Derogatory Mascots Depicting Native Americans Are a Controversy

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Imagine your race depicted as a cartoonish mascot, with fans cheering and waving foam crucifixes whenever their favourite sports team scores a goal. This is exactly what Native Americans experience when they see fans of teams such as the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians. Furthermore, mascots depicting Natives often perpetuate negative stereotypes such as laziness and violence (Freng). Yet mascots depicting Native Americans have decreased minimally in the 21st century, resulting in limited progress for this racial minority.

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First, many sports teams still use trademarks depicting Native Americans. As of 2015, 2,128 sports teams in America have names or mascots that reference Native Americans (O’Connor). Social experiments show that these mascots perpetuate negative stereotypes of Native Americans (Freng). However, many people falsely believe these mascots “honor” Natives. Daniel Snyder, the current owner of the Washington Redskins, sent a private letter to Redskins fans in 2013, arguing that the team name is far from offensive. In his letter, he stated that Washington Redskins “was, and continues to be, a badge of honor….it is a symbol of everything [the team stands] for: strength, courage, pride, and respect” (Snyder). Yet such trademarks are far from honorable. Most Natives oppose the use of these stereotypical mascots (Pewewardy). Brian Cladoosby, president of the National Congress of American Indians, stated in an open letter in 2014:

Native peoples are not honored by the slur, the image, or the mockery of ‘war dances’ on the sidelines…No racial group would stand for a team name that denigrated their cultural identity, but Native Americans are expected to stand by and accept this treatment just because some don’t see the word as offensive. (Cladoosby)

Take, for example, the word “Redskin”. It references “red skin” bounty hunters in the past, who would kill Natives brutally, then rip the skin from their bodies in order to receive payment (Young). This word, and others like it, celebrate the colonists for taming the Natives, allowing them to be treated as nothing more than a symbol for the sports industry. Therefore, although supporters of mascots and names depicting Natives believe they are honoring Natives, they are inadvertently supporting the notion that Natives are less than human and are part of a larger cycle of suppression and discrimination.

Despite the insensitivity of these mascots, fans are often emotionally attached to them. In 2016, a woman approached a group of people protesting against the use of Chief Wahoo, the mascot for the Cleveland Indians baseball team. The woman “placed her hand over her heart and solemnly professed” her love for Wahoo. These fans do not have malicious intent, nor do they believe they are being racist; it is merely because they are distracted by nostalgic and collective ties to identity (Young). Similar to the false notion that these trademarks are honoring Natives, fans like this woman are unknowingly supporting discrimination and racial stereotypes. The fact that so many are oblivious to the egregious meanings behind these mascots and instead embrace the stereotypes portrayed is a symptom of national dysfunction and widespread dehumanization of the Native American race.

Many fans inadvertently mock the sacred practices of Natives. Weapons, feathers and chants have high religious and cultural significance to many Natives, yet mascots often trivialise this sacrality by wearing “war paint”, chanting, waving foam “tomahawks”, and wearing turkey headdresses. Fans also enjoy doing the “tomahawk chop” in the stands to support athletes on the field (Pewewardy). These actions are analogous to people mocking the Lord’s Prayer or the Christian God; such practices are highly disrespectful and trivialising the Native culture. The fact that it is so widespread shows that it is socially acceptable. This reveals that society does not treat Natives as humans who deserve to be respected, rather as objects that can be played with or as jokes for their personal entertainment.

Some people are falsely lulled into believing there is progress due to the retirement of such mascots or names by many teams such as Dartmouth, Marquette, Stanford, and Syracuse (Freng), as well as states such as California banning such names and mascots (O’Connor). Even the Cleveland Indians is retiring its mascot, Chief Wahoo, after many years of protest. Although this seems like a victory for the Natives, merchandise with the logo of Chief Wahoo will still be sold (Maunz) and there are no plans to change the team name (Bastian). Furthermore, there is overwhelming evidence that such mascots receive large amounts of support even after their retirement.

A prime example of continued support over a retired mascot can be seen in the case of Chief Illiniwek, former mascot of the University of Illinois. After years of protests by Native Americans and pressure from the National Collegiate Athletic Association, Chief Illiniwek was retired in 2007. Yet more than a decade later, an unofficial Chief Illiniwek is still seen on campus (Smith) and sports games, to which he is greeted with cheers. At many sporting events near the university, people often wear clothing emblazoned with the image of Chief Illiniwek (Quintana). By supporting this stereotypical mascot, fans are embracing the racism and dehumanization it stands for. These fans are either oblivious to the fact that these names and symbols are derogatory and offensive, or simply do not care. Regardless, it shows that the Americans display ignorance in the matter and show no respect for the Natives.

Another example concerns the retired mascot of the University of North Dakota. When the school team’s former name, “Fighting Sioux”, was retired, many students were so upset that they had to be dragged out of the stadium, kicking and screaming (Philip). Many fans were unwilling to accept the team’s new name: the Fighting Hawks. At a hockey game in 2016, more than half of the crowd of 11,890 wore Sioux-themed clothing. When the announcer introduced the University of North Dakota, hundreds of students pumped their fists and yelled, “Sioux!” Any mention of the Fighting Hawks were booed (Borzi). Similar to the case of Chief Illiniwek, these fans display ignorance in the matter. The fact that fans of Native American mascots are so widespread shows that many Americans view Natives as nothing more than a mascot. This implies that the Natives are not seen as a real issue in America. Instead, they view the Natives as a source of entertainment, like a cartoon. Thus, many of the Natives’ issues are not properly addressed, and they are still largely disadvantaged in society.

A more outrageous event was the “Siouxper Drunk” incident of 2014, when a group of students from the University of North Dakota made T-Shirts that depicted a Native wearing a turkey headdress and drinking alcohol from a funnel. Ruth Hopkins, a Native American, said, “Prior to [the European’s] arrival, Native people did not drink alcohol at all. Since then, Europeans have been pretty successful at using alcohol to subdue & assimilate Natives” (Philip). The students were either oblivious to the fact that the prevalence of alcohol amongst Natives is not a laughing matter, or were purposely causing a commotion. If the former was true, this showed the students’, and by extension society’s, ignorance to the plight of the Natives, instead viewing them as lecherous, pathetic drunkards. If the latter was the case, this demonstrates the unimportance of the Natives to the students: they were merely used as a tool to gain attention. Either way, this shows how disadvantaged and misunderstood the Natives are in society.

Some argue that most Natives are tolerant or even proud that they have representation in the sports industry via mascots, and that removing them will result in less Native representation (Freng). There is evidence to the contrary: Natives are not proud but concerned when the mascots perpetuate negative stereotypes, as is often the case. They are only proud when the mascots are neutral or portray the Natives with respect (Pewewardy); a rarity considering the fact that they are often generalising and derogatory symbols. If the only way Natives can be represented are via these inaccurate and demeaning mascots, then this shows society’s unwillingness to portray Natives as dignified human beings.

In the past, the word “nigger” was casually uttered without harmful intent, but just because the intent was benign does not mean it is an extremely racist slur. The same applies to mascots that depict Native Americans; they perpetuate stereotypes and dehumanize the Native race. The fact that they are still widely accepted shows that society treats Natives as subhuman, signifying the suppression and discrimination that lurks within America today.

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