I wrote this piece for The Left Hook Journal back in July, but never got around to posting it here. Enjoy!
I grew up a White kid in a very White part of Southern Ontario. I remember in the fourth grade being seated beside an Indigenous boy named A.J. who grew up on a nearby reserve. A.J. was a quiet kid who mostly stuck to himself. Most of the kids in the class made fun of him, calling him names like ‘Big Chief’ and ‘Redskin.’ They used to fold their arms high up on their chest and say “how” and “ugh,” in a mockery that resembled stereotypical comic portrayals of ‘Indians.’
At that age, as today, I was a huge baseball fan. I proudly displayed baseball caps, shirts and even a treasured pair of track pants bearing the logo of my beloved Toronto Blue Jays. I feverishly collected baseball cards and organized them by team and position. And it was through my relationship to the spectacle of Major League Baseball, rather than by meaningful social engagement with A.J. or his community, that I received my education about Indigenous people.
Prominently displayed in the corner of any baseball card where the player featured therein was a member of the Cleveland Indians was the familiar ‘Chief Wahoo’ logo. The players wore the red-faced cartoon character proudly on their caps and on the sleeves of their jerseys. The same went for some of the older cards I had depicting players on the Atlanta Braves. A screaming man with a mohawk and a feather strapped to his head above the word “Braves” gave me an idea of the type of people these teams were depicting. During the 1992 World Series, I can remember cheering on my Blue Jays and feeling almost threatened by the so-called ‘Tomahawk Chop’ and the corresponding war song that Braves’ fans participated in.
With that in mind, I remember the feeling of dread that came over me when my fourth grade teacher told me I’d be sitting beside A.J. in a two-person desk. I brought the very narrow and stereotypical representations that I’d learned from my baseball cards into my first conversation with A.J. I can remember asking him why his skin wasn’t red and if he ever wore a feather strapped to his head. When he replied with understandable hostility, I left him alone and tried not to participate in the bullying to which he was constantly subjected. But, in the ignorance and discomfort borne of wild images of terrifying savage men with bows and arrows, I made no effort to befriend A.J. or to ask him what his life was really like.
Of course, if I had been more open-minded as a nine-year-old and befriended him, I would have discovered that he was living in what some have called ‘fourth world’ conditions under Canadian rule. My parents had always told me to avoid the reserve where A.J. lived; upon venturing into it years later, I discovered that the people there lived in houses that were falling apart, that they often lived without running water or indoor plumbing and that they regularly had to leave the reserve to secure clean drinking water. These conditions, which briefly made headlines last year when crisis hit the Attawapiskat reserve, and other manifestations of colonial subjugation and impoverishment, are the reality for most Indigenous people in North America.
Indeed, the oppression that dates back to the first waves of European colonization, wherein millions of Indigenous people were slaughtered in genocidal campaigns and entire social and political structures were devastated, is still woven into the fabric of contemporary North American settler society. The legal systems imposed by these settler societies facilitate the continued theft of what is left of Indigenous territory for settler-owned energy companies, diamond mines or condo developers. The disruption and destruction of traditional social structures forces Indigenous people onto the market as cheap labour for these very same companies. When Indigenous people reject this process and this society, as they often do, they are left to sink into endemic poverty, addiction and disease, and/or become targets of the police and penitentiary systems. Predictably, Indigenous people represent absurdly disproportionate levels of arrest and incarceration. All the while, their suffering is ignored or blamed on their own failings, as they are targets of white racism that manifests itself in the representations of natives in popular culture. Movies and TV, automobile branding with names such as Cherokee, Pontiac and Navajo, and of course, the sports logos, nicknames and mascots which this article sets as its focus are just some of the ways this manifestation shows itself.
There is a long history of non-Indigenous sports teams using ‘Indian’ imagery in their branding efforts. Countless secondary and post-secondary schools use names like Indians, Chiefs, Warriors, and Seminoles and these same tropes appear in the professional ranks with team names like Braves, Blackhawks and Redskins. Currently, two Major League Baseball teams, two National Football League teams and one National Hockey League team feature Native nicknames and imagery – some more egregious than others – but all problematic.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the use of ‘Indian’ imagery, nicknames and mascots in sports is that most people, outside of established activist circles, don’t seem to think of it as much of a problem at all. In my day job I write about baseball. From time to time I will interact with other baseball fans and make relatively mild comments about the Cleveland Indians’ ‘Chief Wahoo’ logo being racist, or that the word “Brave” when describing an Indigenous person is bigoted, or that the ‘Tomahawk Chop’ regularly practiced at Braves’ games is insensitive at best and completely reprehensible at worst. Even in these rather tepid critiques, I often elicit a reaction of surprise and anger.
Often, the person defending the use of ‘Indian’ imagery in sports will have one or more of five reactions. Tackling each of these individually will be useful in articulating exactly why fans and those with power in individual sporting leagues should stand up and publicly state their desire for change.
1) I don’t hear any Indigenous people complaining! When they do, maybe it’ll be time to do something about it.
When someone makes this argument, they are likely implicitly referring to two studies that were conducted in the last decade or so. The first was published in Sports Illustrated in February of 2002 which found that the majority of Indigenous people were not offended by ‘Indian’ nicknames and imagery, and the second was a study conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which found that three-quarters of Indigenous people were not offended by the use of the nickname “Redskin” for Washington DC’s NFL team.
These surveys seem at odds with nearly every Indigenous representative or activist group that almost universally condemn the use of ‘Indian’ imagery in sports. So, why the disconnect? Well, there are a few possible explanations. The first of which lies in the often troubling and/or biased way surveys are conducted: How were the questions asked? What demographics were represented? What was the sample size and where were the respondents located geographically? Were they sports fans? Were they shown examples if they weren’t aware of what “‘Indian’ imagery” referred to? It easy to throw out numbers from a survey, without context, and report findings that may not accurately assess the real feelings of a group of people.
Furthermore, what is the role of colonized subjectivities – or, simply put, self-esteem – here? Indigenous people are among the most marginalized groups in North America and when oppression occurs on that level for centuries, those that are being oppressed can develop a tendency to see their oppression as normal and inevitable; perhaps even deserved. Drawing on the works of postcolonial theorist Albert Memmi in The Colonizer and the Colonized, social scientist Bob Mullaly argues that it is the relationship between dominant ideology and hegemony that encourages this. He argues that oppressed people often “internalize and blame themselves for their own oppression by accepting as normal and inevitable the present society and its frequently oppressive social institutions.”[i] Indeed, pre-eminent Indigenous scholar Taiaiake Alfred has insisted that Indigenous people have “developed complexes of behaviour and mental attitudes that reflect their colonial situation.” Indigenous people, like all colonized people, are subject to intense pressure to internalize the oppression they receive and may, sometimes, end up finding their subjugation acceptable or, at the very least, may not feel empowered to speak against it in a Sports Illustrated survey.
Most importantly, the fact is there are many Indigenous people and communities who speak out against discriminatory representations of their culture in sports. Charlene Teters – who has been called the Rosa Parks of the American Indian movement and whose story is told in the documentary film In Whose Honor? – started protesting University of Illinois football and basketball games for their portrayal of Indigenous people through their Chief Illiniwek mascot. Her work and that of other Indigenous activists such as Michael Haney and Vernon Bellecourt led to the NCAA banning the use of “hostile and abusive” mascots at any of the schools in their athletic jurisdiction.
In the early 90s, the National Congress of American Indians voted unanimously to pass a resolution opposing the use of ‘Indian’ imagery in sports, business and related industries. Around the same time, the mainstream media started to pay attention to the persistent protesting and many newspapers, such as the Seattle Times, refused to use the name ‘Redskins’ when referring to the NFL team. Additionally, numerous states and athletic organizations have banned the use of Native imagery in their schools’ athletic programs as far back as the late 60s. These are things that aren’t often talked about in mainstream media reports, facilitating the false perception that Indigenous people are happy to accept ‘Indian’ iconography as it exists today.
2) You’re not Indigenous! Why do you care?
This is a common argument whenever any White person speaks out against something racist. The same goes for when men articulate feminist ideals or when straight people stand up for LGBT issues. Whether or not the person realizes it, they are using a well-worn tactic to silence dissent.
When anybody partakes in something that can be conceived as unjust, they are in part responsible for it – speaking out against all forms of prejudice is the only way to minimize its effects. Asking why you’d care about this issue if you’re not Indigenous is sort of like asking what the point of a strong primary school system is if you don’t have kids. We should care because we do not live or act solely as individuals. We are bound to one another as a collective and to ignore issues that better that collective makes us all worse. Indeed, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously put it, “we are bound by an inescapable garment of mutuality, whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
3) It’s tradition! You can’t just throw away decades of tradition to appease a small minority of people.
This is a popular defence of ‘Indian’ imagery in sports. The thought is that you can’t get rid of something (such as a nickname or a mascot) that’s been around a long time – because, they say, you’ll alienate the fan base – and isn’t that what professional sports are all about?
Firstly, the logos, nicknames and mascots that do have a long history were the creation of a very different time, and owe their ‘tradition’ to an era that would be better left behind. The Boston Braves (now in Atlanta) were formed in 1870. The Washington Redskins started out in Boston as well and were given the admonishable nickname in 1933. These, of course were times when racism was not only widely accepted as part of settler culture, it was also openly practiced and endorsed by the Canadian and U.S. states.
Secondly, in some cases, there really isn’t a lot of tradition behind this imagery. Take, for instance, the Cleveland Indians. The Indians were actually founded as the “Bluebirds” in 1901 and were one of the eight charter teams of the original American League. In 1903, after acquiring Hall of Famer Nap Lajoie, they changed their name to the “Naps.” Then in 1912, the team changed its name again, this time to the “Molly Maguires” after the seminal trade unionist coal miners of same name. The team didn’t become the “Indians” until 1915 and was originally given to honour – albeit misguidedly – Louis Sockalexis, a Indigenous ballplayer who played for Cleveland’s National League team, the Spiders, in the late 1800s.
The current logo, so-called ‘Chief Wahoo,’ wasn’t assigned to the team’s branding effort in any way until 1946 – more than 30 years after the team adopted its name. The current incarnation of the Chief didn’t make an appearance until 1951. At that time in the Southern U.S., black people still lived under Jim Crow laws, which proclaimed them “separate but equal,” and reprehensibly abusive residential schools were still the norm in Canada. Times have, at least somewhat, changed.
And a precedent has been set: earlier, I mentioned that the NCAA banned the use of hostile and abusive ‘Indian’ imagery in the mid 2000s, but schools such as Stanford University, Dartmouth University and Marquette University rid themselves of their offensive imagery long before the NCAA mandate. All three, in fact, changed their nicknames and branding entirely. These are not fair-weather Division II schools that no one has ever heard about – these are some of the top athletic schools in the U.S., all with a rich history that extends far further back than any professional sports team. If they can do it, so can the ‘Redskins.’
4) What about other groups of people who are represented in sports? Aren’t names like the Patriots, Yankees, Canucks, and Vikings just as problematic?
When White people are accused of racism, they tend to quickly defend themselves by claiming reverse-racism. Similarly, when a defender of ‘Indian’ imagery’s use in sports is called upon to make their case, this is invariably the first thing they bring up. “How is it different from the New England Patriots?” “Isn’t the word ‘Canuck’ a derogatory term for Canadian?”
There are, however, a few main differences between these nicknames and mascots and the ones used by teams with ‘Indian’ imagery. Firstly, names like ‘Patriot’ and ‘Viking’ are almost universally used as positive terms of endearment; secondly, the people they describe either no longer exist or are ambiguous in nature; thirdly, none of them are groups which continue to be oppressed by contemporary capitalist colonialism in the same way that Indigenous people are.
But perhaps most significantly, all of those examples are self-representative – by which I mean, the names are not describing or claiming to represent a group of people other than themselves. Professional sports teams in North America are almost exclusively owned by rich, white men and names like ‘Patriots’ and ‘Yankees’ are describing other white men. They are also not representing a specific culture or ethnicity. In the case of names like “Vikings” or “Cowboys,” the people being represented are groups that had power – often oppressive power over other groups.
When representation of an oppressed group is controlled and executed by those in power, it not only strips that group of their right to self-presentation, but also exhibits a perverse sense of control over that group. When White people represent Indigenous people in a certain way, they are claiming ownership over an entire group of living people and their culture, beliefs and spirituality through their representation in popular culture.
Charlene Teters, in an explanation for her activism on the subject, said that being mimicked by people outside of one’s culture undermines one’s self-esteem. “When you see images that represent who you are permeating the community in the form of cartoon caricatures of Indian people… that says, very subtly and indirectly, that ‘you’re not quite as human as we are.’”
5) We’re just honouring them as brave warriors!
This defence of the use of ‘Indian’ imagery in sports is probably the most offensive. Stereotyping all Indigenous people as primitive warriors with tomahawks not only narrows their culture to one of war and violence, but also harkens back to a time when Indigenous people were murdered without regard at the hands of Europeans. Author James Graysurmised, in his book The Illinois, that it has always “been the way of the white man in his relation to the Indian, first, to sentimentalize him as a monster until he has been killed off and second, to sentimentalize him in retrospect as the noble savage.”
The other thing that comes into play with this offensive and norrow stereotyping is the way fans and the media use the imagery to promote rivalries between teams. For instance, at the University of Iowa, dolls depicting ‘Indians’ were hung from trees when their Big Ten rivals, the University of Illinois Fighting Illini, would come to town; newspaper headlines in the New York Post used to read “Tribe on Warpath” and “Take the Tribe and Scalp ‘Em” when the Yankees played the Indians; in Arizona, “Scalp the Indians” is often seen written in chalk displays on the campus sidewalks and buildings when a team with an ‘Indian’ mascot is in town for football or basketball. These are real-world consequences to using these stereotypes.
Think about it: What if a baseball expansion team was awarded in Charlotte, South Carolina and the newly born franchise decided to call itself the Charlotte Black Panthers and made its mascot a muscular African American man with an assault rifle in his hands? In the press conference, the owner of the Black Panthers – almost inevitably a wealthy white man – might claim that the name was meant to honour the courage and bravery of the Black Panther Party during the 1960s. Would this be acceptable? Of course not. Such a logo would demean not only the importance of the Black Panther Party to the Civil Rights Movement, but also would portray black men as violent and threatening – a well-worn and abhorrent stereotype that already exists in popular culture. When teams like the Florida State Seminoles or the Atlanta Braves do this, it’s not seen as a problem.
The obvious solution would be for the offending teams to stop using ‘Indian’ imagery altogether, but such a solution would require those teams admitting that their branding efforts are problematic – which seems unlikely considering the financial interests being served by sticking to their traditional imagery. The next logical solution would be for individual leagues to institute a ban on all such imagery. But there again, leagues in North America are made up of owners and an owner-appointed commissioner so it’s doubtful that they would risk alienating individual teams’ fan bases and consequently lose millions of dollars.
The only way to eliminate ‘Indian’ imagery from the nicknames, logos and mascots of North American professional sports teams is to have the fans and players step up and speak out. If fans more vigorously protest the games of offending teams and boycott the purchase of their merchandise, it might force the leagues to take action. Of course, getting enough fans on side for such an action would be difficult, especially since there isn’t a lot in the way of media attention on the subject.
The most realistic solution might reside in the players’ unions – especially if a player decided to refuse to play for a team with ‘Indian’ branding. It isn’t difficult to imagine a scenario where some star player refuses to be traded to or drafted by a team like the Washington Redskins or Cleveland Indians based on principle. Such an event would raise awareness to the issue and put serious pressure on sports leagues to make the necessary changes.
Indigenous people are not only a numeric minority in North America today, they are also often segregated from the rest of the population on reserves and reservations, which gives the overwhelming majority of the population very little direct experience with Indigenous cultures and traditions. The stereotypical representations seen most prominently in modern sports imagery, harken back to a time when overt racism was seen as not only normal and accepted, but actively practiced by a large portion of the population. It’s time for these images to be abolished from popular culture and replaced with accurate images in a non-sporting environment. It may seem trivial, but when the most prominent images of Indigenous people are found in sports mascots, it serves to dehumanize and ridicule entire cultures of people who have been violently oppressed for hundreds of years.