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Sunday, August 01, 2021

Explained: How North American sports teams have historically misappropriated Native American culture

Sustained efforts by activists over the past few years have forced these professional sports teams to rethink how their use of these names, symbols and imagery could be offensive.

Written by Neha Banka , Edited by Explained Desk |
Updated: August 4, 2020 12:15:00 am
The Washington Redskins logo is seen on the field before the team’s NFL football preseason game against the New England Patriots in Landover, Md. (AP Photo: Alex Brandon)

Over a week ago, the Washington Redskins dropped the team’s name following decades of criticism that it was offensive towards Native Americans. The professional American football team announced it was temporarily going to be called the ‘Washington Football Team’ till an appropriate new name was finalised. This has been a part of a larger controversy where Native American names, symbols and imagery by professional teams, specifically non-native teams, have been used in what is considered an act of cultural appropriation.

Sustained efforts by activists over the past few years have forced these professional sports teams to rethink how their use of these names, symbols and imagery could be offensive.

Why do American sports teams use Native American names & mascots?

The use of Native American mascots in American football games can be traced to 1926, write Robert Longwell-Grice and Hope Longwell-Grice in their paper, ‘Chiefs, Braves, and Tomahawks: The Use of American Indians as University Mascots’ (2003), when the “assistant band director Ray Dvarak of the University of Illinois conceived the idea of performing an American Indian dance during halftime of the Illinois–Pennsylvania football game in Philadelphia (Students for Chief Illinewek, 2000). The University of Illinois football coach at the time suggested calling the Indian symbol Chief Illinewek. Chief Illinewek ran onto the field “doing a lively Indian dance,” saluted the Pennsylvania rooters and then smoked a peace pipe with William Penn (impersonated by another University of Illinois student). The crowd loved it and a tradition was born.”

The last sentence is key here. This model to entertain crowds during a sporting event worked so well that it slowly began to be replicated across the United States and became a “tradition”. For close to a century, the appropriation of aspects of Native American culture became an integral part of American sports culture.

Why have people defended the use of racist names for sports teams & mascots?

The Longwell-Grices say that the argument for supporting the use of “Native Americans as mascots falls into three broad categories — tradition, money, and broader societal support”. For years, defenders have claimed that the use of Native Americans “honor and celebrate Indians”. According to findings in this paper, these defenders “feel that their mascot is part of the school’s tradition, and changing the mascot is simply giving in to politically correct pressure groups (Students for Chief Illiniwek)”. For some others, the Longwell-Grices say, the use of these mascots and other symbols and imagery is a reflection of “society-sponsored racism”.

Some supporters have said that sports teams coined these names and designated mascots when the terms and the mascots were not considered to be a slur or racist in its connotation.

Take the name ‘Redskins’ for instance. Activists have said that the term was used as a racist slur against Native Americans for years. Research into the issue has indicated that this does harm Native Americans and almost attempts to normalise racism by non-Native Americans. Researchers have also said that this kind of imagery creates offensive stereotypes and misrepresentations of Native Americans and their culture.

The use of these names, mascots and symbols has resulted in heated debates for years between fans and sports team owners and activists who have called for changes.

Is it just team names and mascots that are problematic?

The problem runs deeper than that. The Longwell-Grices explain in their paper that many paraphernalia used by fans and cheerleaders during these sports matches, especially during halftime, are offensive towards Native Americans and is really a “bastardization of traditional and sacred practices.”

If you’ve ever been to an American football game, you may have seen fans wearing costume headgear with feathers, face paint and foam representations of symbols in a display of supporting their teams, but it is actually considered to be mocking Native American traditions and culture and an act of cultural misappropriation.

“Flutes, whistles, and drums are important in Native American ceremonies and are even considered to be spiritual in nature. The use of these instruments and the music that accompanies a mascot performing at a halftime show trivializes their importance and is out of place on the playing field,” write the Longwell-Grices. This trivialization prevents a historical and current cultural understanding of Native Americans, they explain.

Take, for instance, the case of the Atlanta Braves, an American professional baseball team, whose fans in the 1990s decided to adopt a hand gesture called the “tomahawk chop”. They began using foam representational cutouts of this hand gesture and began waving it about during matches. For years, Native Americans said this was disrespectful to their culture, but the sports team ignored their calls for bringing about changes. The team name itself is problematic: the term ‘Brave’ is again a misappropriation of Native American culture. This year, the team said it would not be changing its name but would consider urging fans to stop using the offensive hand gesture.

In 2018, after years of criticism, the Cleveland Indians finally announced that they were removing their offensive “Chief Wahoo” mascot.

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Is this an American problem?

This is hardly limited to professional sports teams in North America. Sometime in the 1990s, this misappropriation of Native American names, symbols and imagery found itself exported to Europe and began to be used by sports teams across the continent. So while in the US and in Canada, there have been discussions concerning the inappropriateness of it all, European sports teams have been insistent on blocking all conversations regarding this, according to a 2018 news report by The New York Times.

This has to do in part, with the lack of awareness and knowledge of Native American culture and traditions, observers believe. KAA Gent for instance, a Belgian football club, has the imagery of a Native American as its logo. A spokesperson for the club had told The New York Times: “We don’t have a historic debt toward the Native American community…We don’t have a natural debt toward the Native American community. And I think these two things are different in the United States. That’s what we mean when we say we are working in a different historical and cultural context.”

In many ways, this is a reflection of the point of view of many in Europe who find nothing wrong with the use of Native American names, symbols and imagery, simply because there is little awareness of why it is a problem and there appears to be even less willingness to change anything. To put this into context; this comes at a time when many North American sports teams have been forced to acknowledge and change the use of culturally offensive and racist symbols and imagery of Native American culture and identity.

Is this limited to pro-sports?

This is not limited to pro-sports, but is present all the way down to the level of local school sports. Even non-scholastic youth sports programs like Little League Baseball and Softball have a history of misappropriating Native American names and symbols. In 2019, following years of campaigning by Native American groups, the Little League International, the parent organisation, announced that it was prohibiting “the use of team names, mascots, nicknames or logos that are racially insensitive, derogatory or discriminatory in nature”.

At that time, local news reports had suggested that these petitions were specifically made keeping in mind the impact that they had on the mental health and well-being of Native American students across the country.

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