascots. However, in the case where mascots refer to a particular Native nation or nations, NCAI respects the right of individual tribal nations to work with universities and athletic programs to decide how to protect and celebrate their respective tribal heritage.".[9]

Florida State Seminoles[edit]

Osceola rides his horse Renegade at a Florida State home game.

The Florida State University's use of Seminole imagery for its Florida State Seminoles athletic teams represents a case of an evolution of its relationship with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The university has worn the nickname "Seminoles" since 1947 and annually crowns a Chief and Princess at Homecoming with Seminole tribe leaders participating as celebrants. Since 1978 home football games have been opened with the entrance of Osceola and Renegade. Florida State University officials disapprove of referring to human figures as 'mascots' and have asked sports writers to cease doing so. Official university statements speak only of using 'symbols', 'nicknames', and 'images' inspired by Seminole tradition.

The question of a nickname for athletic teams arose in 1947 as the Florida State College for Women became Florida State University. The name Seminoles was selected by student vote, and for the first two decades the athletic teams mostly used images based on stereotypes such as in Hollywood Westerns. Leaders of the Seminole Tribe of Florida who attended a basketball game on the campus in 1972 expressed their concerns to university officials regarding the antics of such mascots. Seminole leaders and university officials agreed on the need for something dignified and more representative of authentic Seminole traditions. Both Sammy Seminole and Chief Fullabull were retired that year.[165]

1978 marked the first appearance of Osceola and Renegade, in which a student portrays the 19th-century Seminole leader Osceola, riding Renegade, an Appaloosa horse. The student, chosen for his horsemanship, wears clothing provided by the Seminole tribe but is not necessarily of native American descent himself. The Seminole Tribe of Florida officially sanctions the use of the Seminole as Florida State University’s nickname and of Osceola as FSU's symbol. Max Osceola, the chief and general council president of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, has stated that he regards it as an “honor” to be associated with the university.[166] However, the Seminole Tribe of Florida is only one of the tribal authorities representing Seminoles. Some members of the much larger Seminole Nation of Oklahoma objected to the use of the name and imagery, leading to the NCAA originally placed FSU on the list of colleges using imagery “hostile or abusive” towards Native Americans.[167] However in July 2005, the Seminole Nation General Council, the legislative body for the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, voted 18-2 not to oppose the use of Native American names and mascots by college sports teams.[168]

In addition to Osceola, there are the FSU traditions of the "tomahawk chop" and "war chant", which have more controversial associations.[169][170] In August 2005 the NCAA granted a waiver to the Florida State University which removed it from the “hostile or abusive” list. According to Bernard Franklin, senior vice president of the NCAA: "The staff review committee noted the unique relationship between the university and the Seminole Tribe of Florida as a significant factor. The decision of a namesake sovereign tribe, regarding when and how its name and imagery can be used, must be respected even when others may not agree."[166] The relationship between the tribe and the university has been maintained to the present, with few voices in opposition.[171][172]

Other exceptions: granted or denied[edit]

Other Indian tribes have also supported the use of their tribal names as a tribute to their heritage.

The Ute tribe approved the use of the name "Utes" for the University of Utah and the NCAA granted a waiver to allow the name to remain. For many decades, the school did not have an official Western Athletic Conference mascot. As early as the 1950s, the University of Utah created a Ute Indian boy, named "Hoyo", as its mascot. The University of Utah club organizations, such as the Associated Students of the University of Utah, the University of Utah Alumni Association, the Daily Chronicle, and many other social organizations highly celebrated "Hoyo" at homecoming events, before and after football games events, and at other social events for many years.[173] Prior to 1972, teams used both "Utes" and "Redskins" as nicknames, but dropped the latter in response to tribal concerns. In 1996 Swoop, a red tailed hawk, became the official mascot.[174] Even though Swoop is now the University of Utah's official mascot, Utah fans and its clubs alike still use "Utes" as their nickname at sporting events. This is done with permission from the Ute Tribal Council.[175]

The Central Michigan University nickname, the Chippewas, was originally placed on the “hostile or abusive” list but was removed when the Saginaw Chippewa Tribal Nation of Michigan gave its support to the nickname.[176]

The University of North Dakota's former athletic logo, a Native American figure, was recently dropped. Due to the NCAA's perception that the term "Fighting Sioux" and the accompanying logo are offensive to native Americans, the NCAA pressured the university to discontinue use of the logo.[177] When UND moved in the fall of 2009 to change its nickname, one of the three Sioux tribal councils in the state sued to have the name retained.[178]

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, however, is permitted to use the name "Illini" owing to the NCAA ruling that the name "is closely related to the name of the state and not directly associated with Native Americans."[179] The term Fighting Illini is in fact a reference to veterans from Illinois who fought during World War I. The symbol Chief Illiniwek was ruled "hostile and abusive" and was retired in 2007 to comply with the NCAA's ruling, and the following year, in compliance with a related NCAA ruling, both U of I and Northwestern University retired their then-current rivalry trophy, the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk.

The College of William & Mary, founded in 1693 with a charter to, among other things, educate and evangelize the native population, voluntarily changed its sports nickname from "Indians" to the "Tribe" in the late 1970s. However, the NCAA forced the school to remove the two tribal feathers stemming from their logo in 2006 due to "insensitivity" towards Native Americans. The fact that the local Pamunkey and Mattaponi tribes supported the College's use of the feathers was not enough for the NCAA.

The Arkansas State University officially removed its mascot, the "Indians," in 2008, replacing it with the "Red Wolves," at the request of the Osage tribe.

Relationships have also been established at the high school level. Arapahoe High School (Centennial, Colorado) now uses a logo provided by the Arapaho Tribe of Wyoming, which initially included an agreement that the image would not be placed on the gym floor or any article of clothing. The latter provision has not always been observed, but the logo does not appear on the team uniforms. The agreement also includes tribal participation in school events.

Current status[edit]

After decades of decline from over 3,000,[12] there remain less than 1,000 high school, university and professional teams that continue to have Native American mascots.[9] Though changes have been made at the high school and college levels, at the professional level there has been virtually no change. The topic remains an issue on a national level, with a hearing before the US Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in 2011,[180] and a symposium at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in 2013.[181]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

  • King, C. Richard, guest editor. "Re/claiming Indianness: Critical Perspectives on Native American Mascots." Journal of Sport and Social Issues 28, no. 1 (February 2004).
  • King, C. Richard, and Charles Fruehling Springwood (2001). Beyond the Cheers: Race as Spectacle in College Sport. SUNY Series on Sport, Culture, and Social Relations. State University of New York Press. ISBN 0-7914-5005-8.
  • King, C. Richard, and Charles Fruehling Springwood, eds. (2001). Team Spirits: The Native American Mascots Controversy. Foreword by Vine Deloria Jr. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Remillard, Arthur. "Holy War on the Football Field: Religion and the Florida State University Mascot Controversy." Horsehide, Pigskin, Oval Tracks, and Apple Pie: Essays on Sports and American Culture. Edited by James Vlasich. McFarland, 2005.
  • Schaumann-Beltan, Karen, "Representing Native Americans in Sports" in Ross, Jeffrey Ian, American Indians at Risk ABC-CLIO (2013) Google eBook

External links[edit]