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On Native American Mascots

On Sunday, February 2nd, 2020, the Super Bowl was played in Miami, Florida with he Kansas City “Chiefs” defeating the San Francisco 49ers. The Kansas City team is one of the last remaining professional sports teams that uses culturally appropriated and racist Native American imagery, from their team name, to the arrowhead logo, to the team and fans use of the “tomahawk chop” with accompanying celebrity guest who beats the drum to the (fake, non-Indian-created) war chant on game days. Fans routinely dress in fake headdresses and war paint.


This use of Native American imagery in sports has long been controversial. Perhaps the most egregious example involves the football team in our nation’s capital, the Washington “Redskins”. Most dictionaries count this as a racially disparaging slur; historical evidence points directly (if not unimpeachably) to the term originating with the bounty placed on Native Americans in the 1800s. Individuals were paid for killing an Indian, and were even reimbursed for bullets, the bounty differing depending on the gender and age of the Indian. Proving inconvenient to bring the whole corpse in for verification, the scalp sufficed, and the practice of “scalping” began — later to be employed by Indians as retaliation. To maintain that the “Redskins” were named to somehow honor Indians requires a tremendous suspension of disbelief.


While the “Redskins” and the “Chiefs” are in the press most noticeably these days, the time is long past to remove all Native American mascots from sport. At issue is the appropriation of Native American cultural imagery that serves to glorify their “toughness” and “fighting spirit” at the expense of their intelligence, generosity, and rich and varied culture, while also serving to reinforce the notion that these contemporary groups are, in fact, relics of the past. Michael Friedman, a clinical psychologist in New York released a study showing that Native American mascot usage can actually have a deleterious effect on the mental and physical health of Native Americans. Over 100 Native American organizations, along with many civil rights groups and professional organizations like the American Sociological Association and the American Psychological Association, have condemned the use of this imagery.


Non-Indians chanting “woo-woo-woo” and doing the “tomahawk chop” at sporting events is respectful in no instance. These are symbols and, as important cultural markers, symbols matter! One of the major perspectives in Sociology, Symbolic Interactionism, holds that people act towards things based on the meanings they ascribe to them, and this meaning emerges through social interaction (see the work of Herbert Blumer for more). Social interactions that include caricatures of Native Americans in American sport serve to belittle them individually and collectively. There are no other minority group mascots, and if an expansion team were to emerge in any of the major North American sports, there is no chance they would be allowed to adopt an Indian mascot.


When supporters of mascots are asked to justify their use of racist cultural imagery, the first response is usually an attempt to turn the tables, to say they are not in fact racist, instead of offering an articulable reason for their use. (In the case of the Kansas City football team, they don’t even bother to go this far. Team officials state the team name was in honor of a former Kansas City mayor, Harold Roe Bartle, whose nickname was “Chief”.) When pressed, the answers typically fall into four categories.


The terms “honor” Native Americans

This is dubious on at least two accounts. First, it seems disingenuous to say America wants to honor a people it decimated through military, biological and cultural warfare. Second, it is difficult to believe that non-Indian tailgaters dressed in headdresses and face paint are truly “honoring” a people they likely know next to nothing about.


There are many other human groups used as mascots, such as the Giants, Saints, Cowboys, etc., so Native Americans are overreacting

However, as sportswriter Dave Zirin points out, this thing called “history” happened, and none of those groups has been a victim of state-sponsored genocide.


It would cost too much money to change the mascots and the attendant team merchandise

According to research conducted through the Emory Sports Marketing Analytics Project, switching away from a Native American mascot has no long-term negative impact on a team. In fact, keeping Native American mascots reduces financial performance and harms team-branding equity.


Native Americans themselves don’t mind the use of this cultural imagery

Much of this comes from a Sports Illustrated survey in 2002 that found 81 percent of Native American respondents did not find the term “Redskins” discriminatory. However, a study conducted by the Indian Country Today periodical at the same time reported 81 percent of respondents found the term racist and disparaging. Likewise, a more recent national survey found that 67 percent of Native Americans finds the term “Redskin” racist and offensive. Interestingly, that same survey reported that 68 percent of non-Indians did not believe the term was racist or offensive. A majority group is typically in no position to tell a minority group what they should and should not be offended by.


To bring the issue closer to home, in 2005, the National Collegiate Athletic Association effectively banned the use of Native American imagery and many schools have since changed their mascots. However, Florida State University (where the ‘tomahawk chop’ was created) was given an exemption for its use of the “Seminole” mascot, since it has “the endorsement of the Seminole Tribe.” In fact, the agreement is with the tribal council, not the tribe itself; to my knowledge, there has never been a tribal vote on the issue. Rather, the well-heeled leaders of the tribe, in cahoots with the Tallahassee business community, have signed off on the usage of the tribal name. Additionally, most Seminoles actually live in Oklahoma (approximately 75 percent), and that tribe passed a resolution in 2013 vigorously opposing the use of the Seminole name by sports teams.


When Seminoles (who are actually Muskogean Creeks, Yuchis and Choctaws) were forcibly moved west to Oklahoma, the remaining members eventually split into two groups. The first, now recognized as the Seminole Tribe of Florida, comprised those who accepted reservation life and acceded to U.S. government policies. The second, who are now recognized as the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, chose to keep their traditional ways. The notion of the Seminoles being “unconquered,” a notion that arose only in response to increasing national pressure to drop the nickname and mascot, is therefore misleading, as is the notion that any Native American group in this society was not actually conquered and forced to surrender their sovereignty. The Osceola mascot was not actually introduced until 1978, and followed the likes of “Sammy Seminole,” “Chief Fullabull” and “Chief Wampumstompum.” I challenge readers to google images of these early mascots and still surmise that they were meant to “honor” anyone.


As graduate of FSU, I view this issue through a pro/con lens. Who benefits and who is harmed if we keep or drop the mascots? If the mascots are retained, there are people who suffer from racist labels and caricatures, and fans are allowed to continue to root for their chosen team, unabashedly. If the mascots are changed, then America can move forward with leaving racist symbols behind. And who suffers if the mascots are changed? Can I say my desire to cheer for my team is now ruined? And even if so, does that weigh more in the moral universe than the real and tangible prejudice and discrimination mascots may be contributing to? Zirin writes: “Once 100 percent of this country, Native Americans are now 0.9 percent, and we play sports on their graves. Their rituals and dress are our own commercialized entertainment. We turn our eyes to the field, away from the way institutionalized racism continues to define the lives of the overwhelming majority of Native Americans.” As Kansas City celebrates their win in the Super Bowl, I urge Americans to call for these mascots to be retired.

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