Earlier this year, the American Major League Baseball team, Cleveland Indians, announced they would be dropping the Chief Wahoo logo from their uniforms in 2019 (Waldstein 2018). The logo, which features a caricature of a man with deep red skin, a wide grin, a sideways glance, and a feather sticking out from a headband, was first featured on the team’s uniforms in 1948. Since then, it has been under fire, along with other mascots such as that of the Washington Redskins, the Atlanta Braves, University of North Dakota’s Fighting Sioux, and various others referencing American Indians. Thus, the announcement of Cleveland’s logo change was a small victory to those who have been protesting and calling for change for decades. Late Oglala Lakota activist Russell Means was outspoken against sports mascots for years, having sued the Cleveland Indians in 1972, arguing that the Chief Wahoo logo “looks like a damn fool, like a clown and we resent being portrayed as either savages or clowns” (King 2004:195). The Washington R**skins is arguably the most offensive, as it is a racial slur that historians suggest dates back 300 years and is not known to have ever been used in a positive way (Grose 2010-2011). American Indians, then, are the only group to be confronted by the existence of a racial slur as a professional, mainstream sports team (Friedman 2013). Means highlighted the offensiveness of Washington’s and other’s mascots using analogies, suggesting that it would be unheard of to have a team called the “Washington N*ggers” or “Atlanta N*groes” (King 2004:195). Echoing Means’ sentiments, Jeffrey Newman of the Association for American Indian Affairs (AAIA) said of the Atlanta Braves’ Chief Noc-a-Homa:
“It is outrageous, I feel, to have a man dressed as an Indian, sitting in an alleged tepee outside the outfield fence, doing a silly dance every time some player hits a home run . . . would they hire a black man to sit in a tar paper shack out there and come out picking cotton every time a player hit a home run? No, they wouldn’t dare.”
Newman also suggested that no one would ever think to call a team the “Blackskins” or “Yellowskins” and yet people so easily support the name “Redskins” (King 2004:195).
Sports teams who use offensive names and logos are often depicting American Indian tribes and cultures in such a way that is typically disparaging, not only in the logos and monikers themselves but at games and competitions. For example, prior to the University of Illinois retiring the Chief Illinewek mascot, football game attendees looked forward to a White male undergraduate student performing a “pow wow” to get them pumped while dressed in “traditional” tribal garb: a buckskin tunic, headdress, and “war paint” (Grose 2010-2011). Other college, high school, and professional sports teams have similar rituals where mascots may beat drums, don face paint and a headband, and they may sing “Indian fight songs” to rile up the crowds (Pewewardy 2004). Fans in the stadium may even get in on the action, such as these two R**skins fans below wearing red face paint (redface) and faux feathered headdresses:
Sports fans have long argued that these mascots and team names are not meant to offend, rather that they pay homage to American Indian culture and are intended to honor. But over 100 Native American organizations have begged to differ (Friedman 2013). The mascots and rituals of these teams do little to honor Indigenous cultures. Rather, they are based on stereotypes and caricatures that perpetuate racism against American Indians, as well as reduce them to a monolithic culture. Scholar Dr. Cornel Pewewardy, a member of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma, argues that American Indian children who witness stereotypical portrayals of Native culture develop low self-esteem, and that non-Native children construct inaccurate, racist perceptions about Native Americans (Pewewardy 2004). Research supports this, as implicit bias studies have shown that mascots deemed offensive have a negative impact on perceptions of American Indians (Angle 2016). It makes sense then, that depictions of American Indians as “wild warriors and savages” would reduce one’s ability to empathize with tribal groups, as Pewewardy (2004) has noted.
Furthering the harm caused by “Native” mascots and names, the corporate profit from the misappropriation of these images and slurs reflects the persisting unequal treatment of American Indians resulting from centuries of colonialism and imperialism. Cultural misappropriation (sometimes just referred to as “cultural appropriation”) is when a dominant culture “borrows” or takes from the culture of a minority group without permission and uses it for their own benefit, often profiting from it (IPinCH). The use of headdresses, tomahawks, pow wow dances, and other pseudo-American Indian imagery by sports teams is cultural misappropriation. Not only are these pieces of culture depicted inaccurately, but little attention is given to what any of these symbols and actions mean to American Indians, and thus, they are not being used in a respectful manner. Furthermore, according to Forbes, the Cleveland Indians made 102 million dollars just from branding alone in 2016 (Forbes). The Washington R**skins brand made 226 million. The poverty rates of American Indians in the United States stood at 26 percent in 2014, compared to 11 percent of Whites, and yet sports teams using racial slurs and stereotypical depictions of American Indians are making millions from said slurs and stereotypes (Krogstad 2014).
The relationship between the dominant White majority and Indigenous Peoples in the United States is that of colonizer and colonized. European colonists stripped North American tribes of their cultures, forcing them to assimilate by cutting their hair, changing their clothing, language, names, and ways of life (Adams). Colonists did so because they felt that the inhabitants of this “New World” were “savages” that needed to be civilized, meaning white and European. Now, with pseudo-Indian mascots, the dominant group is profiting from stereotypical depictions of the same images that were once believed to be savage. While smearing “war paint” on your face and donning a feathered headband may seem like a fun way to support your favorite sports team, it’s insensitive and perpetuates harm against those whose ancestors were here before us. Many of the cultural symbols and rituals these teams use are caricatures of significant and sacred pieces of American Indian institutions. If people are truly interested in honoring and respecting American Indian cultures, there are much better, far more sensitive ways to go about doing so. The first thing one can do is acknowledge what actual members of tribes are saying about how they are being represented. The first step, then, is the easiest: Just listen.
Adams, David Wallace. 1995. Education for Extinction. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas.
Angle, Justin. 2016. “Sorry, Redskins fans: Native American Mascots Increase Racial Bias.” The Washington Post, September 15. Retrieved March 15, 2018 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2016/09/15/sorry-redskins-fans-native-american-mascots-increase-your-racial-bias/?utm_term=.8f99f36e6d86).
Forbes. 2017. Sports Money: 2017 NFL Evaluations. Retrieved March 15, 2018 (https://www.forbes.com/teams/cleveland-indians/).
Friedman, Michael A. 2013. “The Harmful Psychological Effects of the Washington Football Mascot.” Retrieved March 18, 2018 (http://www.changethemascot.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/DrFriedmanReport.pdf).
Grose, Justin P. 2010. “Time to Bury the Tomahawk Chop: An Attempt to Reconcile the Differing Viewpoints of Native Americans and Sports Fans.” American Indian Law Review 35(2):695-728. Retrieved March 18, 2018 (http://www.jstor.org.proxy.lib.odu.edu/stable/pdf/41219755.pdf).
Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage Project (IPinCH). 2015. “Think Before You Appropriate: Things to Know and Questions to Ask in Order to Avoid Misappropriating Indigenous Cultural Heritage.” Retrieved March 18, 2018 (http://www.sfu.ca/ipinch/sites/default/files/resources/teaching_resources/think_before_you_appropriate_jan_2016.pdf).
King, Richard C. 2004. “Borrowing Power: Racial Metaphors and Pseudo-Indian Mascots.” The New Centennial Review 4(1):189-209. Retrieved March 15, 2018 (http://www.jstor.org.proxy.lib.odu.edu/stable/pdf/41949426.pdf).
Krogstad, Jens Manuel. 2014. One-in-four Native Americans and Alaska Natives are Living in Poverty. Pew Research Center. Retrieved March 15, 2018 (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/06/13/1-in-4-native-americans-and-alaska-natives-are-living-in-poverty/).
Pewewardy, Cornel D. 2004. “Playing Indian at Halftime: The Controversy over American Indian Mascots, Logos, and Nicknames in School-Related Events.” The Clearing House 77(5):180-185. Retrieved March 15, 2018 (http://www.jstor.org/stable/30189894).
Waldstein, David. 2018. “Cleveland Indians Will Abandon Chief Wahoo Logo Next Year.” New York Times, January 29. Retrieved March 13, 2018 (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/29/sports/baseball/cleveland-indians-chief-wahoo-logo.html).
Rebecca Morales is currently pursuing her M.A. in Applied Sociology at Old Dominion University, as well as a graduate certificate in Women’s Studies. She received her B.S. from ODU with a major in Sociology and a minor in Women’s Studies. Her academic interests include race, class, and gender, but she is especially interested in the ways in which American Indians and their various cultures are constructed, portrayed, and appropriated in the U.S., as well as the impacts of gender based violence on tribal communities.