Monday, June 20, 2011

What I Think About Native American Sports Team Mascots

There is a movement out there to do away with professional sports teams using the names or imagery of Native Americans. From what I've heard and read, the argument is that the practice is fundamentally disrespectful; a sports team patronized overwhelmingly by non-Natives using Native-centric ideals is cashing in on the very culture that was brutally oppressed into near-oblivion by the ancestors of the team owners, managers, players, and fans. The Native identity is shrinking as it is, and how it is portrayed should be determined by the Natives themselves, and no one else. That's the argument.

I understand, I really do, as much as an extremely white guy with no Native blood whatsoever possibly can. The closest I experience, I suppose, to the feeling of multi-generational oppression that I imagine many Native Americans feel are the pangs of white guilt that sometimes try to intrude on my psyche, which I understand is but a pale shade (no pun intended) at best. I've long preached to whomever would listen that no ethnic group of any kind has been given the business in what is now the US as badly as the Native Americans have. Historically speaking, it's deplorable. We all know that.

That said, eliminating the Native American presence from the world of professional sports is not the answer. It's not even a decent beginning; in fact, it's a gross overreaction. For one thing - and this argument has been posited many times - the people in charge now are not the people who were in charge in the "bad old days". It's the Ye Olde Bibically-rooted Sins of the Father argument; just because the league owners' great-great-grandfathers fought at Wounded Knee doesn't mean that every white guy until the end of time should suffer for the 7th Cavalry's misgivings. This is not even addressing the fact that making it a White vs. Native American debate implies that the Powers That Be in professional sports are not only a whites-only club (which they mostly still are), but that they always will be, and that's not moving in the right direction.

Don't get me wrong - I'm very pro-Native American, and do think that steps far more aggressive than those we take now need to be implemented to help combat (among other things) the rampant unemployment, poverty, and depression among the Native population. I just don't think this is the way to do it. Picture it this way - suppose we did pass a binding resolution prohibiting Native American symbolism in professional or collegiate sports teams. All of it, gone. No more Blackhawks, Chiefs, Braves, or Seminoles; even the Edmondton Eskimos would have to change to something more palatable. Would that be better? Would it be more racially sensitive to the plight of their ancestors to wipe all mention of the Native American tribes, ethnicities, and titles from existence completely? No, the Native Americans are an intrinsic part of our culture, and deserve not to have a damnatio memoriae passed upon them.

Instead, the way to go here is to include the Native Americans, but to make sure to show them the respect they deserve, if anything more diligently than for other ethnic groups and nationalities. Some names have the respect built in; Chiefs and Braves are titles of superiority and warrior prowess in and of themselves. Blackhawks, Seminoles, and Eskimos are tribal or national names, and their presence on the sports field is as commemorative to them as Vikings or Celtics are to their respective nationalities (in fact, probably moreso, since Vikings is at its heart a misnomer, and Celtics is routinely and painfully mispronounced with the dreaded soft 'c').

The eagle-eyed among my readers will notice two glaring omissions from that list. That is purposeful, because I believe that these are the two teams that intrinsically fail in the respect department, albeit for opposite reasons. The first is the Cleveland Indians; there is some debate about whether 'Indians' is a proper term for Native Americans, but that is greatly eclipsed by the Indians' unforgiveable Chief Wahoo character. For those blissfully uninformed, Chief Wahoo is the name given to the Indians' logo-slash-mascot character, visible (among other places) in the center of their team ball caps. It's an awful, cartoonish caricature of how Indians were portrayed several generations ago, before civil rights; with its single-feather headband, giant toothy grin, and literally scarlet-red skin, it takes great steps to undo every bit of racial sensitivity harbored since its modern incarnation, 60 years ago. Here, take a gander:


Now imagine if Chief Wahoo were black, with ebony skin and a giant Afro, perhaps with a pick. Imagine instead he were Arabic or Asian or a Hasidic Jew or any other group of people anywhere. Is there any other nationality for which the general public would stand for Chief Wahoo without burning down Jacobs Field?

The other side of the racial insensitivity coin is the Washington Redskins. Having been raised in the suburbs of Washington DC, I know full well what an ingrained institution the Redskins are, so I'm sure I'll be stepping on more than one hometown toe here. That's fine.


Unlike the Indians, the Redskins have a very distinguished, even noble logo. The problem with the Redskins is what you've already seen - the name. Granting that the word 'Redskins' isn't quite to the incendiary level of various other ethnic slurs (I can type it in this article - five times so far - without feeling like Simon Legree, for example), but it's not a nice thing to call a Native American. Outside of mentioning the sports team, or a particularly tasty kind of potato, what other type of character would use the word 'Redskin' in conversation? Generally speaking, I would think it would in a Western movie, with the drunken prospector or trigger-happy ranch hand straight from central casting, nestled in its sentence between the words 'Damn' and 'stole mah horses'. The Redskins got their name in 1933; fortunately, our national conscience has progressed far beyond those days, and the Redskins name needs to progress with it. Might I suggest the Warriors, or revert to their original name of the Braves, if the Atlanta baseball people don't mind too much. They could even keep their logo and colors.

The end result of all of this is that, when I get elected President, I won't suppose there will be much I could do about insensitive actions taken by sports leagues, which are private corporations. If enough people get sufficiently outraged, they'll simply stop utilizing the corporation's services - that's how capitalism works, in theory anyway - and it wouldn't be the government's role to step in and force that hand. What President Me would be able to do, though, is to forbid the name 'Redskins' or the abysmal Chief Wahoo logo from being used in anything that is under the government's umbrella, namely school-funded Pop Warner football or Little League baseball teams. They frequently take their names, colors and logos from their professional counterparts, and as President, I would put a stop to that right away. It would be the least I could do.

And that's what I think about American Indian mascots.