Blogs > Jim Loewen > New Opposition to Old Sports Mascots

Apr 5, 2013

New Opposition to Old Sports Mascots

On February 7, 2013, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) hosted a day-long seminar, "Racist Stereotypes in American Sports." The handout they used to promote the show paired two graphic images:  a stereotypical black doll on a base saying "Not. Cool." paired with the stereotypical Cleveland Indian mascot on a base saying "Go Tribe!" It made a stunning impact. So did the symposium, getting considerable attention from the Washington Post, including the entire front page of its free "Express" edition the next morning.

The images used to market the seminar, "Racist Stereotypes in American Sports," at the National Museum of the American Indian continue a tradition of bitter Native humor. Prior examples included sports pennants pictured in Native newspapers honoring the "Atlanta Niggers," "New York Kikes," "Chicago Polacks," and "Washington Redskins," prompting readers to realize, in a democracy, none of the above would be conceivable. [Picture courtesy of the author.]

The Native mascot is an issue I've long thought about and spoken about too, especially at the University of Illinois, where I hold a visiting professorship in African American studies. Chief Illiniwek at the "U of I" was one of the key sticking points among collegiate mascots. It happens that as a Cub Scout in Decatur, Illinois, I learned Indian lore from none other than A. Webber Borchers, then in his early 50s. If not quite the founder of Chief Illiniwek, Borchers was responsible for establishing the tradition.  Quite an entrepreneur, Borchers traveled to Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 1930 and hired three Native women to make the costume that he used as Chief Illiniwek. That the Dakotas were Plains Indians while the Illini were prairie farmers and hunters made no difference; for mascot purposes, one Indian was as good as another. Better, even, for a warrior on a stallion is certainly more charismatic than a farmer on foot. 

Webber Borchers on his pony, c.1930. Courtesy University of Illinois.

Borchers was always controversial.  After WWII, it was said that he led his Boy Scout troop through Germany, looting it of Nazi memorabilia. He became a right-wing Republican state legislator, elected and re-elected because Illinois allowed cumulative voting in its three-member districts. His supporters -- relatively few but absolutely passionate -- gave him all three of their votes, so he never came in lower than third. Eventually he was found guilty of theft of state funds and official misconduct and received a sentence of weekend jail time and a $5,000 fine. 

Jay Rosenstein's In Whose Honor showed nationally on PBS, helping spark the elimination of many Indian names and mascots, including Chief Illiniwek, pictured here.

To be fair, however, Borchers was respectful and serious to us Cub Scouts about American Indian culture. Later, as a young adult, I never questioned Chief Illiniwek ... until I saw In Whose Honor, Jay Rosenstein's fine video about Charlene Teters, a Spokane Indian and mother of two small children who found herself in Champaign/Urbana as a graduate student at the U of I. Gradually she began to oppose and even protest the mascot, partly because of the embarrassment the Chief's halftime performance caused her children. As well, on football weekends the campus was overrun by adult fans wearing silly orange and blue face paint and childish colored feather headdresses -- cartoonish approximations of Native American culture. Plastic foam tomahawks and the "WHOO-whoo-whoo-whoo" drumbeat remain equally silly at Atlanta Braves games. (Native Americans use a "WHOA-whoa WHOA-whoa" beat that they say imitates the human heart.)

Like Chief Illiniwek, most Natives used as symbols are Plains Indians, a short-lived culture that arose around 1680 and was ended two centuries later. No woodland Indian could wear such a headdress for more than a few seconds before a branch would knock it off. Besides the headdress, most Native mascots are half-naked. Sometimes they brandish a spear.

In this typical image, a well-dressed Dutchman, perhaps Peter Minuit, hands $24 worth of beads to a Native American wearing only a breechcloth and a full feathered Plains headdress.  This sculpture is located on the exact spot in lower Manhattan where this transaction never took place.  If this transaction that never took place took place in August, the Dutchman is sweating; if in February, the Native is freezing.  To put it another way, no two people have ever dressed like that on the same day on the same point on the earth's surface.  The sculptor did not strive for realism, of course; rather, he followed an artistic convention about clothing showing "primitive" on the left, "civilized" on the right.  Plains Indian culture had not even been created when this transaction never took place, but again, one Indian is as good as another. [Picture courtesy of the author.]

The University of Illinois went through a wrenching process to rid itself of its Chief. I played a minor role, giving talks on campus to the effect that the Chief could never again play a unifying role. Historically, I pointed out that Illiniwek and many other mascots dated to the Nadir of race relations -- that terrible era, 1890 to about 1940, when whites Americans became more racist in their thinking than at any other time. (I cannot stop to justify "more racist" in this short piece but refer you to Chapter 2 of Sundown Towns or Chapter 10 of Teaching What Really Happened.) Whites named Indiana for American Indians precisely as they were driving American Indians from the state. Similarly, during the Nadir whites made use of Native symbols precisely as they were driving Native people into despair. The most ironic example was the fraternal organization "The Improved Order of Red Men," founded in the 1840s, which reached its zenith just as Native Americans reached their nadir. By 1920, the Red Men claimed more than half a million members, not including their female auxiliary, "Daughters of Pocahontas." Meanwhile, the census that year showed just 244,000 Native Americans. Of course, no Native American could be a "Red Man"; that privilege was reserved for Caucasians.

The most grandiose Nadir scheme for remembering Indians as they disappeared was the plan to build a huge statue on Staten Island “to the memory of the North American Indian,” in the language of the “Indian Monument Law.” It was to symbolize and eulogize "the departed Indian."  It would have stood taller than its neighbor, the Statue of Liberty, with whom it would have formed an ironic coupling:  welcome to the new (whites) and goodbye to the old ("reds").  Congress set aside land for the monument and President Taft presided at its ground-breaking. The funds never forthcame, however, so it was never finished.

During the Nadir, whites used the Dawes Act to turn Indian reservation land into white homesteads. Many whites expected Native Americans to disappear entirely. Population figures provided some grounds for this belief: the number of American Indians in what is now the United States declined from about 5,000,000 at first contact to a low of 245,000 in 1920.

In 1915 James Earle Fraser produced his most famous work, "The End of the Trail." It does not portray a tired Native American at the end of the day, of course, but the Nadir for American Indians as an entity. In the 1990s, a company still sold smaller replicas of "The End of the Trail," advertising them in Smithsonian magazine as Fraser's "tribute to the American Indian."

During the Nadir, not just colleges but also many high schools chose Native names and symbols. Few had any Native students or faculty. It's a telling point that the use of Native Americans as mascots was part of the Nadir. Indeed, the most important problem with using Native Americans as mascots is not their effect on American Indians such as Teters's children, but rather their impact on non-Indians. Mascots appropriate Native symbols as if they were in the public domain, which implies Natives no longer exist. So do the symbols whites select. Indian mascots are not only frozen onto the Plains, they are also frozen in time -- about 1876 (Little Big Horn). This encourages non-Indians to conclude that Native Americans, too, are frozen in time or no longer exist nowadays, at least not in any significant numbers. No twentieth-century Indian ever served as a mascot, because such a person might wear a business suit or hard hat or clerical collar, depending upon his (or her?) job. That wouldn't do. 

Nor can high schools or colleges control the use of their names and mascots by others, including both fans and opponents. If newspapers want to say, "Braves Scalp Titans," they are free to do so, implying that Natives in warfare were less civilized than Europeans, precisely the opposite of the truth. If fans want to wear T-shirts sporting buck-toothed caricatures, they are free to do so. If in the process non-Indians infer that Native Americans are savage, go around half-clothed, are indeed "primitive," they are free to do so. 

With the advent of Title IX, high schools now field girls' teams in basketball, volleyball, track, and other sports. Some changed "Braves" to "Lady Braves"; some resorted to "Squaws," a term with special problems of its own. "Squaw" is plainly a derogatory term. It may derive from a French corruption of an Iroquois epithet for vagina, similar to "cunt" in English. It may derive from an Algonquian suffix simply meaning "female." Either way, over the centuries it has taken on contemptuous overtones. "Squaw" cannot be an honor. Neither can "Redskins." Even less loaded terms like "Braves" and "Indians" usually "otherize" Native Americans as different from "us." 

To see this problem, imagine if an overwhelmingly Muslim high school in, say, Queens, New York, or Dearborn, Michigan, named its athletic team the "Christians." Suppose they displayed a mascot who wore a clerical collar, crossed himself, and raised a chalice and took communion as part of an interesting and "culturally accurate" dance at halftime. Many Christians would not be amused. If the Muslims told the Christians, "We are only paying homage to you and your costumes," many Christians would still not be satisfied. Yet the Native symbols that white schools commandeer -- dance, face paint, eagle feathers, and ceremonial dress -- are sacred items in many Native cultures and religions.

Since most non-Native Americans have little contact with Native Americans, stereotypical "Indians" like mascots provide much of what they "know" about them. Social psychologist Stephanie Fryberg found that "priming" Native Americans with mascot images like Chief Wahoo and Chief Illiniwek caused lower scores on a self-esteem scale among Native Americans but a boost in self esteem among non-Natives. Self-esteem is fine, of course, but surely it should not be sought at others' expense.

"Redskin" in particular is hard to defend. The term itself dehumanizes, labeling a person by the color of his/her skin. Some argue its roots go back to the requirement that a "settler" (read European American) had to bring in a scalp with enough "red skin" to prove it was an Indian to collect the bounty for killing a "savage." (Note the projection in the term "savage.") Hitler picked up on "redskin." He admired how the U.S. and Canada had wiped out most of the original settlers of those nations. He often referred to Russians as "Redskins" and suggested that Germans needed to do the same: "to look upon the natives [of Russia] as Redskins." Then they would see "There's only one duty: to Germanize this country by the immigration of Germans." [quoted in James Pool, Hitler and His Secret Partners, 254-55]

Yet another problem with using Native Americans as mascots has to do with power. Of course other groups serve as mascots too. Think of the Minnesota Vikings, the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, the Vancouver Canucks. The last is even an ethnic slur. But each of those names was chosen with major input from the group to which it refers. Proportionately more Norwegian Americans live in Minnesota and adjacent states than anywhere else in the United States. Irish Americans have always had a special affinity for Notre Dame and have often headed the school. The NHL was born in Montreal; French Canadians have long been a large proportion of its skaters. If Norwegian Americans, Irish Americans, or French Canadians wanted to change those names, they would do so whenever they pleased. In the meantime, they can and do take ownership of them. 

What would we think if Brandeis University called its teams the "Jews" or even "Fighting Jews?" (Actually, they are the Judges.) We might think less of the school -- yet Brandeis is majority Jewish, so at least Jewish Americans would have done it to themselves. Earlham College does call its teams the "Quakers," sometimes even the "Fighting Quakers." Again, Earlham began life as a Quaker school and Quakers still run it.  They can change their moniker at any time. College of the Holy Cross, a Catholic school, calls its teams "Crusaders." Wake Forest uses "Demon Deacons," it being a Baptist school. Again, it's under their control. 

Not so with "Redskins," "Savages," "Squaws," "Braves," or until recently the "Fighting Sioux" of that other NDU, North Dakota University. Native Americans have almost no power in the United States, NFL, Major Leagues, or our mainstream colleges and universities. So non-Indians are free to say, "We don't mean anything bad by naming the team after you. We mean it as an honor. If you don't see it that way, tough." As one of my students at Catholic University of America put it in an e-discussion in 2002 about the local NFL team name: "It is only a minority of the people that want the name changed and the U.S. as a country is ruled by a majority." Obviously de Tocqueville's warning about the tyranny of the majority never reached this student. Or, as a Redskins fan wrote after the NMAI seminar, "The team should not change their name. I certainly don't deny that the name is a racial slur, I just don't care." Thus using mascots coarsens non-Indians, teaching them to disregard others' views if they are a minority. This is the very opposite of the cultural sensitivity our young people need to learn to succeed in today's global economy.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights had called for non‑Indian schools to end the use of American Indian mascots back in April 2001. After a decade of hearing arguments like the above, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) came out against Native mascots. "As we reached our decision," said Delise O'Meally, Director of Governance and International Affairs for the Association, speaking at NMAI, "there was overwhelming evidence of the harm these mascots" caused. Colleges hastened to comply. The vast majority have now dropped their Indian-related names, whether "Braves," "Redmen," "Redskins," "Savages," or "Warriors." Five schools have managed to finesse the issue by retaining their names but de-Indianizing them and dropping their Indian mascots or symbols:

  * Alcorn State University (Braves and Lady Braves)
  * Bradley University (Braves)
  * Carthage College (Red Men and Lady Reds)
  * University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Illini)
  * College of William and Mary (Tribe).

This has led to at least temporary success in avoiding sanctions from the NCAA. 

Five colleges won at least temporary approval from the NCAA for their mascots because they showed that local American Indian groups approved: 

  * Catawba College (Catawba Indians)
  * Central Michigan University (Chippewas)
  * Florida State University (Seminoles)
  * Mississippi College (Choctaws)
  * University of Utah (Utes).

What's different about, say, Central Michigan's use of "Chippewas" or the Florida State "Seminoles" is that those universities have consulted and continue to talk with nearby Native Americans, ceding them some power at the table. Not all Native Americans are of the same mind about the use of Indian names and symbols as mascots. Why should they be? Moreover, Chippewas do remain a presence in central Michigan, as Seminoles do in Florida.

The real Osceola, at right; “Chief Osceola” at Florida State, at left.

Even so, issues remain. For example, "Osceola" is the current symbol of Florida State; he rides in triumphantly on his horse, "Renegade," at halftime, and throws a flaming spear into the ground. "Osceola" is certainly an improvement on FSU's prior mascots, which included "Sammy Seminole," "Chief Fullabull," and later "Chief Wampumstompum." All remain inevitably "white man's Indians," however, even "Osceola," literally the creation of whites. The real Osceola, never defeated, was invited to enter peace negotiations by the U.S. Army, which then arrested and incarcerated him. This dishonorable behavior caused an uproar among civilians, but the debate that followed did Osceola no good: he died after three months in jail. Army officers then cut off his head and took it and his possessions as souvenirs. The half-time performance at a football game cannot appropriately include his tragic end, of course. Yet without it -- indeed, without any hint of the real man -- "Osceola" cannot represent Osceola.

To be sure, many Native Americans, especially in the West, don't care about the mascot controversy. I have spoken with Winnebagos and Navajos and others of this opinion. However, national Native leadership verges on unanimous disapproval. In addition to NMAI, the National Congress of American Indians, the National Indian Education Association, and fifty other Native organizations have come out against the practice. Native thought is changing. So is non-Native thinking and practice. The state school board of Maryland came out against Indian mascots by a vote of 10 to 2. Proponents of retaining "Fighting Sioux" at the University of North Dakota forced a statewide referendum in the matter in 2012 but were stunned when citizens voted two to one to drop the name. Several major newspapers, including the Duluth News-Tribune, Kansas City Star, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Portland Oregonian, and Seattle Times, no longer use "Redskin."  Washington's arts weekly, the City Paper, switched to "Pigskins." The others just say "the Washington NFL team," as will I henceforth. Perhaps movement on this matter is akin to the rapid change we are seeing about same-sex marriage. Still, the Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Chiefs, Cleveland Indians, and Chicago Blackhawks among major professional sports teams show no signs of giving way, although the Blackhawks' mascot is a hawk, not an Indian (Its logo remains an Indian head).

In the aftermath of the seminar at NMAI, officials of the Washington NFL franchise cited high school teams as justification for their offensive nickname. Somehow, if high schools also called their teams "Redskins," then the term can't be racist, so this legitimizes our using it. Of course, the defense lacks logic. As well, the NFL team owner apparently does not realize that high schools across America have been giving up the name. Monroe Gilmour and the North Carolina Mascot Education & Action Group have helped persuade more than half of all schools in North Carolina that once used "Redskin" and other such names and symbols to abandon them. Moreover, on February 8, 2013, the day after NMAI's seminar, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights filed a discrimination complaint with the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education. The state agency charged some thirty-five school districts in Michigan with discrimination against American Indians because they named their athletic teams "Redskins," "Warriors," "Chiefs," etc., and used Indian mascots. According to the Civil Rights Department, this "creates a hostile environment."

Michigan deliberately chose to file on February 8 because February 8, 1887, was the dark day in Indian history when Congress passed the Dawes Act. In a fascinating invocation of the power of history, the Civil Rights Department stated in its Supporting Argument:

[W]e believe that no school where students, teachers, parents, and administrators knew and taught America's history well enough to recognize the Dawes Act would want to use the cartoonish imagery, sacred objects, disrespectful nick names, or other questionable imagery of American Indian's that many use today.

The complaint singled out "Redskins" for its "particularly negative connotations," since it "has historically been used as a racial slur." The state asserted that studies by Fryberg and others "empirically, objectively, and conclusively establish" that the continued use of American Indian mascots harms Native students.  Moreover, Michigan continued,

  "officially sanctioned use of such imagery conveys a message that stereotyping is acceptable. This has an indirect negative impact on all students when they later must deal with diverse workplaces, a diverse society and a global marketplace."

Surely NMAI, Gilmour, the Kansas City Star, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, and all the rest have a point.  America's high schools and colleges need to prepare students with sensitivity, so they can work with people from other countries and other cultures. Otherizing other people by naming teams "for" them does not help. Nor does "honoring" American Indians as mascots help us remember American Indian history as it was.


Copyright James Loewen

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