The Deep History—and Troubling Impact—of Sports Teams Using Native American MascotsHistorians in the News
tags: racism, sports, Native American history
On Monday, Washington, D.C.’s NFL team announced that it would be retiring its logo and changing its name. Though the news came just 10 days after the team announced a “thorough review” of its name, it follows years of criticism of a name that has been widely recognized as a slur against Native Americans. In 2013, Snyder, the team owner, had vowed to keep the name as it was, and stuck by his vows until now, despite the urging of Native American activists as well as sportscasters’ and media outlets’ decisions to stop using the term.
“Today, we are announcing we will be retiring the Redskins name and logo upon completion of this review,” the team said in a statement. “Dan Snyder and Coach Rivera are working closely to develop a new name and design approach that will enhance the standing of our proud, tradition rich franchise and inspire our sponsors, fans and community for the next 100 years.”
But while the Washington team’s situation has stood out for evoking a slur and not just a stereotype, the team has never been alone: More than 2,000 high schools use Native American imagery, according to Mascot DB, and that larger context has also been criticized by activists.
Adrienne Keene — a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and faculty member at Brown University’s American Studies and Ethnic Studies department, who is also the author of the Native Appropriations blog and a co-host of the All My Relations podcast — spoke to TIME about the history of Native American mascots and imagery.
So many U.S. athletic teams have Native American mascots. Why was that idea so appealing to the sports world in the first place?
This idea of Native people as mascots or the idea of “playing Indian” and dressing up like a Native person is something that goes back to the very founding of what is currently known as the United States. Philip Deloria, who wrote Playing Indian, talks about this phenomenon as something that the early settlers and the colonists were searching for—an identity that was distinct to this land and this place—because they were trying to be not British.
Even with the Boston Tea Party or some of these early events in our U.S. history, folks dressed up like Native people in those moments, so this idea is deeply tied to this place and is really hard to disentangle in terms of people wanting to identify with the land that they are occupying, and associating Native people with ideas of being wild and free and unbridled by the bounds of modern society. This is something that people hold on to really tightly because they see it as foundational to their identity, whether they think about it consciously or not.
How did the use of these mascots spread and become so ubiquitous to the point where we see them in country clubs, public schools and everyday products?
The American fascination with “the Indian”—not even Indigenous people, not Native peoples—as this very stereotypical, abstracted idea, is something that carries out into products and sports teams, and it becomes just ubiquitous. The National Museum of the American Indian in D.C. had a really incredible exhibit that showed the vast number of places that these stereotypical images show up. And it’s been from the beginning. Some of the earliest images of the Americas were etchings of people’s imaginings of American Indians, and then some of the earliest universities and colleges in the U.S. were founded as places to educate and assimilate Native young people, so places like Dartmouth and William and Mary… their mascots were Indians because that is the origin of their institution. These ideas are so hard to disentangle from the history of our country, but it’s really this fascination with what Native came to stand in to be.
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